Listening to Toto Wolff talk about Lewis Hamilton’s departure from the team at the end of the 2024 Formula 1 season has given us a bit more background, allowing us to delve a little deeper into Hamilton’s decision.
It’s now clear that Ferrari was able to offer Hamilton a longer-term commitment than Mercedes, which agreed a two-year deal with the second year as an option (a 1 + 1).
"We're big boys,” said Wolff. “We knew that signing a short-term contract could be of benefit for both sides. We couldn’t commit for a longer period. We knew it could be a year, it could be two.
"We shared the opinion, when we decided to sign a short-term contract, that there may be opportunities for him and for us - and therefore maybe also one of the considerations was the opportunity to sign a longer-term contract with Ferrari, give it a really big go at the end of his career.”
Couple this with Wolff’s response about who might replace Hamilton: “I am really looking forward to taking the right decisions for the team, together with my colleagues, in who is going to be in the seat next year. And... you know, maybe it's a chance to do something bold.”
That something bold would not be any of the existing F1 drivers set to be out of contract – Carlos Sainz, Fernando Alonso and Alex Albon being the obvious ‘safe’ candidates – but it might very well be Mercedes’ junior driver Andrea Kimi Antonelli, 17 years old and yet to make his Formula 2 debut.
Let’s just suppose that when Wolff and Hamilton were discussing their contract that Wolff had revealed that the long-term plan was to place Antonelli at Williams for a year or two and then if all went well to bring him into the main team?
As a way of future-proofing. Hamilton’s 1+1 would dovetail in with this nicely. We don’t know if Wolff did discuss this scenario, of course. But he and Hamilton are close, have achieved so much together, that it would be quite in character for such an open discussion to have taken place between them.
Let’s then imagine what Hamilton’s thought processes may have been if he had indeed received that information from his boss and friend. It would have been totally logical if he had pondered: ‘I may as well leave after year one, as that’s my final chance of the Ferrari gig – and there may not be anything for me here in ’26.’
So in nudging Hamilton towards retirement, might Wolff have instead nudged him early into leaving for one of Mercedes' key rivals?
That would have been a perfectly logical platform for Hamilton to open or deepen discussions with Ferrari. But that’s not to underestimate the great emotional appeal of driving for the sport’s most revered team – something he’s talked of in the past – nor that of the excitement of changing the scenery and throwing himself into a massive new challenge.
When we interviewed him in Abu Dhabi at the end of last season, I asked if the prospect of bouncing back into winning with Mercedes was as exciting a prospect as joining Mercedes from McLaren had been.
His answer was illuminating, especially in hindsight. “When I moved, there was an excitement. We expected it to be difficult to start off with because they hadn’t had a lot of success so there was just raw excitement, a new person on the team, getting into the nitty-gritty with everyone and building relationships. That was a different kind of excitement. This time we have known each other for years.”
He also lamented that: “It’s a lot of pressure, being scrutinised all the time, and I’m in a place in my life where there’s no way I can win. If I win a race it’s, ‘Oh he’s a seven-time world champion, with 103 wins’. If I don’t do well it’s [a big deal]. I can only lose at this point in life.”
Unless of course, he changes the picture dramatically and opts to take on a massive new challenge. His emotions might then be looking for a way to make logical sense out of what his heart was telling him to do. And Toto’s reasoning about the future Mercedes plans may have provided exactly that.
Hamilton being Hamilton, sometime in the future he will probably let us know whether it happened like that. Then we can tell you. Until then, this theory is the best fit with what both have said.