There is a genuine chance that in a year or two we are looking at a Formula 1 grid that contains no former world champions at all.
That might seem strange considering we have four out of twenty at the moment, despite Mercedes dominating the championship recently, but when you stop and think it makes sense.
The biggest question mark is obviously current world champion Sir Lewis Hamilton. The other three former world champs in the paddock are Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel. Their ages are 41, 39 and 33 respectively whilst Hamilton is 36. Unlike Hamilton the other three are really struggling for form and are being outperformed by their younger team-mates.
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It’s easy to see them being phased out in the next couple of years but Hamilton’s future is far less certain. Initially it was expected that this might be his last year in F1 but a title race with Max Verstappen appears to have reinvigorated him and reportedly he wants a deal that will bring him back in 2022.
Given Hamilton’s immense global popularity, combined with his advancing age, the Brit’s future was naturally a hot topic during a Wall Street analysts call with Formula 1 CEO Stefano Domenicali. The 56-year-old Italian was asked outright about the sport’s future when Hamilton eventually retires.

Lewis Hamilton

Image credit: Getty Images

“F1 is solid, robust and whatever Lewis’ decision will be, F1 will react and move forward,” said Domenicali during the call.
“The good news is that if Lewis, as we all hope, stays, he will have an incredible season in front of him [2022] with the new cars, with a new challenge, and this may be very interesting for him.
“If he decides a different way around, the good news is that in F1 we have so many good drivers today that at least the challenge, the chances, will be even stronger.
Therefore, whatever Lewis’ decision will be, we will respect it. But F1 is really solid and strong.
“For sure, Lewis is a great asset, he is doing an incredible job on the sporting side in terms of image. He was able to grow F1 in other areas which were not really specifically related to F1.
“But F1 itself is strong, and drivers and champions are always in a place where one day they may retire.
“I don’t know what Lewis is doing, we are talking with him, but of course now he is focused on his actual season. He is fully boosted to make sure he will be the only driver that is going to win eight titles in the history of F1.”
If F1 loses Hamilton, Vettel, Raikkonen and Alonso in quick succession it might leave them in a tricky spot. It’s not often a sport loses so much talent in one go, even if three of them are dropping off a bit. Let’s look at the case for and against the strength of the sport without Hamilton.

The case for Formula 1 staying strong

If I were Domenicali, and was making the case to my investors and the analysts as to why Formula 1 will stay strong without Hamilton there are three primary reasons.
The first is perhaps the most important and it might be one of the primary reasons why Hamilton is debating coming back for one year. In 2022 we will get a huge swathe of new technical changes that are designed to bring the cars closer together. In theory it will be impossible for one or two teams to dominate in the way they have in the past few years.
That leads onto the second point, increased competition amongst drivers as well as constructors. Between 1980 and 2000 we had 11 different Formula 1 world champions. Between 2000 and 2020 we’ve had seven. The last decade obviously has Hamilton and Vettel sharing nine with a tiny Nico Rosberg palate cleanser in-between. With no Hamilton and less of a gap between the cars we could see far more exhilarating championship bouts.

Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton talks to Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen after the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix race at the Circuit de Catalunya on May 9, 2021 in Montmelo on the outskirts of Barcelona. (Photo by Emilio Morenatt

Image credit: Getty Images

And moving onto our final point, Formula 1 has an extraordinary set of young drivers poised for stardom, some of them already. Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris, George Russell, Yuki Tsunoda, Mick Schumacher and of course, the jewel in the crown, Verstappen. These kids are going to be international superstars, well even more so than they already are, and it certainly helps in the British market to have two local kids. Now imagine what happens if one of the big markets gets a new driver to root for if/when Felipe Drugovich, Oscar Piastri or Guanyu Zhou make the step-up. And that’s without mentioning 17-year-old wonderkid Theo Pourchaire from France.

Why Formula 1 would suffer without Hamilton

So that’s the sunshine and rainbows version of a post-Hamilton future for Formula 1. It’s time to look at the bleaker picture.
Firstly what happens if Formula 1 doesn’t fix it’s biggest problem? Competitive balance. What happens if Verstappen takes over from Hamilton and dominates in the same manner. Even if he shares that domination with one of the names mentioned above it won’t be good enough. That sort of repetitiveness could lose fans.
Also there is always the uncomfortable concern over how many Formula 1 fans are actually just Lewis Hamilton fans, and will leave the sport when he does.
And even if that isn’t true then it is certainly true the sport loses something in terms of marketing without Hamilton. As an example from this February article on PlanetF1 Hamilton has 31.9 million followers on social media. The next highest? Alonso with 7.6m. The only other two drivers to hit over 5 million combined are Daniel Ricciardo (7.1m) and Verstappen (6.6m). That will obviously grow and change but Hamilton’s pull on Instagram is ludicrous. He has 22.3m followers there, by comparison the official Formula 1 account has just 13.2m.

Lewis Hamilton, Black Lives Matter

Image credit: Getty Images

Of course there’s also the question of equality as well, something Formula 1 eternally struggles with. Right now Hamilton is the only black driver on the grid. Tsunoda is the only Asian driver after the demotion of Alexander Albon. Hamilton forced F1, a historically white sport, to have uncomfortable conversations that were long overdue. If the sport lets the ball drop in that regard when Hamilton is gone the younger generation will notice, and they will say something about it.
The reality, as is so often the case, will be somewhere in the middle. Formula 1 has enough going for it that it will not be devastated by Hamilton’s eventual retirement, but it will certainly take a huge hit. How 2022 goes will determine how big a hit.
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