For a great champion, knowing when to say farewell is always a difficult decision. Arsene Wenger should have left Arsenal a decade before he did, Mike Tyson should have called it a day after his Lennox Lewis loss and many are still questioning whether Tyson Fury has decided to walk away at the right time.
In essence, champions must decide when to go out at the top, without bringing their career to a premature end. One thing is for sure, nobody wants to see these icons battle on when they are past their best. Wenger didn’t deserve the treatment Arsenal fans gave him near the end, Sir Andy Murray has been hobbling about on court for years now, and watching Tyson get beaten by Danny Williams and Kevin McBride brought a sorry end to his legendary career.
And so to Lewis Hamilton. The seven-time world champion goes down alongside Michael Schumacher as one of the two greatest drivers in the history of the sport, but the 37-year-old has endured a nightmare 2022 season so far. It was as if what unfolded at Abu Dhabi in December sucked the soul out of both Mercedes and Hamilton, leaving just a shadow of the man we have seen dominate the sport for the past decade.
“Will Hamilton still be there in two, three years? Will he even reach the end of this season?” Jacques Villeneuve questioned in his latest column for Dutch publication Formule1. “You can’t see anyone in the head. You can feel down and depressed or you can’t deal with not winning anymore.
“Then maybe it’s time to decide that life is better without racing. We’ve been taken by surprise in the past – there have been times when champions just got fed up.”
It’s not in Hamilton’s nature to quit and he would be branded a sore loser if he were to retire now, but this car and this season is already a write-off. The Brit himself has already admitted that Mercedes are out of the title race and at 37, how much fight does he have left in him?
He’d be wise to look how fellow great Schumacher ended his F1 career. After fighting for race wins his entire career, he returned in 2010 after a four year break as a 41-year-old, in a midfield Mercedes. 9th, 8th and 13th place finishes in the Drivers’ Championship were not a worthy ending to the career of one of the greatest of all time and his decision to come back was on reflection, a poor one.
So what’s the point in Hamilton continuing? He is in serious danger of finishing outside the top ten this season and watching him on a race-track at the minute is like watching your favourite pet dog reach old age. The memories, love and adoration are all still there, but he’s starting to defecate on the sofa and it’s probably time to put him out of his misery.
In Italy, Hamilton finished 13th and was brutally lapped by Max Verstappen, the man who he went toe-to-toe with for the title last term. It was the first time he had finished outside the points since Azerbaijan last year, when he inadvertently selected the wrong brake mode on his steering wheel. Prior to that race, his last finish outside the points came in Spain 2013, such has been his domination of the sport.
“I mean, he was lapped by us, so maybe he should have stopped last year,” Red Bull’s Helmut Marko joked after the race. It was a below the belt dig, but one with a healthy dose of truth.
Hamilton has stated he is still “100% committed” to Mercedes having signed a two-year deal at the end of the last season. "There is nowhere else I want to be. Just because we have hit a rough patch, it is not in my DNA to back out.
"We can fix this. It is going to be a painful year that we are going to have to ride out together."
His stance is admirable, but he is at a crossroads. If he had won the title last year that would have been the perfect time to walk away, but now he is caught in a place he never wanted to be. Retiring now would save him the humiliation of finishing the season in midfield, but Mercedes have the finance and ability within their ranks to bounce back.
His dream would be to fight back next season and wrestle his final title away from Ferrari or Red Bull to pass Schumacher, but another season of midfield mediocrity would further tarnish his legacy. Can he really afford to take that risk?