ABU DHABI -- Ferrari has dropped the first hint that it could make a move to sign Lewis Hamilton in 2021 after team principal Mattia Binotto admitted the world champion's contract situation "can make us only happy."
Whether the comment was made to unsettle rival team Mercedes, which currently has Hamilton under contract until the end of 2020, or is a genuine hint at Ferrari's intentions remains unclear, but they underline the potential for big moves in the driver market next year when all but three of the 20 drivers are out of contract.
"Lewis is certainly an outstanding driver, a fantastic driver," Binotto said. "Knowing that he's available in 2021 can make us only happy.
"But it's too early for any decision. We are happy with the drivers we've got at the moment and I think certainly at one stage next season we will start discussing and understanding what to do."
Ferrari currently has four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel paired with emerging star Charles Leclerc. Vettel's contract is due to expire at the end of next year, while Leclerc is one of the three drivers, alongside Sergio Perez at Racing Point and Esteban Ocon at Renault, confirmed beyond 2020.
Ferrari's driver pairing has come under scrutiny this year after Vettel started the season as the team's No.1 driver but looks set to finish behind his younger teammate in the drivers' standings. What's more, the volatility of the relationship was exposed at the last round in Brazil when the drivers clashed on track while fighting for fourth place. Ferrari has been reluctant to discuss the incident in public, with Binotto saying "it is between us, it is something we discussed and I'm happy to keep it between us."
Would Hamilton leave Mercedes?
Hamilton is currently preparing to enter new contract negotiations with Mercedes and has given no indication that he wants to leave the German brand. In fact, he has recently talked about negotiating a future with Mercedes beyond his retirement from F1, which would include working on making its products more environmentally friendly.
Speaking earlier this month, Hamilton said: "I don't particularly see myself going anywhere else. I love being here at Mercedes. I love being a part of the brand. I love being a part of the history."
But Mercedes has yet to confirm its future in F1 beyond 2020. All 10 teams are currently negotiating financial terms with the sport from 2021 onward, but while a brand like Ferrari, which has been in F1 since the first championship race in 1950 and whose race team is based in its main factory in Maranello, is almost certain to stay, Mercedes could quite easily leave the sport.
Fueling speculation, team boss Toto Wolff recently said Mercedes' participation beyond 2021 is "not a given" and parent company Daimler announced on Friday that it would make 10,000 job cuts in order to protect profits as it invests in electric vehicle technology. However, Wolff's comments were made in advance of Daimler's announcement and are more likely a negotiating tactic to secure a better commercial deal from F1's bosses.
"The board members are here this weekend, so I'll double check with them," Hamilton said on Thursday when asked about Mercedes' future. "But they're all hardcore racers and I'm pretty sure they want to stay. Things may have changed, as they can do."
Speaking on Friday, Wolff said there were "many things to be decided on" over the winter before Hamilton's contract is complete.
"Lewis and I have grown close over the last seven years," he said. "We ended up in Mercedes at the same time in 2013 and I think we have built up a lot of trust. At the same time, the two of us are part of a wider organization where everybody is playing in their relative field of competence.
"I'd also like to know where he goes or if he stays in the future," Wolff said. "And we are having those discussions about the future and I think it is very important between the two of us, like between many others that have played an important role within that team.
"Can I shed more light? No, for me it was important to finish the season in Abu Dhabi. There are many things to be decided on and we will see over the winter."