Mercedes facing $112 million Lewis Hamilton problem amid F1 struggle

Heading into the Australian Grand Prix, Mercedes are looking a far cry from the team that dominated F1 over the past decade.

Lewis Hamilton.
Lewis Hamilton's expiring contract and Mercedes' poor F1 form has sparked speculation the seven-time champion could switch teams. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton stand at a critical juncture in their partnership, 10 years after the then one-time F1 champion joined the German manufacturer's fledgling team. For a move once derided in F1 circles, Hamilton's faith has so far been rewarded with six more world championships to go with his 2008 title with McLaren.

However the past two seasons have been a far cry from Mercedes early domination of the turbo-hybrid engine era that began in 2014, with Hamilton and teammate George Russell struggling to even get on the podium under new technical regulations introduced for the 2022 season. After starting last season well off the pace and improving in the second half of the year, Mercedes so far look to have only marginally improved from where they left off.

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It's been a source of frustration for Hamilton, prompting some speculation as to what the 38-year-old's next career move could be. His existing contract with Mercedes ends at the conclusion of this season - leading to questions about whether the British driver will re-sign with Mercedes or find a new home elsewhere.

A new extension would reportedly see Hamilton paid some $113 million over the next two seasons, a significant pay rise over the roughly $40 million he's earning for 2023. However the question of Hamilton's competitive drive has led The Times writer Matthew Syed to ponder if he'd consider a seat elsewhere if Mercedes cannot improve.

“This is why the question of his future is so tantalising,” Syed wrote. “He benefited hugely from the world-class engineering at Mercedes in the good years and doubtless feels a sense of loyalty.

“But with one season left on his contract, he may be wondering whether there is a different ride out there that may enable him to leave on a high. It’s unlikely he would gain a berth at Red Bull, but the prospect of Hamilton and Verstappen going head to head in the same car – the ageing maestro against the audacious pretender – is a storyline that could take the sport to a new level.

“Perhaps there’s also a chance that Mercedes can get their act together, find a way of getting the car up to speed. The teamwork between driver and engineers may find renewed life, giving Hamilton a shot at the dream he craves.

“It is also possible – and many Hamilton detractors have raised this prospect – that Mercedes may end the relationship at the end of this season, given the expense of his reported £60 million (A$110m) contract. What seems clear, to me at least, is that Hamilton will ‘find a way’. He will rage against the dying of the light. He will agitate against the disadvantage of an underperforming car.

“He will continue to bet on himself against the rigours of time and mechanical underperformance, seeking out the glimmer of opportunity that he’s so often found on the track. It may manifest itself in a new design or a new team, but I don’t see this story petering out just yet.”

Lewis Hamilton critical of Mercedes after F1 struggles

Following the F1 season opener in Bahrain, in which Hamilton and Russell finished fifth and seventh respectively, the seven-time champion was openly critical of the direction the team had taken in the off-season. Hamilton has made the staggering admission that Mercedes may have being overtaken on the pecking order by Aston Martin in 2023.

"We're not fighting for a (title). We need the Red Bulls not to finish the race, and the Ferraris not to finish the race and maybe now the Astons not to finish the race, for us to be winning at the moment," Hamilton said ahead of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. "None of us at this team have ever shied away from a challenge. We would much prefer to be at the front, but it isn't the way it is."

Lewis Hamilton.
Lewis Hamilton's contract with Mercedes is up at the end of the 2023 season. (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Hamilton failed to win a race for the first time in his career in 2022, as Mercedes struggled with the aerodynamics changes introduced by the F1 and the resultant porpoising issues the British-based team encountered as a result. The 38-year-old pulled no punches after this year's opening race, offering a scathing assessment of the team in an interview with the BBC.

"I've driven so many cars in my life. I know what a car needs. I know what a car doesn't need. I think it's really about accountability," Hamilton told Radio 5 Live's Chequered Flag podcast. "It's about owning up and saying, 'Yeah, you know what? We didn't listen to you. It's not where it needs to be and we've got to work.'"

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