There is still uncertainty about Lewis Hamilton’s future, or lack thereof, in Formula 1, even as 2022 preseason testing draws closer.
Ever since his heartbreaking last-lap defeat at the hands of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in the 2021 Formula 1 championship-deciding season finale at Yas Marina Circuit, Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton has remained silent, save for his post-race interview with Sky Sports in the immediate aftermath of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix chaos.
He hasn’t posted anything on social media since the day before the race, when he qualified alongside Verstappen on the front row.
Despite the fact that he signed a two-year contract extension to remain with the Silver Arrows through the 2023 season over the summer, rumors continue to swirl that the seven-time world champion will not be back for the 2022 campaign, given how the 2021 season ended.
There is still nothing confirmed about the future of the 37-year-old Briton, even with preseason testing scheduled to get underway in just over a month, and this has led to speculation about potential replacements if he does indeed walk away.
Mercedes have already replaced Valtteri Bottas with George Russell for 2022. Could a complete lineup overhaul be looming?
Recent discussions seem to indicate that Mercedes would target AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly, given the success he has had with the Red Bull sister team — and the fact that this move could deal quite a blow to the Red Bull organization if it were actually pulled off.
However, one report that suggests that the likely replacement, if one is needed, for Hamilton for the 2022 season is Esteban Ocon.
Ocon used to be a member of the Mercedes Junior Team from 2016 to 2019. He competed for the Mercedes-powered Manor Racing MRT team during the latter stages of the 2016 season before competing for the Mercedes-powered Force India team in 2017 and 2018, but he lost his ride after the 2018 season.
During the 2019 season, when he had no ride, there was speculation that he would replace Bottas alongside Hamilton ahead of the 2020 season. But the team ended up re-signing Bottas, and Ocon then signed with Renault, which led to him cutting most of his ties at Mercedes.
But even when he signed a three-year extension with the team, now branded as Alpine, this past season to remain there through 2024, he did maintain some of his previously existing connections with Mercedes. Alpine, however, have said that there are no Mercedes exit clauses in his new deal.
With that being said, perhaps both sides would want to rethink things if this scenario presents itself. Waiting in the wings without a ride for 2022 is Alpine Academy driver Oscar Piastri, who hasn’t not won a championship in four years.
The 2019 Formula Renault Eurocup champion, the 2020 Formula 3 champion and the 2021 Formula 2 champion somehow ended up not being picked up for 2022, but not many expect him to be without a seat again in 2023.
If Ocon were to be Mercedes’ target to replace Hamilton, perhaps Alpine would be more willing to let him walk given that they have an easy way to replace him.
Let’s face it; if all of this unfolds as described, Piastri could easily get away from Alpine if they don’t approve Ocon to Mercedes. Ocon is under contract through 2024, and while Fernando Alonso is now the oldest driver on the grid at the age of 40, he has said that he hopes to race beyond when his contract ends this upcoming season.
Where does Piastri fit in for next year, if not Alpine?
Somewhere else, surely; there are only 10 drivers under contract for 2023 as it is, and he has already established himself as one of the top free agents on the market.
So with Piastri waiting in the wings, it seems far more likely now than it did several months ago that Alpine would be willing to part with Ocon if Mercedes make the right offer. Of course, the simplest solution would simply be Hamilton returning, as he is under contract to do. If that happens, the rest of the grid is set as well.