For eight glorious years, the Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes partnership was Formula One’s most dominant and most successful. It resulted in a staggering 82 wins together and six world drivers’ championships. Hamilton’s impending move to rivals Ferrari for next season is a damning indictment of how far Mercedes have fallen since those glory days and, worse, his assessment of the team’s chances of returning to the top.
As far as F1 driver signings go this is the biggest shock since Hamilton himself moved from a race-winning McLaren to a then-midfield Mercedes for 2013. Yet the underlying performance of Mercedes in the new ground-effect era give him reasons for the move.
Before 2022 Hamilton had won a race in every season he raced – 15 in a row – and now he has had two winless years in a row. The question when Hamilton was rumoured to be in talks with Ferrari in 2019 would have been “why on earth would he go?”. Now it would be “why on earth not?”. With the F1 landscape as it is, there is little for him to lose.
Back then it would have made little sense sportingly, even if the draw of the famous red cars and that storied team is obvious for every racing driver. Mercedes were all-conquering and Ferrari were operationally deficient. Now, Ferrari have roughly as much chance of catching Red Bull as Mercedes do and it gives Hamilton a chance to link up with team principal Frederic Vasseur, under whom Hamilton won his 2006 GP2 championship.
For years it has felt like a move away from Mercedes would be unthinkable, even in their less successful state. The news of a Maranello move comes not long after Telegraph Sport disclosed that team principal Toto Wolff signed a new contract at the team. What changed to tempt him for 2025?
Throughout his time at Mercedes, Hamilton has been effusive in praise for his team or his “family”, even during the tough times of 2022. As recently as at the end of last season, he reiterated his “full faith” in the team for 2024. But during 2023 his public comments stopped being infinitely and unflinchingly positive. After the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, where Hamilton finished fifth, 50 seconds off winner Max Verstappen, he was as open and critical as he had ever been.
“Last year, there were things I told them. I said the issues that are with the car,” he said. “I’ve driven so many cars in my life so I know what a car needs. I know what a car doesn’t need. I think it’s really about accountability.
“It’s about owning up and saying, ‘Yes, you know what? We didn’t listen to you. It’s not where it needs to be and we’ve got to work’.”
There comes a point when the current Mercedes team cease to resemble the record-breaking Mercedes team who operated from 2014-2021 in any meaningful way. There has not just been a lack of speed but many missteps in their attempt to return to the front.
There has been churn in the Mercedes engineering department as the team have failed to get to grips with the new ground-effect regulations, abandoning their aerodynamic concept after two seasons. Mike Elliott, who also worked with Hamilton at McLaren, left the team as chief technical officer with James Allison returning to replace him as technical director earlier that year.
There have been various points in history where an F1 team’s dominance has begun to look eternal. Yet they all end at some point and often abruptly. Williams were the pre-eminent team of the late-1980s and 1990s, winning seven constructors’ titles between 1986 and 1997. They have now won just one race in nearly two decades. Seventh place in 2023 now constitutes a good season for them. McLaren finished top of the pile in 1984, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1990 and 1991 yet their last title of any kind was 15 years ago. Their resurgence last year was welcome but they have triumphed once since the end of 2012.
It is possible that Mercedes are entering a similar period in the doldrums. The former eternal glory could start to look like a point of no return. They can escape, of course, but perhaps for their star driver the push of the romance of driving for Ferrari has become irresistibly stronger than the pull of his Mercedes “family”.
The Scuderia, though, are far from certain to be stronger than Mercedes in 2025, let alone Red Bull. That Hamilton has surveyed his options and moves from one car that is trailing in Verstappen’s wake to another is a mark against Mercedes, too.
When asked whether Hamilton still had it in him to win another world title as he enters his 40th year, Wolff said yes, “in capital letters”. With Red Bull so far ahead it is still an enormous task, but how galling it would be for him to watch Hamilton win in Ferrari red.