It has been over a month since the controversial ending to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and we are still no clearer to knowing whether Lewis Hamilton will return to Formula 1 this season.

Speculation surrounding Hamilton’s future has been rife ever-since the contentious  2021 season finale in which he lost the championship to Max Verstappen on the last lap after FIA race director Michael Masi failed to follow the correct Safety Car procedure.

Aside from a cryptic reference during an interview with Jenson Button immediately after the Abu Dhabi GP, Hamilton has not spoken publicly about the matter, nor has he posted to any of his social media accounts in the weeks that have followed.

Hamilton was described as being “disillusioned” in the wake of the 2021 finale according to his Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff, who could not guarantee that his star driver would return to fight for a record-breaking eighth world title this year. 

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Talk resurfaced in the headlines this week after a BBC report suggested that Hamilton’s future could hinge on the results from an FIA investigation into the events of the final laps in Abu Dhabi

Should the seven-time world champion quit F1, it would give Mercedes a major headache on the eve of the new season that would have shades of Nico Rosberg’s bombshell retirement after winning the 2016 world title. 

Mercedes bought Valtteri Bottas out of his Williams contract to replace the German, but it is less obvious how the reigning world champions would respond if history were to repeat itself. 

Amid the uncertainty, we have taken a hypothetical look at what options Mercedes could have available to it if Hamilton - who holds a contract until the end of 2023 - decided to step away from F1.

Valtteri Bottas 

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With George Russell making the step up from Williams, Mercedes would surely want an experienced driver to partner the 22-year-old Brit if Hamilton vacated his seat. 

If that were the case, they should look no further than Bottas. The Finn is a known quantity to Mercedes who has five years of experience driving for the team between 2017 and 2021, making him an obvious candidate and perhaps the safest choice. 

Facilitating such a U-Turn would be difficult given that Bottas has committed to a multi-year contract with Alfa Romeo. It is hard to imagine that the Swiss squad would be willing to part with their new statement signing. Surely only a big offer would change that stance.

Nyck de Vries or Stoffel Vandoorne 

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Mercedes could look to solve such a dilemma from within by moving its Formula E champion Nyck de Vries or teammate and fellow reserve Stoffel Vandoorne across from the all-electric series.  

Last year, de Vries was linked to the Williams drive that eventually went the way of Alex Albon. The Dutchman is highly admired at Mercedes and has experience testing the team’s 2021 car, while Vandoorne previously raced in F1 for McLaren. 

However, a switch for either de Vries or Vandoorne would leave Mercedes facing a similar driver dilemma for its FE programme ahead of the start of the new season later this month. 

Esteban Ocon

Former Mercedes junior and reserve driver Esteban Ocon enjoyed a superb 2021 as he held his own against Alpine teammate Fernando Alonso and impressively delivered the first victory of his F1 career in Hungary. 

The Frenchman was rewarded for his performances with a new contract with Alpine that runs until the end of 2024, but Mercedes could broker a deal to take their former protege back. That would free up a seat for Alpine junior Oscar Piastri, who has been left on the F1 sidelines for 2022 despite being crowned F2 champion. 

Nico Hulkenberg

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The door appears firmly shut on a return to F1 for Nico Hulkenberg, who last raced full-time through 2019 with Renault. A Hamilton exit may provide Hulkenberg with a lifeline and a long-awaited chance to prove himself in front-running machinery. 

The 34-year-old German is hugely experienced and performed admirably on his three substitute appearances for Racing Point in 2020, while he has also conducted simulator running with the 2022 car. Hulkenberg would be a solid, safe pair of hands and driving for Mercedes would surely give him the chance to end his unwanted record for the most F1 starts without a podium finish. 

Pierre Gasly

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Pierre Gasly’s future beyond the end of the 2022 season is unknown and the 25-year-old Frenchman is desperate to get another chance to prove himself at the front of the grid after starring for AlphaTauri since his Red Bull demotion mid-way through the 2019 season. 

Now a grand prix winner and multiple podium finisher, Gasly is flourishing in the role of team leader at AlphaTauri and delivering a consistently high-level of performance. With Red Bull continuing to overlook him, a move to Mercedes would enable Gasly to unlock his full potential and maybe even realise his F1 dream.

Lando Norris

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If Mercedes was going to be forced to buy another driver out of their current contract, Lando Norris must sit high on the wish list. The 22-year-old Brit continues to go from strength to strength and impressed with an outstanding 2021 campaign for McLaren, underlining why he is regarded as the real deal by many in the paddock. 

A line-up consisting of two of the brightest talents of F1’s new generation of drivers in Norris and Russell would be a mouth-watering prospect for Mercedes, setting the team up for both the present and the future. But there is no way that McLaren would be willing to allow its star driver to leave. 

Sebastian Vettel 

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A slightly left-field pick for Mercedes could be Sebastian Vettel. Wolff previously didn’t rule out a swoop for Vettel after the four-time world champion became available when Ferrari decided against renewing his contract at the end of 2020.

Even at 34 and perhaps with his best days behind him, Vettel would still be an A-list signing for Mercedes and as a German, he would have obvious commercial and marketable appeal. Perhaps Wolff would be tempted to put in a cheeky call to his good friend and Aston Martin owner Lawrence Stroll…

Fernando Alonso 

Probably the most unrealistic option on our list. Whether the drama of Alonso’s infamous 2007 stint at Mercedes-powered McLaren is entirely water under the bridge remains unknown, and the Spaniard has a reputation for being something of a career-destroyer. 

It is unlikely that Mercedes would want to risk potential fireworks of placing Alonso alongside Russell, but the two-time world champion may be more attainable than other drivers given he will be a free agent at the end of the year. 

Alonso proved on his F1 comeback that he still has the magic and remains one of the best in the business, even as the oldest driver left on the grid. Resembling something of a fantasy pick, imagine Alonso fighting for that elusive third world title in a Mercedes.

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