Is the sun setting on Lewis Hamilton's record-breaking F1 career?

Mercedes in a real title scrap with Max Verstappen - but the Briton is giving mixed signals as to whether he will carry on in 2022

Is this yet another dramatic swing of the pendulum in Lewis Hamilton’s nervy title scrap with Max Verstappen?

Mercedes admit they may be forced into a tactical engine change for Sunday’s Turkish Grand Prix, hitting their battling champion with a penalty that will send him to the back of the start grid.

Drivers are allowed three power units a season but Mercedes are considering taking the pain for a fourth to be better armed for a tense, seven race, title run-in.

After scrapping against the odds to a hard-earned two point advantage, the decision will come as a bitter blow to Hamilton.

Starting from the very back will be a stark contrast to the way he left Istanbul a year ago. One of his greatest drives to an unlikely victory nailed an historic seventh world title to finally stand shoulder to shoulder with the legendary Michael Schumacher.

So as he returns after a seminal 100th F1 victory, in Russia, with the plaudits ringing in his ears yet again, is it outrageous to suggest Hamilton may be edging towards the exit door?

The last race was an unusually error-strewn weekend: knocking over one of his own mechanics in the pitlane, spinning in qualifying and, most embarrassing of all, a beginner’s error in hitting the pit entry wall. More mistakes in a single GP than he usually makes in a season.

And there were unusual signs of frailty in atrocious race conditions he usually relishes.

Rising star Lando Norris, in only his third season in F1, had his measure in an inferior McLaren and would have won but for a heart-breaking tyre gaff.

In the final analysis the race was won on a guile and a strategy call: reading the weather, not beating it.

All year the pugilistic Hamilton of old appears to have been replaced by a veteran racer with a more sanguine approach.

Both of his clashes with Verstappen - the 150mph smash at Silverstone and the Rettifilio car sandwich - were certainly calculated ‘accidents’.

And sitting beneath the Dutchman’s Red Bull,  a whisker from death, surely gave Hamilton pause for thought.

With a jet-set lifestyle between homes in Colorado, London, New York, Los Angeles and Monte Carlo built around an estimated £300 million ($408m) fortune, F1 is now a game of diminishing returns.

Hamilton has broken almost every record there is - and an eighth title this year would crown his legacy.

But a ninth in 2022? Or a 10th in 2023 - would they add more?

Hamilton necessarily lives a monastic lifestyle to remain at the top. But when does the weekly grind of travelling, training and depravation cease to be enjoyable?

He is widely admired within the paddock but his closest companions are his bulldog Roscoe and physio Angela Cullen. His closest friends come from outside the sport.

At the same time the racing risks are increasing. Next year’s rules revamp means a more tightly contested formula promising tougher, closer racing. And certainly more dangerous against a growing hoard of talented and hungry tyros.

There is no more obvious sign of the ticking clock than that his amiable teammate Valtteri Bottas has been ditched for one of those rising stars, George Russell, in 2022.

A sure sign Mercedes are arming up for a post-Hamilton age with a scenario that is lose-lose for the man himself.

His reputation will not be enhanced a jot by beating the youngster but the criticism will flow should he slip up.

And is it just a curious coincidence that Mercedes' black colour scheme in support of his equality campaign will be ditched at the end of the season?

And then there are Hamilton’s wistful reflections of late on various topics. Most noticeably last week at having never driven for Ferrari.

Michael Schumacher departed at 43; Raikkonen and Alonso are still racing at 41. At 36, surely Hamilton has time to tick that box were he intent on racing on.

Hamilton has made several comments about racing next year. But he also radios “my tyres are shot” just before setting a fastest lap.

Of course, this could easily be a case of 2+2 = 58.

Despite it being his least successful season since his arrival at Mercedes in 2013 it is to his credit he is still in the fight – and swinging.

A run that saw Hamilton winless for two months has been arrested with three wins in the last four GPs, so the rarefied air of title number eight still hangs in the balance.

What better moment to bow out than with an achievement which marks you down, unequivocally, as the greatest of all time?

Updated: October 6th 2021, 3:45 AM
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