Formula One | Hamilton ready to chase his eighth title

If Lewis Hamilton wins an eighth Formula One title, he will stand alone among the sport’s greats. And that might be the perfect time to walk away from the track for good.

Hamilton’s decision to pen a one-year contract with Mercedes sparked speculation that he may call it quits when the sun sets on the F1 season at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in December.

Hamilton will be nearly 37 by then and, if he does successfully defend his crown, the British driver will move one ahead of fellow great Michael Schumacher.

Hamilton would have nothing left to prove, with the most titles, wins (95 so far) and pole positions (98) all his.

“Of course, it is the ultimate dream, but I don’t think necessarily it will be the deciding factor for if I stay on and keep going,” Hamilton said.

“I think it is more when I put that helmet on, I still have that smile when I leave the garage. Will that be the case this year? We shall see. Will I enjoy it as much? We’ll see.”

The season starts on Sunday in Bahrain after the traditional season-opening GP in Melbourne was postponed until November because of the pandemic.

As brilliant as Hamilton was last year, he ended the season feeling drained after contracting the virus and expending huge energy in the fight against racism, his push for greater diversity in motorsport, and his call for better human rights in some countries where F1 goes.

It all started when Hamilton and most drivers took a knee against racism at the Austrian GP in July, when the delayed 2020 season began. While others appeared to fade in their commitment, Hamilton continued to hammer home the need to fight.

Hamilton, who was knighted in year-end royal honors, has the same mindset for the season ahead.

“That’s my driving force this year. To make sure that we continue to push for accountability, and on top of that hopefully I can deliver good performances,” he said.

Hamilton said there were positive discussions between drivers at the pre-season testing and F1 president Stefano Domenicali, who “has taken the time to sit with us all and be open”.

On the track, the pre-season did not go well for Mercedes. It gave rivals hope that a dominant series of seven straight drivers’ and constructors’ championships may at last be under genuine threat.

Red Bull threat

Red Bull star Max Verstappen picked up from where he left off after winning last year’s final race in Abu Dhabi in style and appeared very confident in testing.

“I’d say Red Bull are ahead on performance. They are the class act. Are we going to have a close season? I would say so,” Mercedes strategy director James Vowles said. “Red Bull are a fierce adversary, they’ve got a strong package and clearly came out of the box very, very quick.”

Red Bull has a stronger line-up, too, with Sergio Perez replacing Alex Albon and bringing with him nearly 200 GPs and 10 podiums, including a second place in Turkey followed by a superb win at the Sakhir GP last year.

Hamilton is wary of Red Bull’s threat, saying, “It’s going to be a long battle with them.”

Verstappen’s chances

Verstappen was Hamilton’s main threat on race days last season, despite having a slower car.

The early signs are that the 23-year-old Verstappen will add to his 10 GP wins.

“It has definitely been the best pre-season. The car felt nice to drive, which I think is always very positive,” Verstappen said, referring to Red Bull’s reliability issues last year. “But it doesn’t give you any guarantees. We’ll find out through the first race weekend where we are.”

Valtteri Bottas finished 124 points behind fellow Mercedes driver Hamilton, compared with 87 the season before. The margin of defeat last season was even more emphatic considering there were four fewer races than in 2019.

The 31-year-old Finn also has a one-year deal.

It may prove to be his last chance to topple Hamilton, with Verstappen waiting in the wings for a possible future move to Mercedes.

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