The weekend’s unashamed public flirting between Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari triggered the rarely-asked question of whether the six-time world champion would be willing to try his hand at ending the Italian marque’s painful wait for a return to the top of the Formula One tree. But the question we should really be asking is this: why the hell wouldn’t he?
Ferrari’s last world championship came 12 long years ago, when Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and McLaren all conspired against each other to cost themselves both championships and serve the drivers’ title to Kimi Raikkonen on a silver platter and constructors’ to the Prancing Horse.
In truth, Ferrari have not won a championship in a ‘true Ferrari fashion’ since Michael Schumacher’s dominant seventh and final triumph in 2004. For a team that demands the very best results and has invested more financially into its F1 project over the course of the last 15 years than any other team, results have been embarrassing.
But this is less about Ferrari and more about Hamilton. With his sixth title in the bag and a shot at Schumacher’s all-time record next season, he will start 2020 at the age of 35 and with his long-term future very much up in the air. Mercedes boss Toto Wolff gave a “25 per cent” chance of Hamilton leaving his team after eight trophy-laden years together to join Ferrari in 2021, but that prospect may seem much more likely in a few months’ time if the two parties continue to tease a future relationship.
"Naturally, everything that happens behind closed doors is always private with whoever you end up sitting with," Hamilton said after his season-ending victory in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. “For many years I have never ever sat down and considered other options because we have been driving straight ahead on to the path and journey we have been on.
"We are still on that path and there is very little that is going to shift that. I love where I am so it is definitely not a quick decision to do something else. But it is only smart and wise for me to sit and think of what I want if it is the last stage of my career. I want to keep winning. I cannot tell you what is going to happen moving forward."
But perhaps a move is Hamilton’s one real chance to genuinely prove he is the greatest there has ever been in the sport.
Schumacher’s seven world titles arguably makes him the best driver F1 has ever seen, but there are too many who say that the German never managed to replicate the natural driving talent of Ayrton Senna, the raw speed of Jim Clark, the trail-blazing of Juan Manuel Fangio or the precision and craft of Alain Prost. Even now, Schumacher’s dominance – previously unquestioned thanks to his astonishing 91 grand prix wins – is under threat from Hamilton in a feat that will fall if the Briton wins just eight more races.
So how do you become F1’s greatest driver? Eight world titles would certainly help to conquer Schumacher’s achievement, but what is more impressive in proving you really are the best of your generation is doing so for different teams – three to be exact. Not so long ago it was Sebastian Vettel who was top of the pile, but four consecutive championship wins with Red Bull did not convince anyone that he was the best there ever was. So Vettel moved to Ferrari, where he has failed to deliver what has been expected of him, and now finds himself as the expendable one following his submission to teammate Charles Leclerc this season. If Hamilton puts himself on the market, the writing is on the wall for Vettel’s Ferrari career.
Fernando Alonso tried the same, leaving Renault for McLaren and latterly Ferrari in order to try and add to his two world titles, but much like Vettel he came up short. Hamilton has had no such issues thus far, having won his maiden championship with McLaren 11 years ago – albeit under Mercedes power – before timing his jump to Mercedes to perfection to claim another five, and it would take a brave soul to bet against him again in 2020.
Hypothetically, the F1 circus will reach its next new dawn in 2021 with a second seven-time champion within its ranks, a huge driver shake-up on its hands due to the current contract uncertainty and one big decision to be made: does Hamilton stick with the most successful team of his generation to bag a record-breaking eighth title, or does he chase unquestionable greatness at Ferrari?
Only one man has won world championships with three different teams, with Fangio’s stunning feats in the 1950s with Alfa Romeo, Mercedes and Maserati putting him on an untouchable echelon. But if Hamilton could do the same, not only would he achieve what his two main rivals failed to do at Ferrari but he would join Fangio in F1’s most exclusive club. That shot at history, combined with what looks certain to be an all-conquering career on the tally charts of race wins, championships and pole positions writes the script of why Hamilton should move on from his Mercedes marriage from heaven in a bid to become F1’s true great champion.