Australian young gun Oscar Piastri could be one of the beneficiaries if Lewis Hamilton doesn’t return to the Formula 1 grid for 2022.
Hamilton’s future status in the sport is unclear following the staggering scenes in Abu Dhabi, which saw him lose an eighth world championship on the final lap, with speculation raging about the Brit potentially retiring.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff could not confirm Hamilton’s status for the 2022 season when he spoke last week.
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“I would very much hope Lewis continues racing because he is the greatest driver of all time,” Wolff said.
“As a racer his heart will say I need to continue because he’s at the peak of his game.
“But we have to overcome the pain that was caused upon him on Sunday. He is a man with clear values.”
Hamilton is yet to speak in public and did not appear at the FIA Prize Gala in Paris last week, leading to a potential investigation over him breaching the F1 sporting regulations, though he did show up at Mercedes HQ as they celebrated their constructors championship on Friday.
If Hamilton, 37 in early January, chooses not to return to the F1 grid it would give Mercedes a massive headache trying to replace him.
But veteran Motorsport journalist Jonathan Noble believes the flow-on effects could enable Formula 2 champion Piastri to step up into the top level of motorsport in 2022.
“The absence of Hamilton from one of the top seats on the F1 grid at such a late stage would likely trigger a remarkable mini silly season,” he wrote.
“Were it confirmed Hamilton was not coming back, then the chances are that Wolff’s mobile phone would be ringing off the hook as retired and/or contractually available grand prix drivers sound him out.”
Noble argued Mercedes would be keen on an experienced driver to partner Williams’ George Russell, who has signed on to replace Valtteri Bottas.
The newly-retired Kimi Raikkonen appears done while Nico Hulkenberg filled in admirably at Aston Martin (then Racing Point) during the 2020 campaign, recording two top-eight finishes, making him a solid back-up option.
However former Mercedes young driver and reserve Esteban Ocon, a race winner in 2021 at Alpine, would be one of the favourites to take Hamilton’s seat.
“A deal to move Ocon to Mercedes would also free up a slot at Enstone (Alpine) that the team could instantly put in rookie Oscar Piastri,” Noble wrote.
“The Australian’s stellar F2 campaign, that netted him the title in his first attempt, shows he has all the talent necessary to shine in F1.
He conceded: “From Alpine’s side, it has invested heavily in Ocon, it understands how strong he can be, and it is likely that its longer-term future revolves more around him that Fernando Alonso, who will be out of contract at the end of next year.”
Indeed Piastri, who will be Alpine’s reserve driver in 2022, is viewed as likely to replace Alonso in 2023.
Instead the simplest option for Mercedes could be to replace Hamilton with Valtteri Bottas.
Alfa Romeo would need to be compensated for Bottas’ backflip but could easily bring back Antonio Giovinazzi – who will otherwise leave F1, likely for good – to partner rookie Guanyu Zhou.
None of this may be needed if Hamilton chooses to return to fight Max Verstappen for the 2022 title, in a season that’ll be conducted under new regulations that could produce a serious shake-up of the contending teams.