If there’s one thing Lewis Hamilton is good at it’s bouncing back, but with the seven-time Formula 1 world champion gone it’s hard to know what will happen next.
Facing adversity throughout his career, Hamilton has come a long way to becoming the most successful driver of all time and has earned a reputation as a mental monster.
Often deemed cold or sulky with the press after a bad qualifying session or a bad race, the 37-year-old is a master of introspection, channeling his angst into performance, last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix in being the perfect example.
However, everyone has their limit and Hamilton may have reached his.
The jaw-dropping scenes of last season’s finale in Abu Dhabi were arguably the most brutal Hamilton has ever experienced in F1, and he is still in shock.
En route to an easy victory and a record eighth world title with 12 laps to go, Nicholas Latifi’s crash triggered a safety car that allowed title rival Max Verstappen to catch up.
Some unprecedented rule changes from the race marshals then gave way to Verstappen, who was on fresh tyres, leaving Hamilton as a duck sitting in a stunning final lap.
The Briton was magnanimous in his post-race loss, but clearly in shock, and hasn’t been heard from since.
Hamilton, now Sir, was seen reclaiming his knighthood at Windsor Castle shortly afterwards but did not speak to the media, nor did he when he arrived at the base. Mercedes at Brackley to celebrate their Constructors’ Championship victory.
Team principal Toto Wolff sparked retirement rumors for Hamilton once the dust settled on the controversial end to the season, and as time goes by without comment from his driver, the likelihood of an exit only increases.
Mercedes have replaced longtime Hamilton number 2 Valtteri Bottas with young Briton George Russell for the 2022 season but may end up having to sign another new driver.
Russell unquestionably has world championship potential following his victorious performances in GP3 and F2, as well as his performances for Williams.
But who could line up alongside him as the perfect foil if Hamilton retires? talkSPORT.com takes a look.
Undoubtedly the runaway favourite, Esteban Ocon is loved by Mercedes boss Wolff, who still manages the Alpine driver.
Ocon was a Mercedes junior between 2016 and 2019, and Wolff fought tooth and nail to keep the Frenchman in F1 after having to sit out the 2019 season.
Winner of the Hungarian Grand Prix last year, Ocon clearly has the talent to match Wolff’s admiration for him.
Nyck de Vries
Another man who has big support from Wolff is reigning Formula E champion Nyck de Vries.
De Vries also has the 2019 F2 title on his CV, but facing a weak grid his options were limited in the top category.
That hasn’t stopped Wolff from saying the Dutchman “deserves” a seat in F1, and he may soon give him a chance after the driver narrowly missed out on Williams’ role in favor of Alex Albon.
If anyone on the grid deserves a chance in a winning car, it’s Gasly, who did just that with a midfield team.
The Alpha Tauri rider’s victory at Monza in 2020 will go down in history, but it was far from his best performance.
Gasly is continually the best of the rest in a car that falls far short of that, and despite an unfortunate five-month spell at Red Bull, no one can argue the Frenchman doesn’t deserve another shot at the front of the grid.
The desperation of some to get him back to F1 seems a little bizarre given that the German is more than his chance, with the most races in the sport without ever reaching the podium.
However, now operating as a reserve driver at Aston Martin, Hulkenberg still works with Mercedes in side work and has long been admired by the team.
Hulkenberg was second choice when Mercedes decided to sign Lewis Hamilton in 2013, and his replacement appearances for Racing Point in 2020 show he can fit right into the cockpit.
Listen to us. Yes, Verstappen just won a world championship with Red Bull and said he wanted to do it for 15 more years, but that’s Mercedes.
One of the best-kept secrets in the paddock is that Verstappen has a Mercedes exit clause in his contract, and he has long been high on the list for Hamilton’s retirement.
If that moment is on the horizon, things are complicated by the emergence of Russell and the competitiveness of Red Bull, but this is Formula 1, where drivers leave the top teams all the time.
Look at Hamilton, everyone thought he made the wrong decision when he left McLaren for Mercedes in 2013, and six world titles followed.
Many expect Mercedes to return to set the standards in 2022 under new rule changes, could Verstappen be tempted by a career-defining move like Hamilton in 2013? Or risk getting stuck at Red Bull?
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