In a shock to the motorsport world, record-tying seven-time World Drivers’ Champion Lewis Hamilton has decided to opt out of his final contract year with Mercedes AMG PETRONAS F1 and start the 2025 Formula One season with Scuderia Ferrari, the most successful and iconic Formula One team of all time.
After he signed his contract extension with Mercedes AMG PETRONAS F1 Team in August 2023, Lewis Hamilton wondered if his recent seasons of misfortune with Mercedes were because of him, or because of the car. Maybe he’s finally found the answer.
After racing one of the best Formula One cars of all time in the Mercedes W11—82 race wins, six drivers’ titles—what was the final straw? Was it years of cars underperforming, driver decline, or perhaps the team itself?
How Did This Happen?
The storm clouds rolled in for Hamilton and Mercedes long before his summer contract extension. The 2022 and 2023 seasons were anything but a respite from the infamous heartbreaking end for Hamilton at the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
2022 was the first year in Hamilton’s Formula One career that left him with no wins and no pole position starts. When speaking to Sky Sports at the end of the 2022 season, Hamilton called it one of his “top three worst seasons.” Hamilton went from scoring a total of 387.5 points and finishing in second place in the drivers’ standings in 2021 to scoring only 240 points and finishing in sixth place amongst his fellow drivers.
One of 2022′s biggest issues with the Mercedes W13 car was porpoising, which is a phenomenon that causes the car to bounce up and down while racing. This caused Hamilton to suffer significant back pain after the 2022 Azerbaijan Grand Prix specifically. Hamilton himself said he was looking forward to never having to drive the W13 car again at the end of the 2022 season and Wolff agreed that the car was lackluster according to Mercedes’ standards.
2023 brought the W14 car. Mercedes had curbed the porpoising and after upgrades, the team earned back-to-back podium finishes in Spain and Canada. But all good things must come to an end.
For the entirety of the 2023 season, Red Bull Racing and Max Verstappen dominated not just Mercedes, but the entire grid for a second year in a row, as Verstappen won his third consecutive Drivers’ Championship. Despite it all, Hamilton managed to climb higher in the driver’s ranking and finish third, but kept his total point haul to 234 for the season.
During the season, Wolff told Formula Uno that Hamilton wasn’t on board with the direction the Mercedes team wanted to take in developing the car. Wolff and the team decided to go with what data was showing them, rather than what their World Champion driver advised. Such a choice was clearly catastrophic for Mercedes. It was a choice that caused Hamilton to be “emotionally drained.”
Even so, at the end of 2023, Hamilton said there were “fundamental changes” to the car that he had been suggesting for “over a year.” He expressed an expectation that they would be implemented in the future without naming any specific timeline.
But before the 2022 season could even start, things at Mercedes were already changing. Mercedes announced that they were signing British driver George Russell to the team. He would take over Valtteri Bottas’ seat at Mercedes. As expected, Hamilton was nothing but welcoming to the younger driver. Hamilton also took time to post a moving tribute to Bottas and their time as teammates together on X, calling Bottas “the best teammate” he’s “had the pleasure of working with.”
With a young, talented driver in Russell and the greatest driver of all time in Hamilton, Mercedes had an ideal driver pairing going into the 2022 season. It was shaping up to be not just Hamilton’s redemption season, but Mercedes’ as well.
Russell did not disappoint in his debut Mercedes season, with 275 total points, a fourth-place finish in the drivers’ standings and his first Grand Prix win in São Paulo. On paper and across major stats, he’d beaten Lewis for the season.
Despite the stats, Hamilton praised his teammate at the end of the season, saying Russell’s transition to Mercedes had been “impressive” and that the other driver was a “positive force” for the Mercedes team. Team Principal Toto Wolff said that Hamilton and Russell “are both alpha drivers and this is good.” Wolff said he didn’t want a “puppy” on the team.
In 2023, the driver pairing put that dynamic on clear display.
Head-to-head, Hamilton was victorious over Russell, finishing third in the drivers’ standings with 234 points. Russell finished eighth with 175 points.
While Mercedes didn’t get the finish they hoped for during the Singapore GP, it was Hamilton who held the team down to secure much-needed points. If Russell had even managed to finish the race, he would have given Mercedes valuable points to help narrow the race between Mercedes and Ferrari in the Constructors’ Championship that year.
At the podium celebration after the race, when Hamilton collected his trophy no Mercedes team members were seen at the celebration with Lewis. The other two podium finishers, Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz, were greeted with cheers from several team members at the celebration.
When speaking to Autosport.com, Mercedes Technical Director James Allison said, “Of course the team was there… as many of the team as it was practical to get to the podium were there.”
No additional comments from Mercedes were given for the Singapore podium celebration. Fan speculation swirls online still about what, if any, dynamics within the team changed on that day.
It’s certainly plausible that the broadcast team decided not to feature the Mercedes team members who were at the podium celebration. However, when images of Lewis being celebrated by rival Ferrari Mechanics and Hamilton himself posting a forlorn picture on X after the race, it would have been a perfect opportunity for Mercedes to stop the negative press by simply posting an appreciation for their driver, specifically confirming their support for him during the celebration.
Mercedes did not do that. They posted standard congratulatory posts centering Russell in the conversation.
Perhaps the most tense moment between the teammates came at the Qatar Grand Prix. Russell finished fourth but Hamilton had to retire his car in the first lap after a collision with Russell. Hamilton ended up taking “full responsibility” for the collision. After the race, the Mercedes Instagram account posted a video of Hamilton apologizing to Russell for the collision. To some, the video was an uplifting moment between the two drivers and reassurance that the team was harmonious in its goal to finish out the season as best they could. To others, the video was anything but.
At the start of the Grand Prix, Hamilton and Russell were on different racing strategies. Hamilton started the race on soft tires, the fastest type available, while Russell started his race on medium tires. At the time fan speculation arose that the strategy was–or should have been–Hamilton passing Russell at the start because of his faster and quicker-to-wear tires. In the Mercedes race debrief video posted to YouTube, trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin said that the team was aware of the chance that Hamilton would overtake Russell at the start, but there was never any plan for one driver to stay behind or go ahead of the other.
“It was important that they didn’t lose time racing each other,” Shovlin said. “and that was clear, but we weren’t imposing team orders on the race.”
Dynamics between two drivers on a team are almost always up to speculation, unless you’re Hamilton in 2014, declaring that Nico Rosberg and he “are not friends.” What can’t be misinterpreted was Hamilton’s deep dissatisfaction with the gap between his goals for the team and the on-track performances.
Not all of Hamilton’s personal relationships have been torn apart. Most consequentially, his relationship with Ferrari team principal Frédéric Vasseur has stood the test of time.
Before Hamilton had signed his contract extension with Mercedes, Vasseur’s name constantly came up in rumor mills as trying to lure Hamilton from Mercedes. The two have a friendship that goes all the way back to 2006, when Hamilton’s future career was anything but predetermined.
Vasseur founded ART Grand Prix team in 1996. ART Grand Prix races in the Formula Two racing division, which is typically the final racing category a driver competes in before graduating to Formula One. Hamilton raced for ART Grand Prix in 2006 while Vasseur was leading the team. Vasseur was still with the team when Hamilton made the famous call for the wing angle of his car to be trimmed in order to increase straight-line speed before the Istanbul 2006 sprint race. His mechanics weren’t fond of the idea, but they obliged the then-21-year-old’s wishes anyway.
Hamilton would spin early on in the race, but eventually come back to finish second. He went from P17 to P2. It was a display of Hamilton’s racing prowess very early on in his career.
Maybe Hamilton never forgot that trust, and maybe he was reminded of it when Mercedes wouldn’t listen to his requests.
In 2007, Hamilton raced for McLaren in Formula One. Vasseur would work as team principal for Renault and Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team, and frequently see Hamilton throughout the years.
More than likely, though, Vasseur was just the cherry atop the red Ferrari cake. In May 2023, three months before he signed his contract extension with Mercedes, Hamilton said he saw himself “being with Mercedes till my last days.” However, dating back to 2017, Hamilton has referred to racing for Ferrari as a distant dream. In his first post about his move to Ferrari, Hamilton called racing in Ferrari red as a childhood dream. He thanked Mercedes and Toto specifically for all of their support.
When Wolff spoke to the media about Hamilton’s departure, one day after the driver’s announcement, he revealed that Hamilton had informed the team principal of his departure only days earlier over a cup of coffee.
The Last Dance
Was it the car, the driver or the team that pushed Hamilton to leave Mercedes?
It was undoubtedly the driver. Don’t be fooled — it’s not due to declining talent, skill or work ethic. Hamilton has been at the steering wheel his entire life, and there was no way he would leave his last chances at an eighth championship in the hands of a team that spent half of the year defeating itself and then sitting on its hands instead of playing catch up to Red Bull.
The adversity Mercedes has faced in the past three years pushed Hamilton and the team in a way they hadn’t been pushed before. Of course, in Hamilton’s previous 11 years with Mercedes, everything was not smooth sailing. But different teammate dynamics and Hamilton’s record-breaking career could have added strain in places there never was before.
Maybe Hamilton was unsatisfied with the team’s reaction. Maybe he felt a lack of urgency from his team to get back to the top. Or maybe – as he explained to Toto Wolff over a simple coffee – moving to Ferrari was the last chance he had to truly challenge himself during his career.
Ferrari isn’t paradise on the grid — it’s not like Hamilton is getting a seat upgrade. Ferrari’s last two years have been swamped by Red Bull dominance, and they’ve also hurt themselves with poor racing strategy and car development decisions, arguably to a further extent than even Mercedes.
If somehow Mercedes gets it right, they could give Hamilton the fairytale ending he’s been chasing for two years: a record-breaking eighth drivers’ championship. I don’t think they will, but it’s nice to dream. A race win or two would be nice for his 2024 season, but it would also be a staunch reminder of how far the team has fallen, reflecting the very reason Hamilton is leaving them behind.
First appeared on www.uscannenbergmedia.com