By Sanjay Suri
In the aftermath of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff refused to confirm whether Lewis Hamilton would be racing for Mercedes next season. Whilst retirement is probably unlikely, as Hamilton is a racer at heart and would love to continue winning races, it would put Mercedes – and the rest of the grid – into an interesting position. We could face the silliest silly F1 season yet.
The most obvious replacement for Hamilton would be his outgoing teammate Valtteri Bottas. He has been at the team for five years and is highly experienced. Whilst he was never consistent enough to challenge Hamilton over the season, he is one of the few people who can go toe-to-toe with the Brit in qualifying.
Furthermore, stability would be necessary as his teammate would be George Russell who, despite being part of the Mercedes junior programme and linked to the seat for years, will be in his first season at a new team and might need time to settle.
However, how easy would it be for Mercedes to re-sign Bottas? Firstly, they will need to compensate Alfa Romeo as they have a two-year deal with the Finn, which will not be cheap. Secondly, would Bottas agree to return to Mercedes, only to play second fiddle to Russell? At Alfa, it is very clear that he will be the team leader, whereas Russell is seen as the future of Mercedes.
Let’s say that Bottas does go back to Mercedes. What next? Alfa Romeo will need to fill his seat once more. It is unlikely that they will be able to entice anyone on the 2022 grid as they are simply not competitive enough at the moment to persuade drivers to break contracts.
The popular choice would be F2 champion Oscar Piastri, or promising Sauber academy driver Theo Pourchaire, to take the seat, but neither have any F1 experience. Given that they would be driving alongside fellow rookie Guanyu Zhou, I just cannot see Alfa going for an all-rookie line up.
Instead, they might look at former F1 drivers. They could re-sign Antonio Giovinazzi, but he may be committed to Formula E. Nico Hulkenberg is known for being a safe pair of hands in the midfield, but has spent two years on the sidelines, so maybe he would take too long to become accustomed to the new car.
The other option is Daniil Kvyat – a driver who, on his day, is very fast, and has been in the sport for a number of years. Given that he was Alpine’s reserve driver in 2021, he will have spent a lot of time in the simulator and so will know a lot about the 2022 car. Kvyat is probably Alfa Romeo’s best bet for a Bottas replacement.
But what if Bottas is unavailable? They would surely want a proven talent who is still sharp, and so would probably try and sign an active driver.
Esteban Ocon came through the junior programme and was initially rumoured as a potential Bottas replacement for both 2020 and even 2022. He has had a consistent 2021 and picked up his first race win. Mercedes would struggle to entice him away from Alpine but, given that they have won 8 constructors championships in a row now, Ocon would have a hard time turning down the chance to drive in a Mercedes.
If Ocon were to leave Alpine, what would the Enstone based team do? Again, Kvyat could be an option as he used to be their reserve driver, but surely Piastri is going to be too hard to look past. He has won consecutive Formula Renault, F3 and F2 titles – the first driver to do so – and is an Alpine junior.
It would also be the perfect time to settle him in, as he would be driving alongside Fernando Alonso, who would be a fantastic mentor for the Australian. If Alpine can produce a race-winning car, Piastri and Alonso would be a mouth-watering line-up.
Or would Mercedes try and prise World Champion Max Verstappen away from Red Bull? Verstappen and Russell would arguably be the strongest driver pairing on the grid but Red Bull would not let their boy leave without a fight. Moreover, Verstappen is the established team leader at Red Bull for years to come so why would he give up that position?
However, all of this hinges on Hamilton hanging up his boots this winter. The rumours say that he is ‘disillusioned’ after how the title slipped away in Abu Dhabi, but I believe that it will only spur him on to fight back. I fully expect to see Hamilton on the grid next season, hungrier than ever to secure that record-breaking 8th World title.
Image: Renault Sport via Flickr