Lewis Hamilton: Which driver will eventually replace him at Mercedes?

Behind closed doors the work is probably already under way, but Mercedes know one day they must plan for the succession of Lewis Hamilton.

Parting ways with their talisman for the past decade is sure to be a painful process, but as the clock ticks down towards Hamilton's 40th birthday it is something that will eventually have to be done.

The seven-time former World Champion recently answered "tough question!" when asked if he would be still racing in his 40s, and he is contracted to Mercedes until the end of 2023.

That's even if he sticks around for a 17th year on the grid considering his team's alarming drop-off in performance at the start of the new regulatory era, having dominated F1 with eight straight Constructors' titles.

So, with George Russell surely in situ for some time to come after a strong start since his promotion, who will join him when arguably the greatest racer of all time stands aside?

Planet Sport assesses the leading contenders and it's a perhaps surprising name, with whom we will conclude, that ticks the most boxes right now.

Max Verstappen

Let's start with the obvious 'match made in heaven' - the dominant team of recent times to be joined by the reigning World Champion. What could possibly go wrong?

Very little, probably, if it actually had any chance of happening. But realistically, it does not.

Not only were Mercedes and Verstappen's Red Bull team effectively sworn enemies as their 2021 title battle scaled the heights of intensity, but the Dutchman recently signed a new six-year contract worth a reported £40million a year.

The 24-year-old has been part of the Red Bull family ever since he entered F1 aged 17 and looks unlikely to sever ties with that monster deal locked away.

And Red Bull are smashing Mercedes this season, just for good measure.

Lando Norris

A line-up comprising two prodigious childhood rivals and friends who then become team-mates. Again, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, Russell and Norris are not Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Toto Wolff would never put himself through that again. But would the blend be the right one?

Quite possibly not, because as brilliant as the two young Britons are, they may just be a bit too similar in terms of experience, style and marketability and neither would want to regard himself as anything other than the top dog.

And like Verstappen, Norris has tied himself into a long-term deal at McLaren. You suspect that contract would be the more likely to contain a release clause, though.

Pierre Gasly

Lewis Hamilton and Pierre Gasly
Lewis Hamilton and Pierre Gasly

If Mercedes have next to no chance of prising Verstappen out of Red Bull, Gasly would be much easier to lure - not least because he will be out of contract at the end of 2023.

And as things stand, that could be ideal in terms of succeeding Hamilton.

After an excellent 2021, the widely-held belief was that the Frenchman was ripe for a move to a top team, having mixed it with those top teams, especially in qualifying, throughout the campaign.

But there is a yellow flag and even a potential red one. The first is that Gasly's progress has stalled this season, currently being outscored by his team-mate Yuki Tsunoda in an admittedly less competitive AlphaTauri.

And more alarmingly, he could not handle his promotion to Red Bull in 2019 and was quickly dropped. He is older and wiser now, however.

Valtteri Bottas

In terms of yin and yang between team-mates, a remarkable return to Mercedes for Bottas could be an excellent fit.

After all, for Hamilton and Wolff, the Finn's implacable manner was the perfect antidote to the Tiggerish nature of Rosberg which then morphed into a steely determination to realise his title dream.

After five years at Brackley, Bottas had to make way for Russell, but is providing a rock-solid reminder of his qualities in a much faster Alfa Romeo car than even he was probably expecting.

A return to Mercedes? Don't rule it out, if Wolff's parting message was anything to go by, relating to some of the impressive stats Bottas had compiled in his time there.

"Well, maybe you go on a little bit of a sabbatical with Alfa Romeo," said the team principal. "And then we see how many more [numbers] we can add."

Esteban Ocon

Hear us out. He's no Verstappen or Norris in terms of racing ability, but Ocon is someone it would be no surprise to see slide into Hamilton's shoes.

Why? Well, let's start by rewinding the clock. Ocon has long been groomed for stardom by Wolff, even before Russell first arrived in the Austrian's office aged 15 with his schoolboy's suit and PowerPoint presentation.

Wolff has masterminded the Frenchman's career which has comprised F1 drives with Manor Marussia, Force India/Racing Point and Renault/Alpine, for whom he won the 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix.

We know how Wolff plotted a course to the Mercedes team for Russell and he may well have been doing exactly the same with Ocon, just via a slightly more roundabout route with the odd detour thrown in.

Don't forget that halfway through 2019, rumours escalated that Ocon, then on a 'gap' year, would replace Bottas for the following campaign. That did not materialise, of course, and he headed to Renault instead.

Now 25, Ocon took a while to impress, but since the team's rebrand to Alpine he has had an ideal benchmark to measure himself against in Fernando Alonso.

Last season, the double former World Champion outscored him by seven points, this time it is Ocon ahead by 20 after only seven races. Yes, Alonso has had some bad luck, but that still represents smart progress.

Then there is the team dynamic to consider. We are not saying Ocon is a potential World Champion, but Russell definitely is - and a Bottas-style colleague on the other side of the garage, not making any waves, could work very well to maximise the collective effort.

Ocon has already shown, amid greater maturity than in his Racing Point days, that he knows how to dovetail with a more dominant character, such as Alonso. The duo are both getting along well and performing with credit.

Being the 'continuity candidate' is something that ties in with the Mercedes approach and as his contract at Alpine - in which Wolff himself had a hand - runs until the end of 2024, just before Hamilton's 40th birthday, that may just represent perfect timing for the biggest of moves.

Read more: How did Charles Leclerc get stuck with his Monaco GP curse?

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