Mercedes boss Toto Wolff's confession that Lewis Hamilton was 'disappointed' by the events at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix served to spark speculation about the future of the seven-time Formula One champion. Most decisively, Wolff said: "I hope Lewis will continue to race, because he is the greatest driver of all time."
Hamilton has said nothing in public since losing the title to his biggest rival Max Verstappen in the final round of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, for which Mercedes has unsuccessfully filed appeals. The driver of the Mercedes was not at the FIA awards ceremony last week, and his absence is being investigated by the governing body as a potential violation of Formula 1 sports regulations.
However, Hamilton appeared at Mercedes' celebration of the eighth - record - winning design championship in Brackley and Brixworth last Friday - talking to staff members as they also said goodbye to Valtteri Bottas. But none of what he said was made public.
While the new world champion hopes that Hamilton has enough will and motivation to return and fight for the eighth title, there is currently no guarantee that this will happen - which leaves Mercedes with a potential headache if it happens.
With all the top drivers bound by contracts for 2022, Hamilton’s absence from one of the best places in F1 at such a late stage would likely change everything. If it is confirmed that Hamilton will not return, there is a good chance that Wolff's mobile phone will ring some available drivers or even those who used to connect with Mercedes.
Of those with recent experience who have no contracts for 2022, however, it is doubtful that Kimi Raikkonen would have a strong desire to return to F1. But Nico Hulkenberg would almost certainly be a substitute solution - even in the short term.
With the relatively young George Russell in one of its cars, Mercedes would almost certainly not want to risk going with someone without much experience - as their Formula E stars Nyck de Vries and Stoffel Vandoorne would be relatively usable.
Instead, Mercedes would most likely get a driver on the current grid who has the experience and speed - leaving him with two clear options.
The first could be for Alpine to announce the withdrawal of former young Mercedes driver Esteban Ocon from the contract and relocation to Brackley.
The Frenchman had a very strong season in 2021, came to his first victory of his career at the Hungarian Grand Prix, and Mercedes is well known for testing for the team many times. He was also their reserve in 2019. An agreement to move Ocon to Mercedes would also free up a seat in Enstone that the team could immediately put up with Oscar Piastri.
The Australian won the title in the first F2 season - he shows that he has all the talent he needs to shine in F1. But Alpine has invested heavily in Ocon. They realize how strong he can be, and it is likely that his further future revolves more around him than Fernando Alonso.
Therefore, the chances of Ocon arriving are 50:50. Instead, a more obvious solution for Mercedes - and one that could be appealing to all parties involved - could be to get the team back to the driver they just said goodbye to.
Valtteri Bottas has signed a multi-year contract for Alfa Romeo and made his track debut for the team in a post-season test in Abu Dhabi. However, with his experience in Mercedes being bigger than anyone else and with the fact that he can be accommodated immediately without having to spend months speeding up, it would be the most logical choice for the team to find someone to start 2022.