Lewis Hamilton opened talks with Mercedes over a pounds 60?million contract last night (Sunday), with Ferrari monitoring the situation should negotiations break down. Discussions were put on hold last year in the heat of Hamilton's title battle with team-mate Nico Rosberg, but resumed in earnest yesterday.
The double world champion sat with Niki Lauda, the Mercedes F1 chairman, and Toto Wolff, the Mercedes head of motorsport. Today the Briton begins his championship defence in pre-season testing.
After splitting with Simon Fuller's XIX Entertainment, Hamilton will personally try to thrash out new terms with the help of his trusted long-time lawyer, Sue Thackeray. His present contract expires at the end of this season and is worth around pounds 20?million a year.
Asked if it was a given he will sign a new deal, Hamilton said: "Pretty much. We are in talks. We left it until the end of last year, but then we didn't see one another.
"The plan hasn't changed as to what we would like to do, from both the perspective of the team and myself. We have to make sure it works for the both of us.
"The confidence we give each other is they want to continue with me and vice versa, but it's been like that for ages. But we're in talks and in the near future it will be sorted."
Publicly, both Hamilton and the team are effusive in their praise of each other and their determination to sign a three-year contract. Hamilton even said: "We've talked about it and all we can come to agreement is we want to stay together. We love each other, basically."
Privately, however, opinion is divided on how much of a done deal it is. Some sources said that Hamilton has begun tentative talks with
Ferrari as a fallback option, while others dismiss the suggestion out of hand.
The good money is on Hamilton staying with the world champions. They have given him the freedom to develop as a personality and supplied the tools to sweep aside the com-petition. Should they come calling, however, the allure of Ferrari - not to mention their bank balance - is not one many drivers have been able to resist.
Lauda insisted that the deal would be done. "There is no problem with the contract," Lauda said. "He wants to sign it. We want him to sign it. There is no rush. We just need to find a time to do it and then all the speculation can go away."
Hamilton revealed that around the time of the Russian Grand Prix, last October, the team were keen to put pen to paper.
However, without naming -Fernando Alonso explicitly, he hinted that the Spaniard had been doing his best to muscle his way in to Mercedes.
"Contracts can be as stressful as anything, so I was telling them all I wanted to do was win the championship," he said.
"So we said: 'Let's leave it to the end. I'm not speaking to anyone else, and I know you're being called by a certain individual, but I'm solely focused on things so I won't be making any calls'."
You could see why Alonso was so keen on a move to Mercedes from the first day in Jerez, southern Spain, yesterday. The world champions racked up 157 laps in the hands of Nico Rosberg, while he managed just six as the McLaren-Honda era got off to a stuttering start.
Hamilton could not approach the negotiation, and the small matter of testing his new Mercedes, in a better frame of mind. Since easing to the world championship in Abu Dhabi, he has turned 30 and finally won acceptance from the British public, with the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. The famous trophy is the only one he keeps on the mantelpiece in his Monaco apartment.
"It meant more to me than any trophy or award could have," Hamilton said. "That's why I was on the stage and I was really struggling."
The public recognition, not to mention two championships, and the pros-pect of equalling his hero Ayrton Senna's three titles, has even prompted talk of 'legendary' status. Hamilton said it was premature.
"You can only be a legend once you're out of the sport, once you're gone. It's like a wine, the older wines are legendary."