Mercedes boss Toto Wolff says he is confident that the team's non-executive chairman Niki Lauda will be back with them in the pit lane next season.
Lauda suffered a serious illness during the summer that led to an emergency lung transplant. He's now on the mend and undergoing rehabilitation after several months in hospital in Vienna following the major procedure.
Lauda's absence left a big hole in the Mercedes trackside operation, and Wolff says he can't wait to get his partner in crime back in the new year.
“We’ve been leading this team together for the last five years,” he pointed out. “So I’ve noticed his absence more than anyone, as a sparring partner and as a friend.
“That’s why I’m looking forward to 2019, so we can walk this path together again.”
Mercedes was neck-and-neck in the championship battle when Lauda was taken ill while on holiday with his family. The lung disease was unrelated to his 1976 crash at the Nurburgring in 1976, when he inadvertently breathed in noxious fumes and fire.
Lauda has also undergone a recent heart bypass, while in the past he had a kidney removed. This made his recovery from the lung transplant more complicated.
Wolff conceded that the impact of Lauda's most recent crisis on the team made it even harder for them to keep focus and emerge victorious in the second half of the season.
“Last season was a real battle, where things went up and down," recalled Wolff. “Then we had to process the shock of Niki.
“It first looked like an innocent illness," he added. "But that changed dramatically within a few hours. Every minute counted to get him to the hospital in Vienna."
Since being allowed to go home, Lauda has posted a video message to fans on social media and talked warmly of the handwitten message he received from Sebastian Vettel.
It's not yet known whether Lauda will be well enough to jet halfway around the world for the first race of the new season in March. But Wolff is confident that the three-time F1 world champion will be back at some point during the year.
“I don’t doubt he’ll come back. That will definitely happen,” he said, before quickly playing down expectations.
“Only the doctors and Niki make announcements about that,” he cautioned. “Preferably I’d like to see him back at the season opener in Australia, but his health has the priority.”