Lewis Hamilton chases F1 history, but it's Mercedes who hold all the cards

2021 season gets under way this weekend in Bahrain with Hamilton eyeing an eighth drivers' title

Powered by automated translation

It’s tantalising, it really is. Could 2021 be Lewis Hamilton’s greatest Formula 1 season and his last?

The projection of the mighty Mercedes PR machine is all about the virgin landscape he will be treading as he attempts to become the first driver to win a record eighth world championship.

If all goes according to (Mercedes’) plan the season, starting Friday in Bahrain, will be the most significant by any driver in the sport’s history.

This is first-step-on-the-moon stuff, in F1 terms; sailing into seas uncharted by the greatest drivers you can name: not Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, not Juan-Manuel Fangio nor Michael Schumacher.

It finds Hamilton at the zenith of both his career and his private ambitions. He is regarded as the world’s greatest racer and beyond F1 an unflinching social crusader, sometimes on fashion or ecology but increasingly on racial inequality.

But then there is the reality: the dark shadows lurking beneath the shimmering lake of apparent perfection.

Why at such a significant juncture would he commit to just one more year at the team that has carried him to this unbelievable peak?

OK, there are sweeping new regulations in 2022, but then why re-sign just a month before testing?

This is Hamilton’s fourth contract at the three pointed star and all of the previous three (Singapore 2012, Monaco in May 2015 and Germany July 2018) were done in good time.

Only the first, made upon his departure from McLaren, wrapped up in September hints that he delays when the landscape is changing.

Most fans believe teams run around behind the star players, arm outstretched proffering a blank cheque, begging them to stay.

The hard truth is that the teams often call the tune (think Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel). Especially when they have a winning car.

And great as he is, George Russell's stand-out performance in Bahrain last year suggests you don't have to be the greatest driver of all time to win in a Mercedes.

As Fernando Alonso put it: “In five days he went from last to first. All without a divine touch, without meditating in Tibet etc. It was enough just to get in a Mercedes.”

F1's highest paid drivers

And all is not as it should be at Team Hamilton either. Last month he split with his closest advisor, and long-time friend, Marc Hynes. Who needs a manager if there are no new deals to be done?

And the day of the announcement of his new contract, February 8, there was not a single Tweet or Instagram from Hamilton.

This prolific social media warrior, who is often moved to message his 30 million strong global following about the slightest affairs of his pet dog Roscoe, was strangely silent.

Any of these factors on its own could be discounted but now they cement whispers of real-life hard bargaining behind the scenes – and Hamilton unhappy about the outcome.

Not only did Hamilton not get the pay rise he wanted, they say, he did not get a pay rise at all.

Some believe Hamilton did not like what he was being offered but Mercedes refused to budge and he was told before Christmas he had to sign ahead of pre-season testing or they would be forced to make other plans.

If that’s the case, the gamble, clearly, was that after years of forcing them to meet his escalating salary demands they believed Hamilton was now the one with most to lose.

Remember Mercedes had happily already agreed to change the colour scheme of the car to back Hamilton’s diversity drive. To anyone else that would be called sponsorship and cost upwards of £100 million a year. Quid pro quo, Lewis.

Mercedes' W12 car

In recent testing Mercedes discovered their race machine is no longer the class of the field but a decidedly tail-happy beast. Boss Toto Wolff called it “a diva”.

The consensus is the new aero rules reducing rear downforce have affected the low rake Mercedes more than most.

Given Honda’s questionable reliability record, though, the Silver Arrows remain favourite to endure over an exhausting 23-race season, but Red Bull are likely to have a handling and performance edge.

So will Hamilton, at 36, enjoy chasing rather than leading; being the underdog rather than top dog?

The script carved by the last few months suggests that inside Mercedes and out Hamilton faces more of a challenge than ever before. And if he wants title No 8 he’s going to have to fight for it.

But then he does love a fight.