What Hamilton’s move means for Ferrari, Mercedes and F1

Lewis Hamilton’s shocking move to Ferrari for 2025 redefines everything we thought we knew about the upcoming seasons of Formula One. In one year’s time, the best-known and most successful driver in the sport will join its most historic and famous team, signed to a contract that will likely be the most lucrative in F1 history.

For Hamilton, it represents what will likely be his last roll of the dice in pursuit of his elusive and unprecedented eighth world championship. For Ferrari, it brings the biggest name in F1 to a team that already carries a burden of expectation far greater than any other on the grid. The stakes are high for both sides, but the payoff if a championship can be achieved would be astronomical.

The unfolding subplots left in the wake of Hamilton’s move only add to the drama. The 39-year-old’s departure at the end of the year will leave Mercedes with a gaping hole in its driver lineup for 2025 and little more than 12 months to fill it.

When Hamilton signed his current Mercedes contract in September, it was billed as a two-year deal, but what wasn’t advertised at the time was a release option available to Hamilton at the end of 2024. Both sides seemed to go into the deal expecting to remain together until the end of 2025, but in the space of five months, something changed.

A Mercedes contract was once the most sought-after piece of paper in F1, but a drive with the former champions now looks less appealing in the knowledge that Hamilton, after two winless seasons, made his decision to leave even before the team had finished bolting his 2024 car together. In George Russell, Hamilton’s current teammate who also signed a contract until 2025, Mercedes always had something of a succession plan in place, but replacing the commercial appeal of a name known around the world, such as Hamilton’s, is a seemingly impossible task.

Zoom back out to the wider F1 picture for a moment, and if there was any danger that Max Verstappen’s recent dominance might make the sport seem boring, it now has an unfolding storyline that is almost impossible to ignore.

The enduring appeal of Ferrari

Bogus rumours of Hamilton holding contract talks with Ferrari have been an almost annual occurrence for several years. It’s what made the actual news such a shock when it first broke via Italian outlets on Thursday morning and why it’s still hard to comprehend that Hamilton made the decision on the brink of a full season in which he will remain at Mercedes. Speaking to ESPN in April last year, Hamilton spoke about the lure of Ferrari but, as he has so often done in interviews before and since, played down the reality of making the switch.

“I’d be lying if I said I’d never thought about ending my career anywhere else,” he said. “I thought about and watched the Ferrari drivers on the screens at the track and of course you wonder what it would be like to be in red … But then I go to my team, to Mercedes, and this is my home. I’m happy where I am.”

It raises the question: What made Hamilton change his mind?

Before Thursday’s news, it seemed like the challenge of returning Mercedes to the top of F1 was all the motivation Hamilton needed to continue racing into his 40s. Ever since 2021, when his shot at an eighth title was ripped away from him by the race director Michael Masi’s interpretation of the rules at the final race in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton has been on a path of redemption. There was a romantic notion that his journey would end with another battle for the ages between Hamilton and Mercedes and Verstappen and Red Bull, but if that is to be the case, it needs to happen this year.

While the Mercedes-Hamilton fairytale was compelling, the prospect of winning the title with Ferrari, a team that last secured a drivers’ crown in 2007, would arguably add a shine to his legacy that no other team can match. The last driver to end a Ferrari championship drought was Michael Schumacher in 2000, who secured the team’s first drivers’ title in more than two decades before going on to win four more. Hamilton doing the same, even without adding four more, would send the F1 world into raptures.

If he were to succeed, he would not only become the first eight-time champion in the sport’s history, but also the only driver other than five-time champion Juan Manuel Fangio to win titles with three different teams.

Ferrari’s prestige must also be a draw for Hamilton. No other team has been in F1 since the sport’s inception in 1950 and no other brand has the same history or mystique. It’s been known for some time that Ferrari CEO John Elkann had his heart set on tempting Hamilton away from Mercedes, and Hamilton has spoken openly about conversations he’s had with Elkann on the occasions they’ve crossed paths in recent years. It seems that one of those conversations planted a seed in Hamilton’s mind that led to Thursday’s announcement, but why he decided to act on it now, ahead of the first season of his relatively new Mercedes contract, only he can answer.

Yet, for an individual who has always defied convention in his F1 career, and been all the stronger for it, the Ferrari move is perhaps not as surprising as it first seems. Hamilton started his career at McLaren in 2007, won his first title in 2008 and created a similar level of disbelief when he left the team in Woking to join Mercedes in 2013. At that stage Mercedes had won just one race since its return to F1 in 2010 and Hamilton had come off the back of a competitive 2012 season in which he had scored four victories for McLaren. He had his fair share of doubters then, but ultimately his judgement was vindicated several times over as he went on to win six of his seven titles and 82 of his 103 career race wins with Mercedes.

Hamilton’s arrival at Ferrari will see the departure of Carlos Sainz, who always seemed to be the second driver in the eyes of the team’s management when lining up alongside Charles Leclerc. Leclerc recently signed a contract extension with Ferrari, and his pairing alongside Hamilton will make for arguably the most talented driver lineup on the grid.

While both Sainz and Leclerc have shown flashes of brilliance in the past three years, neither can point to championship trophies to prove their talent beyond doubt. That’s not to say Ferrari’s drivers have been its biggest issue in recent years, far from it, but with Hamilton joining in 2025 there can be no doubts — if the car is good enough, Hamilton has a proven track record of challenging for titles and winning them. On top of that, his image is the most recognisable of any driver in the world and his voice, both in traditional media and on social media, cuts through like no other.

Those factors would undoubtedly have helped Elkann justify the kind of money that could tempt Hamilton to walk away from a Mercedes contract that was reportedly worth around $50 million a year.

If Hamilton needed convincing further, the presence of Fred Vasseur as team principal at Ferrari may have helped. Vasseur was the boss at Hamilton’s GP2 team, ART, when he won the junior series title in 2006 on his way to F1, and the two have remained friends ever since.

There have been signs of on-track progress at Ferrari under Vasseur. He took the reins in January last year, and while the team won fewer races in 2023 than it did in 2022, Vasseur was always going to need a period of time to make changes. In the second half of the campaign, the team started to get a handle on the performance of its car and Sainz became the only driver other than the Red Bull duo to win a race when he took victory in Singapore.

Ferrari still finished behind Mercedes in the constructors’ championship, but only by three points and after making a stronger finish to the season. Based purely on the competitiveness of the two teams in 2023, it’s hard to say with any certainty which is more likely to be Red Bull’s closest challenger in the coming years, but there are signs of a recovery at Ferrari that may have helped convince Hamilton.

For 2026, all bets will be off as a new set of technical regulations have the potential to upturn the competitive order once more. It was a change of engine regulations in 2014 that Hamilton and Mercedes capitalised on to win their titles after his arrival in 2013, so a similar path with Ferrari may be what Hamilton has convinced himself is possible.

What next for Mercedes?

Before Hamilton makes the move to Maranello, he will see out the single year of his Mercedes contract. After 11 seasons at the team, it will be a strange atmosphere as he goes into battle for Mercedes while his garage knows he will leave for a rival at the end of the year. Much of the talk last year, before Hamilton signed his latest Mercedes contract, was about the trust between driver and team — especially between Hamilton and team boss Toto Wolff — and it remains to be seen what impact this news will have on their relationship.

After the loss of several big-name engineers in recent years, Mercedes attempted to strengthen its position in January when it confirmed long-term contract extensions for Wolff and technical director James Allison. In theory, such commitments should have installed extra hope in Hamilton, so it is slightly surprising, or perhaps telling, that he still signed his post-2024 future away to Ferrari before Mercedes had turned a wheel this year.

Red Bull’s dominance last year means title success for anyone other than Verstappen is a long shot this season, but a fascinating subplot would emerge if Mercedes can overcome the odds. In Russell, Hamilton has a very competitive teammate and one that would no doubt put him under pressure in a championship-challenging car. Although Mercedes has always adopted a strict policy of not favouring one driver over the other, it would be hard for individuals within that team not to get behind Russell in a straight fight with Hamilton. Fireworks could ensue.

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Who should Mercedes turn to in 2025?

Laurence Edmondson and Nate Saunders throw around some names of drivers who could sit in Lewis Hamilton’s seat from 2025, if his move to Ferrari is confirmed. 

All the while, Wolff will be evaluating who will replace Hamilton in 2025. In some ways, the seven-time world champion is irreplaceable — no other driver in the world has the same global recognition as Hamilton or the same appeal to the team’s sponsors — but Hamilton was always going to leave Mercedes at some point, it just wasn’t supposed to be this soon or with the drama of him joining a rival team.

After Russell, who joined the team’s junior programme in 2017, the next driver in line for Mercedes stardom is 17-year-old Kimi Antonelli.

The Italian prodigy is set to skip the usual path through Formula 3 this year to make his debut in Formula 2 after just two full season outside go-karts. While Mercedes has been protective of Antonelli, his results in karting and his title victory in the Formula Regional European Championship last year mark him out as a serious talent. The teenager still has to prove himself in F2 this year, but a stellar season in which he wins the championship was always going to line him up for an F1 drive somewhere, regardless of the Hamilton news.

Mercedes’s options are not just limited to their junior programme. Several drivers are out of contract for 2025, including Sainz, Williams’ Alex Albon, Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso, and Alpine pair Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly, to name but a few.

With the competitive order likely to bunch up behind Red Bull in 2024 and again in 2025, the importance of having the best drivers under contract in a year’s time will be ever more crucial for success. Ferrari can rest easy with its winter’s work, but the scramble to fill seats up and down the grid will be another thrilling storyline off the back of Hamilton’s groundbreaking decision.

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