Paris: Growing rumors of Lewis Hamilton's potential move to Ferrari are being fed by the fact that the defending Formula One champion has yet to sign a new contract with Mercedes.
Hamilton at Ferrari, with the British driver competing internally for top-driver status against four-time champion Sebastian Vettel, could rival the days when Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost were fighting — and feuding — for the title.
The prospects for enticing more interest in the sport are mouth-watering, as F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone well knows. For now, the sport is more in the spotlight for losing iconic races like this year's German Grand Prix, with fears over whether the Italian GP in Monza will continue beyond 2016.
Mercedes without Hamilton, who has won three of the four races this season and nine in 11, would mean a massive hole to fill. Teammate Nico Rosberg just missed out on the title to Hamilton last year, but there are still question marks about his ability to handle pressure at the very highest level. The German driver has only one win in the past 15 races and hasn't beaten Hamilton — who has clinched four straight pole positions this year — so far in qualifying.
Furthermore, Rosberg is already showing clear signs of frustration, accusing Hamilton of driving in a way intentionally designed to scupper his chances two races ago in China, and berating engineers on his race radio for the car's lack of speed. The fact he wears his heart on his sleeve is admirable, but Rosberg's passion is not helping his bid to usurp the cool-headed Hamilton.
No wonder the 30-year-old Briton is in such a strong bargaining position.
Hamilton knows Mercedes could fall way behind Ferrari if he left, while Ferrari would boast the strongest line-up F1 has seen for many years: two drivers who have six titles between them — four for Vettel, two for Hamilton — which could well become seven if one of them wins this year, and 76 race wins so far.
Another temptation for Hamilton is that the sport's greats — including seven-time champion Michael Schumacher, five-time champion Juan Manuel Fangio and Vettel — have all driven for Ferrari. Racing in the famous red would also offer Hamilton the chance to become the only driver apart from Fangio to win a world title with three different teams.
After four races, Hamilton is first with third-place Vettel the only driver to beat him so far. Rosberg is second, already 27 points behind Hamilton, his childhood friend and teenage go kart rival.
Rosberg, who is a few months younger than Hamilton, has eight career wins. He is much better than a No. 2 driver but it remains to be seen whether he can become a true No. 1 at Mercedes.
Also, the German manufacturer would need to replace Hamilton if he left, but with which driver?
Fernando Alonso, who is nearing the end of his career at age 33, only just joined McLaren, where teammate Jenson Button is probably in his last season at 35. Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen, who showed flashes of his brilliant best when finishing second at the Bahrain GP last month, is also 35 and Ferrari has yet to confirm a deal for 2016.
They are all world champions, but their ages appear to rule out a Mercedes move, although an exception might be made for Alonso on a short-term deal as he remains one of the best drivers on the circuit.
Of the other drivers around, only Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo — who won three races last season — really stands out as a candidate. Red Bull is struggling badly with its Renault engine this season — Ricciardo's has already blown out three times in four races — and the 25-year-old Australian will be hard to keep if these problems continue.
Behind him, there are young and raw talents like Max Verstappen and his Toro Rosso teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. or Red Bull's Daniil Kvyat. But none of them has nearly enough experience and hiring them would be too much of a gamble for Mercedes.
Clearly, Ferrari is keeping a keen eye on Hamilton's situation with good reason.
Hamilton represents himself since splitting with his advisers after last season and the silence fuels the suspense. He said in March that the new deal was almost signed with only small details left to take care of. But pen has yet to see paper.
The longer Hamilton stalls, the more the rumors of a Ferrari move will grow and become a serious distraction for Mercedes.