LET'S ADDRESS THE elephant in the room right from the start. Lewis Hamilton has no plans to retire from Formula One when his current Mercedes contract expires at the end of the year. In fact, he plans to remain in F1 for several years to come.
That doesn't stop stories emerging every week suggesting otherwise. Stories suggesting his winning days are over now that Red Bull and Max Verstappen are dominating F1; stories suggesting Hamilton, at 38 years old, is in the late autumn of his career; stories suggesting he is growing impatient waiting for his Mercedes team to return to winning ways.
But those stories seem completely detached from what Hamilton is saying himself.
"I don't plan on stopping any time soon," he told ESPN during an interview at last weekend's Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku. "I'm not at the end of my career, I'm not in the downhill slope of my career. I'm in my prime.
"It all depends on how hard I want to work and keep myself in my prime, in terms of physical and mental capability.
"If you look at LeBron [James], if you look at Tom Brady, they have shown that it can be sustained for as long as you are dedicated enough to put the energy and time in.
"Right now, I don't plan on changing, I only plan on adding to the drive and the motivation and to being better. I'm massively driven."
Hamilton opened contract talks with Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff earlier this year, but they are yet to sign off on the final terms. There's no avoiding the fact that, since the start of F1's new era of regulations in 2022, Mercedes has not been as competitive as Hamilton would want, and it's exactly that fact that seems to be feeding much of the speculation around his future.
In addition, after winning eight consecutive constructors' titles between 2014 and 2021, Mercedes won just one race last year and it was Hamilton's teammate George Russell, not the seven-time world champion, who took the glory. Remarkably, 2022 was the first season in Hamilton's 16-year F1 career in which he didn't take a race victory.
Meanwhile, rivals Red Bull have assumed a significant lead at the front of the field, one that only grew over the winter and one that looks remarkably similar to the advantage Hamilton enjoyed in 2014 before Mercedes dominated the sport for the next seven years.
So, it begs the question, has Hamilton thought about switching teams? Trying his luck elsewhere?
"I'd be lying if I said I'd never thought about ending my career anywhere else," he says. "I started at McLaren, I'd like to think I'll always be a part of the McLaren family, I started there when I was 13 years old [as a junior driver], so I thought about what it would look like if I was at McLaren one day.
"I thought about and watched the Ferrari drivers on the screens at the track and of course you wonder what it would be like to be in red... But then I go to my team, to Mercedes, and this is my home. I'm happy where I am. I haven't signed a contract yet, but we are working on one."
From Mercedes' side, Wolff says his team feels obliged to give Hamilton the opportunity to challenge for another title. One more would mean Hamilton stands alone in the record books with eight championships -- one more than the great Michael Schumacher who ties with Hamilton on seven.
"We owe him a car," Wolff says. "Now, that's difficult when you see the pace of the Red Bull, but we owe him a car.
"This one is not going to win him a drivers' championship this year, so we need to give it another shot."
A drawn-out contract negotiation that attracts so much speculation would probably put strain on any other relationship between driver and team principal, but with Hamilton and Wolff it's different. Wolff joined the Mercedes team shortly after Hamilton in 2013 and since then the pair have rewritten F1's history books with an unprecedented run of success, yielding six of Hamilton's seven world titles and Mercedes' eight constructors' championships. But along with the glorious highs there have also been dramatic lows -- most notably, and recently, Hamilton losing out on the title to Verstappen at the final race of the 2021 season in Abu Dhabi.
After a ferocious season-long battle, the championship was ultimately swung by the actions of then race director Michael Masi, who, on the penultimate lap of the final race of the season, took a unilateral decision to shortcut the FIA's safety car restart procedure while Hamilton was leading the race. The decision would create a dramatic single-lap shootout between the two drivers for the title, but the scales were tipped heavily in Verstappen's favour as he had pitted for fresh tyres behind the safety car while Hamilton and Mercedes, believing the race would finish behind the safety car, had not.
To Wolff and Hamilton's astonishment, the safety car peeled into the pits at the end of the penultimate lap and by the fifth corner of the final lap, Verstappen had secured the lead of the race and with it the title. Hamilton was left with nothing. He was speechless and seemingly in shock during the blur of podium celebrations that followed.
"Ultimately that feeling never really truly leaves you," he says thinking back nearly a year and half later. "It's like when you think about your first love, it will always be that first love and first heartbreak.
"Abu Dhabi, the scar is there and there will always be that memory. Even though I reprogrammed my mind, I think it still took me the whole year to really push through it because we were straight back into work.
"It wasn't a quick thing."
Wolff has also come to terms with the events of 12th December, 2021 although it's clear he still holds Masi -- and to some extent Masi's former boss FIA president Jean Todt -- responsible.
"For us it was a catastrophic set of circumstances, but it was the making of one man -- there is no big conspiracy theory behind it," Wolff says. "Would I have wished that Jean Todt got involved rather than being filming for his documentary? Yes. At least to tell the stewards to look at it the right way.
"But would it have made a difference? I don't know. It was the making of one man, this was a championship between two drivers and two teams, both had merited to win and on the day the outcome was different because one guy just lost the plot.
"But I am at peace with it now."
It seems clichéd to say adversity breeds strength in such moments, but often clichés have derived from the truth. For Hamilton, the events of that feverish night only strengthened his bond with the team and, after a period of deep reflection, his resolve to continue in the sport.
"It strengthened all of us at the team, but from my own personal experience it was a hugely strengthening experience," Hamilton explains.
"You can't always win, and to go through that, and learn how to be a better teammate, how to really lift people up, pull people together in a different way was a valuable lesson for me that I'm really grateful for. So that's why I come into this season and I know it's prepared us better for whatever we face moving forward."
In a sport as cut-throat as F1, having people you can trust is another key to career longevity. Not only have Hamilton and Wolff garnered unprecedented success together, it's hard to think of another partnership between team principal and driver that is as closely knit.
"The relationship is very special," Hamilton says when asked to describe the bond between Wolff and himself. "We have both lifted each other up, we've helped each other elevate as individuals, both through our careers, our business, and in how we operate in our outside lives and worlds.
"I think we have been able to really confide in each other and be open and honest. Within business and within industries it is very difficult to be open with people, because it always seems like there is someone ready to stab you in the back.
"And I think that's the trust thing that we have that it's never been the case. He has welcomed me into his family and welcomed my family into our team.
"When I look at other drivers who have jumped from a team after one season, I think you've not given anyone a chance to really show what they can do. And you can't build a relationship in one year with such a huge organisation.
"I've been really fortunate to be a part of that and have that experience. So there is a lot of love here, this team has got such a winning mindset and I need to be somewhere where there is a winning mindset because that's what I have."
Lewis Hamilton speaks about the reasons why he agrees with Giannis Antetokounmpo's opinion on what failure and winning in sport mean.
Wolff also puts an emphasis on trust in the relationship.
"Trust is a bit of a topic for him and me, and you need to earn trust, test it, and only then can you trust and we built it up over the years," he says. "We had some tough moments, like in 2016 [when Hamilton lost the title to teammate Nico Rosberg], but we tackled it right away.
"It's like [what] I have with Susie [Wolff, Toto's wife], if I have an issue you pick up the phone immediately and speak. Everything is being discussed and you clear the air, or you agree to disagree.
"And with him since then we have been super strong."
But the closeness of that relationship also explains why the negotiation of each new contract seems to be a drawn out affair. Both sides trust each other that a deal will be done, but when it comes to discussions over financial numbers, it can become awkward.
"There is no panic [over the contract], we will get to it, neither of us feel pressure, we are always honest," Hamilton said. "So, if Toto was talking to someone he would tell me and vice-a-versa. I've never ever in my whole time gone and spoken behind a team's back to someone else to see if I can get them to raise the bar so that he has to raise his bar -- I've never played that game, and he hasn't either.
"So, we have always been straight shooters. But I think ultimately having such a close relationship makes it hard sometimes having hard business discussions, because emotion is involved and we have to be very careful to step out of the circle, put the relationship aside and focus on business and what's best for us both business wise. But we have managed to find that balance really well over the years."
On the subject of negotiating numbers, Wolff adds: "It's super awkward. Every three years we know that we have this moment. And it's like negotiating financial terms with your best friend, with a close friend.
"How do you tackle that? Normally you don't have such a situation.
"I want the best for him, but in that role I need the best for the team. That can be the only time in our ten or 11 years when we are together and our objectives diverge.
"At the end of the day, talking about money with your friend is difficult. Penny [Thow, Hamilton's manager] helps. Penny has been keeping us in check and we have found a good modus operandi with her about how we talk. We avoid talking to each other about money but we both talk to Penny."
Speaking after the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, where he finished a hard-fought sixth, Hamilton confirmed he's eyeing a multi-year deal under his next contract.
"I'm thinking long term," he said. "I don't want to stay here for another year. I want to stay longer."
For a driver who is used to winning week-in, week-out, it shows the depth of Hamilton's motivation that he is willing, at the age of 38, to commit multiple years of his life to getting back to the front of the grid.
Hamilton admits to having those moments, like anyone else, when his motivation dips. "Some days I definitely can't be bothered," he says. "Certainly if you look out the window in London and it's raining and you think 'I don't want to go running in the rain'." But there is one thing after all these years that keeps him going: the desire to cross the finish line first.
"On those days I question myself, where are you trying to get to? ... and I know that if I don't put that effort in, I'm not going to get there.
"When I'm running and I feel like let's walk the rest of the way or if I can't be bothered to continue to push in the gym, I just start thinking about the finish line.
"Thinking about, how do I get there first?
"It always comes back to that."