Lewis Hamilton has been told by Mercedes that the stage is his to become Formula One’s most successful driver after appearing to rule out a move for Ferrari exile Sebastian Vettel.
Hamilton, six points behind championship leader Valtteri Bottas, heads into Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix knowing that a remarkable eighth victory at the twisty Hungaroring track will take him to the top of Formula One’s standings.
Fresh from his dominant triumph in Austria a week ago, the six-time world champion was in menacing form again on Friday, topping the time charts in opening practice before heavy rain rendered the afternoon’s running meaningless.
The 35-year-old’s Mercedes deal expires in five months, and, after saying he has not discussed financial details with boss Toto Wolff, he appears some way off putting pen-to-paper on a contract extension.
Four-time champion Vettel is in search of a seat for 2021 after being sidelined by Ferrari. Racing Point, the Silverstone-based team set to be rebranded as Aston Martin next year, is his likely destination.
But it is understood that the German, 33, has not given up hope of joining the all-conquering Silver Arrows if Hamilton cannot agree new terms.
But speaking ahead of the third round of the season, Mercedes technical director James Allison all but killed off Vettel’s hopes. Hamilton’s team-mate Bottas, meanwhile, looks certain to be retained for a fifth campaign.
“Why would we want to move away from a line-up that has produced such strong results?” asked Allison.
“There is a respect across the garage between our two drivers that has been evident for all to see. There is a level of performance from both men that many people up and down the pit-lane would envy.
“Why would we step away from something that is clearly working and try something which is fraught with perhaps opportunity, but lots of bear traps in it, too?”
Hamilton, who is this year bidding to equal Michael Schumacher’s record of seven titles, is primed to match another of the German’s feats here by winning at the same venue on eight occasions. Schumacher achieved that landmark at Magny-Cours while driving a Ferrari in 2006.
Fast-forward 14 years and Vettel’s Ferrari team embarked on the 260-mile journey from the Austrian mountains across eastern Europe deep in crisis after their double retirement at the Styrian Grand Prix.
Charles Leclerc, now tasked by the Scuderia as the man to end a 13-year championship drought, crashed into Vettel less than a mile into last Sunday’s race, taking both scarlet cars out.
While the Italian team have proved to be Mercedes’ closest rivals of the hybrid era, their machine this year is off the pace. Vettel and Leclerc finished sixth and seventh respectively in practice, more than a second off Hamilton’s time.
Mattia Binotto, who is in his second year as team principal, said: “Certainly the job is difficult. When you are not doing well, as we are not doing at the moment, you have a lot of external pressure.
“I was expecting difficult times in this job, but when you are in those times you should keep stability, keep focus, make the right decisions and move forward for something better.”
Binotto’s job does not appear in immediate danger but there are growing concerns among Ferrari’s hierarchy as to whether they have over-promoted a man who joined the team as an apprentice 25 years ago.
“Working at Ferrari is in many ways a joy,” added Englishman Allison, who had two spells with the Prancing Horse before helping to mastermind Mercedes’ unprecedented run of success.
“The country is so pro the team, the brand is so strong and so too is the history and the heritage. You feel as though you are part of something important.
“That is a real strength but it is also the team’s biggest burden because, along with the affection and joy that the nation shares in Ferrari’s successes, comes a great deal of pressure when things are going poorly.
“That pressure is externally applied from the Italian press in a much more intense way than for any other Formula One team.
“Internally, Ferrari’s top-down leadership style tends to result in short-term decision making, leading it astray instead of building fundamental strength that will carry the team from year-to-year.
“It is a mixture of these heavy highs and base lows which have at their route the same origin; for Ferrari to be fighting at the front.”