The Mail Online’s revelation that Lewis Hamilton’s representatives supposedly contacted Red Bull about a possible drive before Hamilton committed at least the next two years of his Formula 1 career to Mercedes carried a bit more weight than the usual paddock gossip about driver market goings on.
That’s because the story included a direct quote from Red Bull team boss Christian Horner, rather than alluding to unnamed sources etc. Faced with inevitable questions on these supposed ‘talks’ in the build-up to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Hamilton appeared to shoot them all down.
Hamilton spoke to Sky F1’s Ted Kravitz and said “I don’t really understand what he [Horner] has been talking about because no one, as far as I’m aware, from my team has spoken to him. I haven’t spoken to Christian really in years”.
Of course, the phrase “as far as I’m aware” is well-used by politicians to deny personal knowledge of something that could still definitely have happened regardless. Hamilton also then appeared to slightly contradict himself by going on to reveal “he [Horner] did reach out to me earlier in the year about meeting up”.
Hamilton said he simply congratulated Horner on Red Bull’s incredible achievements, and then suggested to Kravitz that Horner was “just stirring things” with the quote he gave to the Mail. “You know Christian,” Hamilton added. “He loves that kind of stuff.”
So, we can take from that initial Hamilton response that there definitely was contact between him and Horner personally, that Hamilton is saying he responded to Horner reaching out (not the other way around), and that it’s possible a member of Hamilton’s negotiating team separately contacted Red Bull about the possibility of Hamilton driving for Red Bull but that Hamilton didn’t know about it (unlikely).
Hamilton later faced F1’s written media as part of Mercedes’ regular pre-event press briefing schedule (and we understand The Mail was excluded from this), and he was given the opportunity to clarify the situation further.
He was asked a couple of questions about whether he approached Red Bull about joining the team. Hamilton answered emphatically both times: “No, I didn’t approach them. Nope. I did not”.
Asked whether it’s possible someone else on his personal team could have reached out to Red Bull, Hamilton said: “I’ve checked with everyone on the team and no one’s spoken to them. But they have tried to reach out to us.”
So now it seems there is a clear mismatch between what Horner has said happened and what Hamilton says happened.
But looking again at the exact quote Horner gave the Mail: “We have had several conversations over the years about Lewis joining. They have reached out a few times. Most recently, earlier in the year, there was an inquiry about whether there would be any interest.”
This word 'an' could be crucial in understanding what really happened, because although it’s logical to infer from what Horner said that Hamilton’s team inquired about a Red Bull seat, it’s possible Horner's actually talking about separate things - past enquiries definitely made by the Hamilton camp, and then a separate thing this year that could just as easily have been instigated by the Red Bull side.
This would tally with the last part of Hamilton’s answer about Red Bull having “tried to reach out to us”. It also seems there was an entirely separate personal ‘conversation’ between Hamilton and Horner, which had nothing to do with contract negotiations.
"Basically, I picked up my old phone, which I just found at home that had my old number on it,” Hamilton went on, “and I switched it on and obviously [I had] hundreds of messages come through and I realised one of them was from Christian [saying] to get together and have a chat at the end of the season.”
This better explains the apparently contradictory answer Hamilton gave Sky about the reality of his contact with Red Bull. Basically, Horner sent Lewis a message on an old number and Lewis happened to pick that up when he randomly decided to switch his old phone back on - but that also had nothing to do with any contract talks, real or imagined.
Hamilton confirmed he told his current team boss Toto Wolff about the situation “when the story broke” and also said he’s “probably not” going to take up Horner’s offer to meet up post-season. Hamilton then re-iterated that his new two-year deal with Mercedes “showed my commitment to the team”.
He also outlined why he preferred to remain at Mercedes over joining Red Bull, saying while “every single driver here dreams of being in a winning car” and admitting he himself would “love” to drive this year’s dominant RB19, Hamilton insists he got a real buzz from leaving McLaren to join Mercedes when it was still building up towards being successful. He described that as “a better feeling” than “just stepping into the best car”.
“It wouldn't do much for me in the sense of just stepping into the car that's been the most dominant car of all time,” he added. “Working with my team to build to be able to beat them, I think would be better for my legacy for sure.”
The Mail story also quoted Horner referring to Ferrari chairman John Elkann, and apparent discussions earlier this season about Hamilton joining Ferrari. Hamilton revealed he has a pre-existing relationship with Ferrari’s top brass dating back to a “Google camp in Sicily - that's when our friendship started, and we've always remained in touch”.
Hamilton also reminded journalists that he has a long-standing friendship with current Ferrari team principal Fred Vasseur, whose ART junior single-seater team ran Lewis in Formula 3 and GP2. Hamilton said he’s known Vasseur since 2005 and talks to him “often” - but sidestepped confirming the truth or otherwise of reported discussions about a Ferrari F1 race seat. Travelling together to races with Vasseur and Wolff (who are also good friends) is “really as far as it’s gone,” Hamilton said.
Again, that doesn’t categorically rule out the possibility that Ferrari contract discussions did actually take place, just as it’s still possible Horner was correct in saying “an inquiry” about Hamilton joining Red Bull happened too - but that actually it was Red Bull making that inquiry rather than Hamilton or his team.
Hamilton is right to suggest Horner enjoys playing the media game and winding up his rivals - but he doesn’t have a reputation for outright lying about them on the record. So, most likely, someone at Red Bull contacted Hamilton’s team (as Hamilton suggested), this is what Horner was referring to when he spoke to the Mail, and then there was a separate exchange of personal messages between Hamilton and Horner that’s irrelevant to the driver market.
Oh, and it’s still possible there was contact with Ferrari after all…