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Graham Read
Formula 1 Correspondent
7:58 PM 1st February 2024
sports

Hamilton To Leave Mercedes For Ferrari

 
News emanates from the Formula 1 world on an almost daily basis and even during the winter “close season”, but this morning I heard of a truly unexpected major development from an F1 friend and colleague whom I trust implicitly. Namely, the shock indication that Sir Lewis Hamilton is to leave Mercedes for Ferrari at the end of this year despite having only a few months ago agreed a highly lucrative new contract with his current team for 2024 and 2025.

Hamilton will be swapping his black race suit for a red one next year
Hamilton will be swapping his black race suit for a red one next year
Hamilton is without doubt the most successful, if also the most contentious British Formula 1 champion we have ever had, with fans loving or loathing him in equal measure. He began his Formula 1 career back in 2007 with the Woking based McLaren team and I well recall being present in the Silverstone pitlane the previous September as he sought to convince the then team principal Ron Dennis to sign him for the following season, which he did. He was instantly a success and claimed his first Drivers’ title in 2008 before his relationship with McLaren became strained and he sought a new team for the 2013 season. The then highly successful Red Bull team was his preferred option, but, when it became clear that the Milton Keynes outfit preferred to stick with its then current driver pairing, he ended up at Mercedes and from the start of the turbo hybrid power unit era in 2014 success followed success. Between 2014 and 2021 Mercedes racked up eight consecutive Constructors’ titles and Hamilton six further Drivers’ titles.

However, Mercedes proved to be far less competitive during the last two seasons, with just a single Grand Prix and Sprint race victory achieved for them by George Russell in late 2022. It’s now over two years since Hamilton last won a race and in 2023 he undertook a protracted contract renewal process with Mercedes, which included news of him having had informal talks with Ferrari. A useful ploy when negotiating a new deal with your current employer. Eventually Hamilton agreed a two-year contract extension covering 2024 and 2025, but it now seems that this deal included a potential break clause at the end of this season. Today’s news about Hamilton preferring to leave for Ferrari next year rather than stay is little short of a hammer blow for Mercedes as it seeks to motivate its staff and return to winning ways.

I took this photo of a young Hamilton in 2006 at Silverstone whilst testing for McLaren
I took this photo of a young Hamilton in 2006 at Silverstone whilst testing for McLaren
Hamilton celebrated his 39th birthday last month and this means he will be 40 when he first races for Ferrari at the start of next season, replacing the then 30-year-old Carlos Sainz. This totally unexpected move represents a clear risk for both Hamilton and his new team. Perhaps Hamilton isn’t convinced that Mercedes will return to being a title winning force again during the next two seasons, but equally Ferrari doesn’t seem to look like a better option in this respect either. The move also means that he will have to continue to work closely alongside his Mercedes F1 colleagues throughout the forthcoming longest season ever despite them all knowing he has decided to jump ship. In some ways it would perhaps be better for all concerned if only he could leave straightaway. The Mercedes staff were told of Hamilton’s decision to leave during a brief meeting in Brackley this afternoon called by the team’s senior management.

On the Ferrari front, it’s clear that they have needed to do something to break the rut in recent times of always being the bridesmaid rather than the bride and its under-pressure team principal, Fred Vasseur, has certainly pulled off something of a coup in signing Hamilton to partner its mercurial son Charles Leclerc. Most drivers can only dream of racing for Ferrari at some stage during their careers and the lure for Hamilton to achieve this before retiring must have been a major factor in his recent decision-making process.

Most drivers dream of racing for Ferrari
Most drivers dream of racing for Ferrari
It was significant last month that Ferrari very much celebrated Leclerc signing a multi-year contract extension, but the team remained silent about its other current driver, Sainz, who has a year left on his existing contract. It will be fascinating to see where the Spaniard’s F1 future might lie as he is too gifted and experienced to be jettisoned at the end of 2024. Hamilton’s forthcoming departure from Mercedes will leave a key seat vacant alongside George Russell and Sainz cannot be ruled out as a contender for it. The timing of the news about Hamilton’s departure has left Mercedes in a somewhat awkward position, with many leading candidates to replace him already committed elsewhere, and so the team may need to also consider the 27-year-old Thai-British driver Alex Albon, who performed very impressively for Williams last year, or the veteran Fernando Alonso who currently drives for Aston Martin.

Red Bull will almost certainly be looking for a more competitive replacement for Sergio Pérez and, with Lando Norris removed from the marketplace following his recent decision to extend his McLaren contract, this too will represent a truly eye-watering opportunity for any driver deemed worthy of lining up alongside Max Verstappen.

Where will Carlos Sainz’s future lie?
Where will Carlos Sainz’s future lie?
Today’s shock news, after Hamilton had so often suggested that he could well remain with Mercedes, his spiritual home, for the remainder of his Formula 1 career, will certainly have kept Toto Wolff’s phone ringing constantly with drivers and their agents looking to step into the to be vacated black Mercedes!