MANAMA, Bahrain — Lewis Hamilton has said he is a fighter and has no plans to leave Formula One if he is unable to challenge for a title this year with Mercedes.
The seven-time champion failed to win a race last season for the first time in his 16-year career and goes into the new season expecting to be off the pace of reigning champion Max Verstappen, who looked like the fastest driver in testing.
– Where are F1 2023 absentees Vettel, Ricciardo and Schumacher?
Hamilton’s Mercedes team appeared to be behind rivals Red Bull and Ferrari, but he said suggestions that he would quit at the end of the year when his contract runs out were wide of the mark.
“It’s ultimately … people creating rumors without facts,” Hamilton said. “It’s never helpful.
“You would have thought they would have both known by now. I’ve been with Mercedes since I was 13. Having a difficult year we had last year, still here, whether or not we have a difficult year this year, I’ll still be here.
“I’m a fighter, and we fight as a team. I love the challenge of finding solutions and trying to, I still believe I’m able to put the car in places that others are perhaps not able to, and I love that challenge.
“Of course I wish that we start the season with a great car. But it’s the journey I think that really counts.
“So there is no hold up with our contract. I’ve always been very, very relaxed. I don’t feel like I’ve got to get it done right this second. I’m in a very fortunate position. It’ll get done when we’re ready.
“I have a great relationship with Toto [Wolff] and Mercedes, and we fully support each other. I’m really excited about the future together. We’ll get there.”
Hamilton said he knew from his first lap in Mercedes’ new car that he might struggle at the start of the season, but believes the team has a much stronger platform to build on than last year.
“I knew from the moment I drove the car where we were and the challenges that we would be facing,” he said. “On a positive, not having the bouncing this year is a huge plus, and it really kind of, I think trying to understand what the problems were whilst having that bouncing really masks so many, it makes it difficult of figure out what those are.
“So we don’t have that now, and now we can focus on just pure performance.
“I’m encouraged to see just the focus and the courage of everyone with the team, so focused on getting us back to the top. We’re not where we wanted to start a season, naturally. But this still is a multi-world championship-winning team and group of people. So I believe in that.”
Assessing his rivals this year, Hamilton said Aston Martin, which appeared to have a strong test last week, were in the mix with F1’s usual top three, Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes.
He said: “I’m really happy to see that Aston has taken such a step forward and they are, as far as we know, fully in the fight. From all the data we have, you don’t know what fuel loads people are on and these different kinds of things — it’s a bit all over the place — but it looks like they are very, very strong and they could be fighting right at the front.
“We’ll find out over the next day or so. I can’t say whether they are ahead of us or we are behind them, but I’m hoping always that there will be more than just two teams or three teams in the mix.”