Lewis Hamilton, Toto Wolff, Mercedes, Yas Marina, 2022

Allure of Ferrari was too much for Hamilton after two win-less years at Mercedes

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Lewis Hamilton’s decision to leave Mercedes no doubt came as a profound disappointment to team principal and co-owner Toto Wolff. But it was perhaps not a great surprise.

Until the end of the 2021 season, Hamilton had seldom gone a few months without winning a grand prix. Since then he’s endured two years without a victory.

It would be wrong to pin that entirely on Mercedes – after all, the team has taken one victory in that time, courtesy of George Russell in Brazil. But it has also failed to produce a consistently competitive car over the last two seasons.

Wolff understood the implications of this for a driver as used to winning as Hamilton was between 2014 and 2020. In that time he went from being a one-time champion to the most successful driver the sport has ever seen.

Lewis Hamilton looks at a Ferrari, 2018
Analysis: Why Hamilton to Ferrari once looked like the deal which would never happen
In March last year, as Mercedes came to terms with the stark fact its second car for the new ground effect regulations was no more competitive than its predecessor, Wolff gave this assessment of whether Hamilton was likely to extend his contract beyond the end of the season:

“If he wants to win another championship, he needs to make sure that he has the car,” said Wolff. “And if we cannot demonstrate that we are able to give him a car in the next couple of years, then he needs to look everywhere.

“I don’t think he’s doing it at that stage, but I will have no grudge if that happens in a year or two.”

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Sure enough, Hamilton did extend his contract to drive for Mercedes. In September last year the team proclaimed “Lewis will drive for the team in the 2024 and 2025 seasons.” However, as it admitted today, that glossed over the fact he had an option to leave after one more year: “Lewis has activated a release option in the contract announced last August.”

James Allison, Mercedes, 2022
Mercedes charged Allison with sorting out its design direction
So just four months after re-committing to Mercedes, Hamilton has chosen to jump ship to Ferrari. Did Mercedes fail to prove to him, as Wolff indicated, that it would be competitive within “the next couple of years?”

Mercedes undoubtedly took its poor start to 2023 seriously and responded accordingly. An extensive overhaul of the W14, minus the distinctive ‘zero’ sidepods, was readied for the sixth round of the season. The top technical staff were swapped around, James Allison restored to the position of technical director in place of Mike Elliott and, just last month, handed a contract extension.

But the most striking aspect of Hamilton’s decision, its timing, suggests none of this was enough for him. Within a few weeks he will have had his first taste of the W15 and got a sense of whether the team truly is on course to get back on terms with Red Bull. For him to grab the chance to move to Ferrari, so soon after agreeing his last Mercedes contract extension, on the eve of the new season, will be a bitter blow for the team because it signals his lack of faith in their ability to swiftly recover from their recent dip.

While the ‘push’ factor driving Hamilton from Mercedes has only emerged recently, the ‘pull’ factor dragging him to Ferrari has been ever-present, as Wolff has long understood.

“We have to simply acknowledge that probably it’s in every driver’s head to drive with Ferrari one day,” he told media including RaceFans in 2019. “It’s the most iconic Formula 1 brand, the most historic Formula 1 brand out there and I totally respect that a driver has a desire to drive with Ferrari.

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“Within the team we have discussed it and with Lewis we have discussed it and we have agreed on the topic. We had the discussion when we negotiated the last contract. I think that you just have to be open-minded and understand that drivers will understand opportunities that exist and benchmark themselves.”

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes launch, 2013
Analysis: Will Hamilton’s second change of F1 teams prove as inspired as his first?
Mercedes was the team to beat at the time, but Wolff understood that when that changed the lure of Ferrari could come into play.

“What I see is strong between Lewis and ourselves is that we have always been very transparent with each other in the whole discussion,” he continued. “At the moment everything is great. I think we are providing him with a car which is capable of achieving his objectives.

“If we continue to have a car that is performing on that level I think there is no reason to go and we would love him to stay. And if one day ways part it will be very positive and then each of us will try to achieve success with a different set-up. So no drama.”

Now that has come to pass, it remains to be seen whether there is “no drama” between them, and how smoothly and successfully they navigate a year they know will end in divorce.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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21 comments on “Allure of Ferrari was too much for Hamilton after two win-less years at Mercedes”

  1. José Lopes da Silva
    1st February 2024, 22:31

    Keith, when was the last time a driver was announced to a team a full season before the start of the contract?

    1. IIRC Ricciardo, Sainz and Alonso were technically announced for 2021 before the 2020 season began, but that was thanks to the pandemic delay.

    2. Vettel’s departure from Ferrari was announced in May and the season only began in July of 2020

    3. Why now?

      This is Ferrari forcing Hamilton to commit ahead of Mercedes testing. Think of it from their point of view, what if Mercedes comes up with a great car and Hamilton changes his mind?

      This wasn’t Hamilton making a press announcement. This was a sneaky press leak, with a significant effect on the Ferrari stock price.

      1. Ferrari released yesterday good economic results, it was not (only) Hamilton that pumped the stocks

    4. Alonso’s original Mclaren move was also announced a full season in advance, more precisely in late-2005.

  2. At the situation he’s in, it’s worth even if just for the experience of being a Ferrari driver. And Ferrari has had a much better grasp of the current regulations than Mercedes, who produced two really not worthy of note cars until now.

    I doubt he’ll be racing for much longer on the next one so that doesn’t really matter.

  3. So what happens for 2024, do they exclude Hamilton from development directions and meetings? It makes it hard for Merc to grow if they are just using Russel to do this.

    1. So kind of ironic that George was seemingly focused on beating Lewis than improving the car the last two seasons. Now the roles will inevitably be reversed. Expecting some classic GR team radioo comments if and when he’s behind Lewis in a race, like “Guys, who’s here next season? Just saying…”

    2. Michael (@freelittlebirds)
      2nd February 2024, 0:02

      I think there’s a lot of trust between Toto and Lewis and it’d be best to have Lewis be a full part of the team as they have accomplished so much together. This is their last season together so I think Toto will want to maximize the results and get the team behind Lewis as much as possible.

      I hope they have a competitive car that can win races.
      I think in many ways this may be a swan song season for Toto as well – he’s not going to be Team Principal forever. These jobs are exhausting and you give your heart and soul to them.

      Even if any secrets are shared by accident, it’s not worth the loss of a season or the team not fully trusting Lewis. Whatever Lewis tells Ferrari, they already probably know to some extent and integrating an idea is much harder than it sounds.

      1. But is not in Lewis interest (at all I would say) to make the Mercedes car stronger, unless he just wants to drive for Ferrari and not win with Ferrari.

  4. For me it seems a much wiser move to wait couple of races in the season and make a decision like this. This way he just shows lack of trust in Mercedes’ ability to produce a competitive car. Odd move if you ask me. On the other hand it might be that he knows something we don’t. To make a switch from McLaren to Mercedes in 2012. was odd one as well. The rest is history.

  5. The timing to me suggests Ferrari pushed the timing of this deal on Hamilton

  6. Kinda think this is cautiously a win/win for him.

    If he was to somehow be champion this season, he moves to Ferrari as the undisputed greatest of all time titles wise in the record books regardless of what happens at Ferrari. Can’t really lose.

    If he doesn’t, he goes there looking to return them to the top, at worst, a 7x world champ who also never managed to do what Vettel or Alonso also couldn’t manage, Stop Ferrari being, well, Ferrari. Best case? He gets them back to champions AND beats Schumachers title haul at Ferrari. Further cementing his legacy. Which would arguably mean even more than another title at Mercedes would anyway.

    Of course, there’s the barrier of Leclerc as well, but is it really any more of a threat than Russell is/was?, I actually think Sainz has probably shown that Leclerc, whist undeniably as fast as they come, really isn’t the complete, relentless package to be feared the way going head to head v a Lewis, Max or Alonso even is. Certainly, stepping up against him in his team is brave, but you’d still back Lewis to overcome that.

    Worst of the worst case, this years Merc is a dog, and he jumps ship into Ferrari being peak meme-worthy disaster and Leclerc wipes the floor with him whilst Mercedes suddenly come good in 2025 and 2026, but at that point he’d be 42, had 3-4 years with no success and probably be close to walking anyway, so what’s one gamble with new goals when it at least lets him experience something different at the end of his career?

  7. I suspect Lewis might get a couple of podium places, but the sun has set on getting another World Drivers’ Championship. Charles will be the Number One driver.

    1. A win at Monza in a Ferrari I think would be a great sporting moment, and a nice little feather in his cap.

  8. Brilliant move Ferrari – trade in a younger but experienced driver that has won 2 races in last 2 years with a much lower salary and almost always a team first and supportive mentality for a much older, much more expensive driver that hasn’t won in 2 years and is far more likely to cause civil war and be negative about Ferrari car and/or team.

    1. I had a similar thought, however this is classic Ferrari. It was Mattia Binotto who was keen on younger drivers and developing those talents; he is long gone, we have returned to old ways. I would not be surprised if Ferrari deliver a car capable of matching the Red Bull only to have the points split between Lewis and Charles while Max takes the Drivers’ Championship from them.

  9. @f1statsfan remember Ferrari F1 is a giant publicity stunt for the luxury brand. It’s not only what Lewis can bring to Maranello from the on and off track performance (in your analysis, you “forgot” 7 WDC titles and I lost count of how many races and poles), it’s much larger than this. And let’s not forget Ferrari is broadening its presence in racing, with Hypercars and soon a boat for America’s Cup (LV, Prada, stuff that resonates with Hamilton) and Lewis could have a role in all of that.
    I also see much more overlap between Leclerc and Sainz than between Leclerc and Hamilton.

  10. Problem for Toto is not just that Mercedes got it wrong, but that two of Mercedes’ customers also showed amazing improvement (Aston Martin and Mclaren) in these 2 years. Something that Mercedes did not show. The ideology of an integrated engine + car development will win over customer teams is not working for Mercedes. That seems to be a large system issue which may not get fixed quickly.

    No wonder, the ‘push’ for leaving Mercedes became stronger.

  11. 2024 is for Max and RBR again most likely, but maybe the next eight or more seasons will be for Mercedes. Why, Max might be part of it too by then.

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