Hamilton ends 2019 year on high, record-breaking future beckons

Lewis Hamilton was so dominant at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that he barely rated a mention for most of the race.

As battles for minor points-paying places raged behind him, Hamilton sailed serenely onwards at the front. From pole he led every lap and set the fastest lap of the race on his way to victory — the sixth motorsport ‘grand slam’ of his career, just two shy of Jim Clark’s record of eight — to perfectly close his sixth title-winning season.

Much as a similarly strong end to 2018 launched him to six wins from the first eight this year, Hamilton is now perfectly poised to springboard into a legacy-defining 2020.

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was Hamilton’s 84th victory, putting him within striking distance of Michael Schumacher’s massive 91 wins. Winning on average 10 races a year since 2014 and with stable regulations enabling Mercedes to continue developing its 2019 championship-winning chassis, Hamilton seems destined to better the German maestro’s tally.

And if he were to score the seven wins required to set a new benchmark, a seventh championship would surely come bundled with it, equalling Schumacher’s septuple of crowns, and statistics would then no longer obstruct Hamilton from claiming the legacy as F1’s greatest of all time.

But then what? Having already dispatched some of his generation’s greats, what will there be left for Lewis to prove?

We needn’t wait long for a cue, because not only will these final frontiers be accessible to Hamilton next season, but so too will he be out of contract, and opinions vary as to how F1’s foremost star will play his availability at a time at least five of the six best seats will be spilt.

One school of thought proposes Hamilton will renew terms with Mercedes, playing the German marque off its rivals to secure a blockbuster fee above his reported £40 million salary. It’s the safe option to build on his growing haul of accolades, and Mercedes boss Toto Wolff rates his chances of retaining the Briton at 75 per cent.

But that still leaves 25 per cent for the second school of thought — that Hamilton will seek to end his career shading Schumacher’s records where they were made: at Ferrari.

It’s not as crazy as it may sound. Mercedes’s persistent competitiveness across regulation changes in unprecedented, but all empires eventually end. Indeed Wolff, one of the team’s key constituents, is persistently linked with a role running Formula One itself, and Hamilton this month suggested his future at the team would in part depend on whether the Austrian stays or goes.

If this were to signal the decline of the Mercedes era, Ferrari has the tools to take over the mantle, and with Vettel thought unlikely to remain with the Scuderia if he were beaten by Charles Leclerc for a second season, the timing may be perfect for Hamilton’s arrival.

Money would be no object in this sensational switch, and Hamilton would back himself as the missing component in Ferrari’s quest to end what could by 2021 be a 12-year title drought.

Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport reported last week that Hamilton has already twice met with Ferrari chairman John Elkann this season, and while it’s only prudent for the Briton to assess his options to secure himself the best deal possible, it’s done nothing to quell speculation he’s considering a Mercedes exit.

Of course it’s all speculation in what has become a record-long run-up to next year’s negotiation period, but all the power in the driver market rests with Hamilton, and it’s entirely up to him how he wields it in what will be a fascinating 2020 silly season.