Lewis Hamilton’s miserable start to the season gives one clear verdict on Ferrari move

If Toto Wolff thought Saturday in Australia was below-par – with George Russell and Lewis Hamilton languishing seventh and 11th on the grid respectively after qualifying – wait until you hear the Mercedes boss’s verdict by Sunday night. A first double retirement in five years made Wolff want to “punch himself on the nose”. The outlook at Mercedes, the former titan of Formula One, is decidedly gloomy down under.

But to the front for the time being. Carlos Sainz’s victory at the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday was down to two factors: first, Max Verstappen’s surprise mechanical fault, on a weekend where Red Bull design guru Adrian Newey was not on-site at Albert Park. A right rear brake fault resulted in the three-time world champion’s dramatic departure from proceedings four laps into the 58-lap race. Out of nowhere, we all had a grand prix on our hands.

Factor number two: Ferrari. Fred Vasseur and his team of engineers have unlocked something different this year. A car with potential, definitely capable of competing with Red Bull over one lap, if not quite yet over a full race distance. With Sainz leading home a one-two finish – the Scuderia’s first since Bahrain in 2022 at the start of the current set of regulations – Ferrari are now just four points off Red Bull in the constructors’ standings. Leclerc trails Verstappen by the same margin.

The only surprise was the driver on top of the podium. Sainz continues to startle in the face of continued adversity. Axed from his seat before the season begins? Not ideal, but he’ll get on with it. Absent from race two after undergoing surgery to remove his appendix? Not ideal, but he’ll get on with it.

Just 16 days on from that abdominal operation in Jeddah, the Spaniard ruffled feathers and the medics with a supreme victory in Melbourne where, strikingly, he was genuinely quicker than Ferrari’s de facto No 1, Leclerc.

Sainz left no stone unturned in his ambitions to race this weekend. As part of his rehabilitation, he used a hyperbaric chamber and an electromagnetic machine. His dedication to his craft is indisputable. And it leaves a rather strange situation, given his current 2025 status: seatless.

“I’m still jobless for next year, so I guess this is good for me!” he joked to Martin Brundle after the race. Indeed, Christian Horner admitted he could “not rule out” the possibility of Sainz returning to Red Bull – where it all started with sister team Toro Rosso in 2015 – to replace Sergio Perez next year. Aston Martin may be a potential suitor, too, depending on Fernando Alonso’s future.

But back to Mercedes. A Mercedes team who should be eyeing Sainz themselves, in what would amount to a straight swap for Hamilton. An assured and professional presence, Sainz in partnership with George Russell would be a credible duo with bags of talent. More frighteningly for Wolff, however, is that the project he will be able to offer to Sainz does not look particularly marketable at this stage.

Lewis Hamilton replaces Carlos Sainz at Ferrari next year (Getty Images)
Lewis Hamilton replaces Carlos Sainz at Ferrari next year (Getty Images)
Sainz was a deserving winner in Australia on Sunday (AP)
Sainz was a deserving winner in Australia on Sunday (AP)

It makes Hamilton, who has gambled the end of his career for a tilt with Ferrari, look somewhat vindicated in his decision just three races into the new season. The 39-year-old – winless for over two years – has endured his worst ever start to a Formula One season after his retirement on Sunday.

A power unit failure is difficult to predict and can amount to simply being “one of those things”. Nonetheless, you’d be forgiven for thinking Hamilton may well be watching the improvements at Ferrari with a wry smile, behind the curtains in the Mercedes motorhome.

“This is the worst start to a season,” he said. “It’s worse than 2009 I think,” in reference to Brawn’s dominant sole season and McLaren’s rapid downfall. With 21 races to go, Mercedes are arguably the fifth-quickest team at this moment in time. For Hamilton, a move to Maranello in 2025 may well feel some way away.

But moving to Ferrari is what he is doing; signed and sealed, on a long-term contract. Maybe he knows something we don’t – maybe he even pictured this rapid development coming, persuaded by chairman John Elkann to back Vasseur and his leadership. Right now, it looks as wise a decision as when he jumped ship from McLaren to Mercedes in 2013.

Because behind Red Bull, Ferrari are a clear second-best on the grid; the only shame for Sainz is the countdown clock in the background throughout the year ahead.