Hamilton flattered by interest as he refuses to shut down a move to Ferrari

Lewis Hamilton has admitted he is flattered by Ferrari’s interest, refusing to shut down a move to the Italian giants.

Ferrari have ramped up their pursuit of Hamilton at the season-concluding race in Abu Dhabi by publicly wooing Britain’s six-time world champion.

Italian media have reported that Hamilton, who is out of contract with Mercedes at the end of next season, has spoken on two occasions with Ferrari chairman John Elkann this year.

While in a further intriguing twist on Saturday evening, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff – whose own future with Formula One’s record-breaking team is also in doubt – revealed he would not stop his £40million-a-year driver from entering into talks with their Italian rivals.

Hamilton will start Sunday’s race as the favourite to close out his world championship year with an 11th victory after putting his Mercedes on pole position.

But, in the moments after claiming the 88th pole of his career, the Englishman was asked for his response to Mattia Binotto’s comments in which the Ferrari team principal described Hamilton as an “outstanding driver”, adding that his potential availability in 2021 could “only make Ferrari happy”.

“It is the first compliment I have had from Ferrari in 13 years,” said Hamilton, 35 in January. “I don’t remember them ever mentioning me before.

“It has taken all these years for them to recognise me, but I am grateful. It is positive and it is never a waste of time to be nice to someone. It is a team that I have always appreciated over the years.

“To earn the respect from someone that is high up at Ferrari is not a bad thing. They have got two great drivers so who knows what the market is going to be doing over the next year.”

Wolff, 47, has overseen Hamilton’s remarkable success at Mercedes. Hamilton has admitted the Austrian’s future will play a key role in his next move.

But Wolff, who has been mooted as a leading candidate to run the sport after next season, may also be tempted to seek pastures new.

Quizzed on Hamilton’s comments, Wolff said: “I am totally OK with that. It is a free world and I recognise that everybody needs to explore career options and make the best decision for themselves.

“A racing driver wants to be in the quickest car, and the quickest car wants the best racing driver in it. So, we need to push very hard to provide that.

“If we can do this, I am 100 per cent convinced we will have the best driver line-up.

“I am absolutely open for everybody to explore. My priority would be to continue this successful journey. But if that ends one day, I would be the first to cheer for him.”

Sebastian Vettel, who will line up from fourth on the grid on Sunday, is out of contract at the end of next year. The German, 32, has failed to end Ferrari’s 12-season drivers’ championship drought following his big-money move from Red Bull in 2015.

Vettel’s fractious relationship with new team-mate Charles Leclerc, the talented young driver from Monaco – combined with his eye-watering £36million-a-year wage – puts his position at the Scuderia in grave danger.

Max Verstappen will join Hamilton on the front row in the desert after Valtteri Bottas was demoted to the back of the grid following an engine change.

Leclerc lines up in third ahead of Alex Albon and British teenager Lando Norris.

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