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Formula 1

Everything pointing Mercedes to a clear Hamilton F1 replacement

by Edd Straw
7 min read

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff is well aware that the obvious contenders to take the seat Lewis Hamilton vacates for 2025 could sign up for Formula 1 rivals before he takes a final decision. The willingness to miss out on candidates with strong track records in Carlos Sainz and Fernando Alonso by waiting is proof that the favourite for the seat is rookie Kimi Antonelli.

That might seem an extraordinary conclusion to draw given Mercedes is, for all its recent struggles, one of F1’s top teams and would never normally look twice at a rookie. But Antonelli, who turns 18 in August and is currently racing in Formula 2, is not an ordinary kind of talent and has been regarded as something special since he was signed up by Mercedes in 2019.

Wolff was asked about the driver situation at Suzuka, specifically whether four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel might be a candidate for the drive. His response started by offering the respect due to a driver with Vettel’s track record, but someone that Mercedes is understood to have no interest in, before moving onto revealing the fact that he’s not worried about other contenders potentially taking deals elsewhere.

“Sebastian is someone that you can never discount,” said Wolff. “His track record is phenomenal and sometimes maybe taking a break is also good to re-evaluate what's important for you and to re-find your motivation.

“We haven't taken the decision yet and it's not something that we plan to do in the next few weeks. The driver market is very dynamic, some of the really good guys are about to sign for some of the other teams.

“We want to continue to have these discussions and keep the options open, but it's much too early for us to commit to driver, whether very young or whether very experienced, I don't want to say old. The next few months will give us more clues on that.”

Wolff’s timeline there is a little mixed, referring both to the “next few weeks” and “few months”, indicating a decision is not imminent.

That fits in with Antonelli being the favoured choice given he hasn’t yet had the chance to prove he really is ready. That call will be made based not only on his F2 progress after a difficult start to the season for his Prema team, but also through his performances in upcoming F1 test outings in old machinery.

It’s likely the test programme performances will carry the most weight, meaning Wolff needs time before he can be completely confident of pitching Antonelli into F1 with Mercedes rather than seeking a placement with a rival or another F2 campaign. And he’s willing to miss out on contingency options such as Sainz and Alonso to facilitate that even if he will doubtless have told both to hang fire given the Mercedes decision is still some way off.

The only other driver who could cost Antonelli his place at the front of the queue is Max Verstappen. He is contracted to the end of 2028 at Red Bull, but Mercedes hasn’t completely given up hope of capitalising on ructions at Red Bull to bring him in. As Wolff recently put it, “there is no team who wouldn’t do handstands to have him in the car”. The timeline for proving Antonelli is ready fits in well with this slender possibility.

And with Verstappen unlikely to become available, should Antonelli be deemed not ready then Mercedes will simply have to take its pick of the best available remaining drivers. That means if Sainz and Alonso are off the market by then, Wolff will have to resort to an alternative stop-gap option, potentially a driver like Esteban Ocon. The willingness to risk going into 2025 with drivers who are currently well down the shortlist to give Antonelli every chance to confirm he is ready speaks volumes.


Antonelli kicks off his Formula 1 test programme at the Red Bull Ring in mid-April with two days of running in the 2021 Mercedes W12. Although the regulations allow teams to run 2022 cars, which means the first-generation machines from the current ground-effect regulations can be used, Mercedes opted to start Antonelli off in the 2021 car so he gets a taste of what Wolff called a “really good car” to start his F1 development.

“The programme of Kimi driving Formula 1 has been in place for a long time and hasn't changed massively over the last few weeks,” said Wolff. “What we have done is added more days, but what you will see in the next few months has been in place whether or not he's going to sit in a Formula 1 car next year.

“We’re going do a few of these days for him to get comfortable in an F1 car. He's driving the 2021 car in Austria for the first time. We want to give him a feeling what a really good car feels like before we put him in the '22.

"Obviously, he's been our young boy since a long time with James [Vowles, former head of the Mercedes young driver programme] and we were keen to see what he's able to do in a Formula 1 car.”

That extra dates have been added to his programme later in the year is revealing. As Wolff says, the programme in the short-term was set up long before Mercedes knew Hamilton had signed for Ferrari for 2025 and the gap between the third round of the F2 season in Australia in March and the resumption of the season at Imola in mid-May is a logical time to have started Antonelli’s programme.

But it appears this schedule is being expanded on later in the year after what was always likely to be the initially running in this period.


The case for fielding Antonelli in 2025 has, if anything, been enhanced by the struggles Mercedes has endured at the start of 2024. While it’s not impossible enough progress can be made to fight for the championship next year, right now that is unlikely.

Were Mercedes to have reason to expect a title-contending car for 2025, the case for fielding an experienced hand both to bolster its chances in both the drivers’ and constructors’ championship would be stronger and both Alonso and Sainz would be strong candidates. But if it doesn't, there’s a compelling case for blooding Antonelli at Mercedes rather than placing him at a lesser team for his apprenticeship.

While this would make Antonelli’s learning curve even steeper, it would likely accelerate his progress and mean he banks significant experience ahead of the new regulations in 2026.

Effectively, it makes 2025 something of a ‘free hit’ for Mercedes, meaning it can afford to risk sacrificing some points by having a rookie in the car in the short-term for the longer-term gain.


Antonelli’s cause has been inadvertently bolstered by his F2 team-mate, Ollie Bearman, whose stellar seventh place after being thrown in at the deep end in Saudi Arabia gave Wolff further confidence that Antonelli will be “just fine” in F1 machinery.

Bearman’s performance caught the eye of a number of team bosses, reminding them of the potential of rookie drivers. Inevitably, teams are drawn to the idea of an exciting, hard-charging rookie when reminded of their possible capabilities, but equally appealing is the fact that usually they are cheaper than established options.

But in Wolff’s case, it’s the hope that Antonelli could be ‘the next Verstappen’ in terms of being a superstar teenager who can shake up F1 that is the most significant factor and Bearman's performances only serve to increase confidence in the idea.

“Ollie Bearman was refreshing to look at, how competitive he was in Saudi Arabia,” said Wolff. “No free practice, high-speed, complicated track and he was right up there. So Kimi will be doing just fine.”

Mercedes sees Antonelli not merely as a good young driver, in the mould of one of its current reserves, Frederik Vesti, but a potential superstar. That’s why Wolff, from the moment he learned of Hamilton’s departure, immediately had an eye on him.

Unless the unexpected happens and Mercedes somehow can recruit Verstappen, it appears that Antonelli is in the unprecedented position of being an 18-year-old who has one of the most desirable seats in F1 for 2025 as his to lose.

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