Philip Duncan, PA F1 Correspondent
Lewis Hamilton has hit back at Damon Hill and Jenson Button by telling them he is a “fighter” – and insists he will not retire from Formula One.
Former world champions Hill and Button have cast doubt over Hamilton’s future as the Mercedes driver enters the final season of his £40 million-a-year contract.
But speaking on the eve of the opening round in Bahrain on Sunday – where Hamilton has already conceded Mercedes will start on the back foot – the seven-time world champion scoffed at suggestions this could be his 17th and final campaign on the grid.
“Not at all,” said Hamilton when asked if he heads into the new season thinking it might be his last.
“It is ultimately people creating rumours without facts, and it is never helpful. You would have thought that they (Hill and Button) would both know me by now.
“I have been with Mercedes since I was 13, and last year we had a difficult year, but I am still here, and whether or not we have a difficult year this year, I will still be here.
“I am a fighter and we fight as a team. I love the challenge of finding solutions and I still believe I am able to put the car in places that perhaps others are not able to. I love that challenge.
“Of course I wish we started the season with a great car but it is the journey that really counts.”
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen crushed the opposition last year to race to his second world crown, with Hamilton failing to win a single race and finishing a distant sixth in the standings.
It is anticipated that Verstappen’s Red Bull remain the team to be beat this year, but Hamilton insists Mercedes’ form has no impact on whether he will sign a contract extension that is set to take his time in Formula One beyond his 40th birthday.
Team principal Toto Wolff revealed at last month’s launch that he and Hamilton (38) have opened tentative discussions over a new deal.
Clocking in for 2023 ☝️🇳🇱 pic.twitter.com/VRxCiF46NN
— Oracle Red Bull Racing (@redbullracing) March 2, 2023
“There is no hold-up with our contract,” said Hamilton. “I have always been very, very relaxed and I don’t feel like I have to get it done right this second. I am in a very fortunate position.
“It will get done when we are ready. I have a great relationship with Toto and with Mercedes and we fully support each other.
“I am really excited about the future together and really proud of the work we are doing, on and off the track and the potential of new things that we can do moving forward.
“We will get there, unless something catastrophic happens between me and Toto and we get in the (boxing) ring, but other than that we are good.”
Verstappen (25) is bidding to win a hat-trick of crowns, and Hamilton added: “Max will be very, very confident.
“They developed an amazing car last year, breaking all the records and won pretty much anything. They were not even pushing at the end of the season and they were way ahead.
“I don’t see that changing, so he can be quite relaxed but hopefully those of us that are just behind will continue to apply pressure. Ferrari and Aston Martin have got a decent package and we are hunting, too.
“Max will not slip up. He is a world champion so I would not question his determination or focus. He will be just as focused as ever and it is our job to catch up.”