Lewis Hamilton’s contract extension for 2021 was one of the least surprising developments of Formula 1’s off-season but already some have suggested it may be his ‘last dance’. But is that really likely?
Lewis Hamilton’s presence within Formula 1’s record books is already cemented: most titles (currently held jointly with Michael Schumacher), most wins and most poles, with those figures likely to trickle into triple digits by the summer.
He is continuing to perform at an extraordinary high level as witnessed on a number of occasions in 2020: take your pick from the wet Styrian pole lap, triumphing on three wheels at Silverstone or the drive to seal the title at a grip-less Istanbul Park. There were other less memorable races, such as at Spa, Barcelona or Portimao, at which he merely pulverised the opposition.
Yet there are other statistics that are striking.
Hamilton is already Formula 1’s seventh-most experienced driver, his Covid-enforced Sakhir absence concluded the longest streak of appearances at grands prix, while in claiming the title in 2020 he became the oldest champion since Damon Hill in 1996.
The focus, particularly in recent years, has been towards youth. Formula 1’s youngest ever champions – Fernando Alonso, then Hamilton, then Sebastian Vettel – have been followed by its youngest entrant and race winner – Max Verstappen – whose very arrival prompted a re-writing of the regulations.
Verstappen, who debuted aged 17, is a special case but not quite an anomalous oddity. Contemporaries on the grid, Lance Stroll and Lando Norris, were the second- and fourth-youngest starters in history, while Esteban Ocon comes in at number 11, Charles Leclerc 18 and Carlos Sainz 20, out of the 767 to enter a race. Ferrari has placed its faith in Leclerc, the same age as Verstappen, while George Russell – 23 next week – has two years under his belt with Williams.
But all still need to displace the mercurial Hamilton, who has previously commented on how he relishes the challenge from the youngsters, from his plinth – and there is no reason to expect the World Champion to walk away any time soon.
Every athlete is different but we are in the era of some of the greatest talents in any sport prolonging their astonishing careers beyond what has been widely anticipated – some even into their fifth decade. They are special talents, incredible athletes, intensely focused, with an unrelenting rage to win, aided by advancements in science and technology – such as a greater appreciation and understanding of elements such as nutrition, training and sleep management. No one path has been the same but the end result has been a train of success.
On Sunday Tom Brady claimed a record seventh Super Bowl title, having transferred from the New England Patriots to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, aged 43. He has won in three different decades and now has more individual success than any franchise. Last October LeBron James, just nine days older than Hamilton, led the LA Lakers to their first NBA title in 10 years, as well as becoming the Finals’ MVP.
“At our age, we can still dominate our sport,” James is quoted by Lakers Daily last month, when referencing Brady. “We have one common goal and that’s to win and win at the highest level.”
Tennis icons Serena Williams and Roger Federer, born seven weeks apart, will turn 40 later this year and both continue to strive to add to trophy cabinets that are overflowing with riches. Federer may currently be recuperating from surgery, and Williams has also struggled with injury, but neither is yet throwing in the towel.
“I’ve seen players in the locker room, the Legends tour, and at some points I was older than them and I was wondering if I should be there,” joked Williams in 2017 on her longevity.
Said Federer recently, to Swiss broadcaster SRF, “I like to play tennis for life. In the last few months I have given a lot in rehab. I had to go through it, but I always enjoyed it. I want to celebrate great victories again. And for that, I am ready to go the long, hard road.”
Federer’s long-term rival, Rafael Nadal, is a 13-time French Open champion yet at 34 still hurtles around the court like a caged animal. World Number 1 Novak Djokovic plays with the elasticity of someone a decade younger than his 33 years.
Italy’s Serie A may not be the most fast-paced of Europe’s leading football leagues but at the top of the goalscoring charts are Cristiano Ronaldo, 36 – exactly a month younger than Hamilton – and the enigmatic Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is 39. Across the Mediterranean the ferocious Luis Suarez, 34, is fronting La Liga’s charts. In golf Tiger Woods has not had the sustained success of those just mentioned but his perseverance paid off in 2019, ending an 11-year wait for another major, by claiming the Masters aged 43.
None of this it to say that the athletes in their twenties – or even teens and early thirties – are lacking in ability, passion or technique. Brady’s opposite number on Sunday, Patrick Mahomes, was 24 when he spearheaded Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl triumph in 2020. NBA’s MVP for the last two years, is the Milwaukee Bucks’ 26-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo. Naomi Osaka, 23, is already a multi-Grand Slam champion of a talented generation seeking to emulate Williams. Collin Morikawa was 23 when he won last year’s PGA Championship. In Formula 1 Verstappen and Leclerc – who was born on the same day as Osaka – have already underlined their credentials. It is a special generation.
But sport’s GOATs are still going strong and showing little sign of slowing down – those who adorned front covers and billboards in the 2000s (or even late 1990s) are still there in the 2020s, pushing away notions of retirement. Moving it closer to home Hamilton’s two predecessors as World Champion are Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen. The returning Alonso, 39, has signed up to compete for Alpine for the next two years while Alfa Romeo’s Raikkonen, 41, continues to race on, 20 years after their respective Formula 1 bows. Scott Dixon, crowned IndyCar king for a sixth time, is 40, and among his team-mates this year will be NASCAR convert Jimmie Johnson, 45. Valentino Rossi, while no longer a potent front-running force, is still in MotoGP, revered worldwide, and next week turns 42. WRC champion Sebastien Ogier is 37 – albeit insisting 2021 will be his swansong.
Hamilton’s one-year extension was slightly surprising, given all his past deals have been multi-year arrangements, but there is reason for the relative brevity.
“Because we left it very late we wanted to discuss the contract at the end of the season between the Bahrain races and then obviously Lewis didn’t feel well,” said Mercedes boss Toto Wolff on Monday.
“At the end we started our conversations just before Christmas and it was important to get it done as soon as possible and in that respect we thought let’s postpone the discussion about 2022 and onwards to a later stage in 2021.
“As long as he enjoys racing, I think he’s very capable of going longer. He develops as a driver, he looks after himself in terms of physical training and mental preparation side, so I don’t think in terms of ability that ends in 2021, but at the end it’s [his career] his decision.”
Hamilton has more to his life than merely Formula 1, most notably his interests in fashion, music, and more recently the push for diversity and equality – the campaign for which is more effective the longer he is present. Inevitably, at some point, there will be a generational handover of the baton – whether through choice or by circumstance. But his contemporaries have underlined that the older guys can still cut it.