The seven-time world champion, who turns 38 next month, is about to enter the final year of his current Mercedes contract, though he has recently revealed his intention to agree a new “multi-year” deal that will likely see him race into his early forties.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff plans to start talks with Hamilton over the winter, and despite a disappointing and frustrating 2022 season, negotiations are expected to be both smooth and swift.
Hamilton has made it clear that after losing a record-breaking eighth world title in controversial circumstances at the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in a narrow defeat to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, he is determined to win back a historic crown before he finally calls it a day.
Irrespective of the length of what is likely to be his last F1 contract, Mercedes need to start readying themselves for the inevitable post-Hamilton era.
We’ve come up with some candidates likely to be at the top of Mercedes’ wish-list…
Lando Norris is the perfect target for Mercedes. He is the most talented and desirable driver yet to land a front-running F1 seat and his stock only continues to sky-rocket with each passing season.
The Briton’s superb displays over his four F1 campaigns – including taking an impressive seventh place in the 2022 world championship – have made him one of the hottest properties on the grid.
It is no coincidence that McLaren acted with speed to tie him down to a long-term contract earlier this year to ward off interest from potential suitors (Red Bull included) in a deal that runs until 2025.
Norris bought into McLaren’s long-term project to return to winning ways and is seen as the driver to lead the Woking outfit back to the front of the grid. But a setback in 2022, and the blow of losing influential team principal Andreas Seidl will have come as a disappointment.
The 23-year-old didn’t hide his frustrations at McLaren’s failure to make a significant step forward at the start of F1’s new era, and his head may start to turn if tangible progress is not seen in 2023, especially now that Seidl has jumped ship. These are factors that will play into Mercedes’ hands if they do opt to pursue Norris.
A line-up consisting of George Russell and Norris – two of the most exciting young drivers on the grid – would make Mercedes the envy of the pitlane and give them a potentially-championship-winning pairing for the next decade.
At this moment in time, Norris is the candidate who sticks out above the rest. Mercedes should move heaven and earth to make it happen.
If Ferrari continue to flounder in their quest to win a first world title in 15 years, Charles Leclerc might be tempted to look at options elsewhere to achieve his ambition of becoming an F1 world champion.
Leclerc is out of contract at the end of 2024 and has already found himself linked to Mercedes as a potential replacement for Hamilton, a scenario he has not totally ruled out, despite insisting that racing for Ferrari remains his “dream”.
Along with the likes of Verstappen, Russell, and Norris, Leclerc is viewed as the very best of the crop of rising stars in F1. Leclerc demonstrated his abilities by taking more poles than any other driver in 2022, and briefly appeared to be in title contention after winning two of the opening three races, before Ferrari’s campaign spectacularly collapsed.
Ferrari’s decision to replace Mattia Binotto with Frederic Vasseur – who has a strong relationship with Leclerc – might be viewed as a way of appeasing the Monegasque following a frustrating season, but it remains to be seen if Ferrari can provide him with what he truly desires.
One would imagine that Mercedes are keeping close tabs on the situation.
Mercedes, along with the rest of the F1 paddock, have always had their eye on Verstappen. That was why Red Bull wasted no time snapping up the Dutchman in 2014 when he was just 16 years old, and even promised him an F1 race seat at Toro Rosso for the following year.
Verstappen’s meteoric rise from boy wonder to two-time world champion has been nothing short of sensational, underlying the potential Red Bull spotted in him from such an early age.
Back in 2014, Wolff revealed Mercedes came close to signing Verstappen and admitted he actually advised Max and his father Jos to accept the offer from Red Bull. More recently, Wolff ruled out a swoop for Verstappen – at least while Hamilton is still around. Perhaps Mercedes would change their stance after Hamilton has retired.
For Red Bull, Verstappen is untouchable. That is highlighted by them offering the 25-year-old their longest-ever F1 deal, reportedly worth a staggering £200m over five years until 2028.
Given Verstappen has just cruised to his second world title in 12 months, taking a record-breaking 15 wins from 22 races in the process, something would have to go badly wrong for him to consider leaving a team that is ultimately built around him.
Verstappen may be an unrealistic target, but that won’t stop Mercedes from trying their luck if they believe he is the blockbuster signing they need to fill the hole left by Hamilton.
Should the above options prove out of reach, a far more attainable alternative could come in the shape of Esteban Ocon.
Ocon was after all a Mercedes junior and spent the 2019 season as the team’s reserve driver before rescinding his official ties when he joined Renault – now Alpine – at the start of 2020.
The 26-year-old Frenchman’s career has been guided by Wolff, who regards Ocon incredibly highly. Despite becoming a fully-fledged Alpine driver, connections to Mercedes remain.
In June 2021, Ocon signed a bumper three-year contract to keep him at Alpine until at least the end of 2024, but the lure of driving for Mercedes would mean prizing him away from the French manufacturer shouldn’t be too tricky for the Silver Arrows.
Ocon has done an impressive, underrated job at the improving Alpine and more than held his own against Fernando Alonso during their two seasons together as teammates. He is also a grand prix winner, having brilliantly resisted immense pressure from four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel for a shock maiden victory at the 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix.
He may not be a headline-grabbing replacement for Hamilton, but Ocon would be a fast and extremely consistent candidate to partner alongside Russell.