Lewis Hamilton signing for Ferrari for 2025 without even having driven the Mercedes W15 in the real world or seen how the Formula 1 season starts in terms of performance is a devastating vote of no confidence in his current team.
Losing Hamilton to what would be a well-earned retirement is one thing, but to do so to a major rival that’s in broadly the same position as you in competitive terms is another. The inescapable conclusion is that what Hamilton has seen and experienced at Mercedes since committing to his current contract - perhaps both in terms of the continued erratic form in the closing stages of the season and preparations for 2024 - has given rise to some serious doubts. Perhaps something even more concrete than doubts.
Yes, Ferrari has an allure and it’s not surprising in itself that Hamilton is drawn to one last move and experiencing life at Maranello. However, that appeal was there when he and Mercedes agreed a new deal, announced last August, that was supposed to keep him at the team until the end of 2025.
We can’t rule out Hamilton having had a change of heart about this, but it seems more likely that he simply doesn’t believe Mercedes can give him the car he needs. If so, the worst that happens by moving to Ferrari is that he moves from one underachieving team to another - but with the bonus of living the Ferrari dream.
So what has changed? Hamilton is undoubtedly as motivated to win as ever. As technical director James Allison said earlier this month, that’s a core part of his psyche.
“You’d struggle to find a driver anywhere in the grid that wasn't motivated, that comes with the territory with them and generally speaking, the more successful drivers have been the more inescapable that compulsive need to win is,” said Allison, when asked whether Hamilton is as motivated as ever.
“In Lewis's case, it's just a core part of who he is so there's no doubt about his motivation to get back to winning ways. But whether or not he can do that will be much more in the hands of the equipment we've given him than in his own hands. He's always had that ability.”
Therefore, it would be ridiculous to assume that Hamilton simply doesn’t care how competitive his car is and is willing to fling himself at Ferrari for the sake of it. After all, it was only a few months since he was talking about Mercedes finding a "north star" to follow in terms of car direction after two years being lost.
At the very least, Hamilton must believe Ferrari offers an equal chance to Mercedes of winning races regularly in 2025, most likely that it has a better chance. And if there were doubts about the progress technically, we can't rule out the possibility of some fundamental disagreements behind the scenes that have led to this.
This is what is so painful for Mercedes. Losing a seven-time world champion who has rewritten the record books and is still operating at a high level is a huge blow, but unless Hamilton has made a spectacular misjudgement it is a dire indictment of the Mercedes trajectory.
Hamilton is well-placed to make a judgement on the likely competitiveness of Mercedes heading towards 2025 given he’s been involved in the project, driven the 2024 car in the simulator and will have a good idea of its progress. And regardless of what teams say, they always have some idea of how well things are shaping up before the season starts, even if relative performance is an unknown.
Consider the wider implications of this. It’s a blow to the countless people, in excess of a thousand, who work tirelessly to produce a winning package - doubly so given the shock value of what appears to have been, by driver move standards, a relatively sudden deal.
And how about the commercial implications? Hamilton is one of the central appeals of Mercedes and there will be multiple partners who build their involvement with the team around the seven-time world champion. It’s possible some even have deals contingent on him being there.
To add to that, Mercedes had no opportunity to control the messaging or manage the impact given this story has leaked out. That just adds to the negative effect on that’s endured what are - by its lofty standards - two disappointing years, even though there’s no amount of spin that could make this a positive.
There’s always the possibility that Mercedes might be on the right trajectory and could end up looking much better down the line if it’s more competitive than Ferrari and nipping at the heels of Red Bull.
But the value of the told-you-so’s and schadenfreude if Hamilton has made a mistake won’t offset the damage done in the short-term.