Lewis Hamilton, Ferrari. Picture it for a moment: Hamilton, a man who transcends Formula One and whose hunger for success is unabated, glistening in the sun of the famous scarlet red. The pure romanticism and prestige of such a partnership – between F1’s most famous driver and the sport’s most iconic team – has been mooted for years. Until now, flirtations between driver and team seemed insincere. Just fantasy. Surely, given Hamilton’s repeated commitment to Mercedes and a new two-year contract, a last dance with the prancing horse would not materialise? Surely… not?
But now we know: both parties simply could not resist.
On football’s transfer deadline day, Formula One ruffled the most shocking of feathers with the news that Hamilton – Mercedes’ star man for 11 years, world champion in six of those – will join the legendary Scuderia next year on a multi-year contract. A source told The Independent that Hamilton informed Mercedes boss Toto Wolff on Wednesday night of his decision to move, simply insisting he wishes to try something new. The 39-year-old has a one-year break clause in his new deal, which he has chosen to exercise in search of this “new challenge.” And, out of nothing, the 2024 season which looked so stale (no new drivers, no new races), and with a runaway favourite in Red Bull, has been sparked into life. A firework F1 badly needed.
It is the most gigantic of shocks. The biggest driver move since Hamilton himself ditched McLaren for Mercedes in 2013. Perhaps it even upstages Michael Schumacher’s move to Ferrari from Benetton in 1995. Now, of course, Hamilton enters the house that Schumacher built and owned so supremely at the turn of the century. And it is the record he shares with the German – seven world championships – which has triggered a hell of a gamble at the twilight of his career.
It marks the end of the most fruitful partnership in F1’s 74-year history. But, if two winless years have taught him anything, it is that Hamilton has nothing to lose. Since being denied that eighth crown so cruelly and unjustly in the 2021 Abu Dhabi finale, Hamilton’s trusted personnel at Mercedes have got it wrong. New regulations in 2022 saw the Silver Arrows take a bold path: a path which did not work out, with their unorthodox “no-sidepod” design causing Hamilton pain both literally and figuratively.
In a matter of months, Mercedes had fallen from the top of the pile to third on the grid – at best. For a man so accustomed to winning, victory seemed to be drifting further and further away.
And for all of Hamilton’s saving of face and continued loyalty to the team and the process in public, signs of fractiousness were clear. There was a furious outburst over the team radio in Zandvoort in 2022, when a strategy call cost him the chance of victory. Delays in a new contract – we now know that his father, Anthony Hamilton, was making enquiries up and down the paddock, including at Red Bull – sparked gossip columns.
Speculation of a move to Ferrari was first reincarnated last May and came with intimate details of £50m-a-year offers and meetings with Scuderia president John Elkann. All of it, however, was quashed by both Hamilton and Mercedes.
But as Mercedes endured their first winless season since 2011 – and his own winless streak extended to two years – Hamilton’s patience reached breaking point. The F1 off-season always brings a time for reflection. We now know Hamilton, attached to Mercedes for over two decades, has opted for a roll of the dice. Elkann, working doggedly behind the scenes, has finally got his man.
It’s a risk that triggers plenty of questions. With Charles Leclerc having signed a new long-term deal at the Scuderia last week, who will be the No 1 driver? How will the dynamic shift this year at Mercedes, in an oddly lengthy farewell alongside George Russell? And, most vitally, with Red Bull’s advantage so distinct, does Ferrari give Hamilton a better chance of landing his eighth title?
But despite it all, the bigger risk was staying in no man’s land with Mercedes. If you don’t buy a ticket, you don’t win the raffle.
Hamilton will be 40 when he takes to the Ferrari cockpit next year, entering the twilight of his career. In Ferrari team principal Fred Vasseur he will be reunited with someone he knows and trusts. The Frenchman worked with Hamilton when he first made a name for himself in junior formula in the mid-2000s. Vasseur is a fair but firm man, driven solely by results. Clearly, he has made some pitch to Hamilton.
But more so than the win prospects and the money – which, it is suggested, could top £50m a year – Hamilton has been swayed by the aura of Ferrari. Some may call it baggage, but the legions of Ferrari followers – the tifosi – bring added responsibility. Nobody in the sport desires such pressure more than Hamilton.
And perhaps he wants to voyage where his great hero Ayrton Senna did not. The Brazilian was lined up for a Ferrari spot in 1995 before his death at Imola in May 1994. Hamilton has often spoken of being motivated to emulate the three-time world champion, both on and off the racetrack. Next year, he will take his own legacy one avenue further – in doing so becoming the first Brit since Eddie Irvine in 1999 to don the Ferrari red.
Yet now we must wait. Now, the countdown begins on Hamilton’s Mercedes career, ahead of a record-breaking 24-race season. Hamilton, the ultra-professional, will be eager for a fond farewell. Wolff and his team of mechanics, no matter how disappointed they are at this news, will want the same as Mercedes looks for a replacement for Hamilton.
A straight swap for Carlos Sainz, a move for Alex Albon and Lando Norris, or a rapid promotion for junior Andrea Kimi Antonelli are all possibilities. As for Wolff himself, the hard truth is that the Austrian should look no further than the mirror when he ponders where it went wrong in the last few years of Hamilton’s time at Mercedes. It certainly makes the relationship this year, alongside Russell, intriguing with less than a month until the 2024 season gets underway in Bahrain.
But even though it’s a year away, attention will quickly swing to Hamilton and Ferrari. Because F1 now has its dream duo: a fact best illustrated by the 7 per cent jump in Ferrari’s share price on Thursday, equating to a £4bn increase.
Ferrari have not won the drivers’ title since 2007; success for the Brit is far from guaranteed. Yet if – and it’s a big if – Hamilton can challenge Max Verstappen and even overhaul the Dutchman while at the helm of the Scuderia, it would be the fairytale finale to his magnificent career.
It makes it a gamble worth taking.