Formula 1

Who would've replaced Hamilton at Mercedes had he joined Red Bull?

by Ben Anderson
5 min read

When Nico Rosberg suddenly retired from Formula 1 after winning the 2016 world championship, Toto Wolff said he received phone calls from almost every other driver on the grid - and that the only reason Kimi Raikkonen and Daniil Kyat didn’t call is because they didn’t have his number.

Had Lewis Hamilton’s new management followed up 2024 enquiries with Christian Horner to a point where Hamilton conceivably left Mercedes to join Red Bull, Wolff would have found himself in a similar predicament - but it’s unlikely other F1 drivers would be clamouring to join Mercedes to the extent they were at the end of 2016.

Back then Mercedes was coming off the most successful season of its record-breaking championship run: 19 victories from 21 races - a tally only just recently eclipsed by Red Bull in Las Vegas.

Without Hamilton and Rosberg wiping each other out on the first lap in Spain, or Hamilton’s engine failing on him suddenly in Malaysia, Mercedes would most likely have taken F1’s first clean sweep.

After Rosberg dropped his bombshell at the FIA’s prize-giving ceremony, Mercedes paid around £10million to extract Valtteri Bottas from his Williams contract.

Even if Bottas wasn’t the ideal first choice to replace Rosberg, there were only 77 days until the start of 2017’s pre-season testing, so Wolff’s realistic options were scant.

Hamilton moving to Red Bull, given Horner said talks took place around the time of May’s Monaco Grand Prix, would perhaps have given Wolff a bit more time to react - depending of course on when an agreement was reached.

But even at this much earlier point in the 2023 season most drivers were already under contract for next season - even Sergio Perez, the man Hamilton would have replaced.

Obviously there was a lot of chatter earlier in the year about Charles Leclerc maybe swapping Ferrari for Mercedes (and Hamilton moving the other way), but Leclerc was already under contract for 2024, as was team-mate Carlos Sainz, so neither would have been easy to poach even if they had wanted to make the move.

And looking at how this season has progressed, it wouldn’t represent more than a sideways move at best for either driver.

McLaren already had Lando Norris locked down until the end of 2025, and rookie Oscar Piastri wouldn’t have become available for another year at least, even before he signed a new deal to keep him at the team until the end of 2026.

Fernando Alonso might have been able to extract himself from Aston Martin, given a driver of his standing would likely have had the upper hand going in to negotiations to replace Sebastian Vettel there.

But given the first half of the season was so strong for F1’s most upwardly mobile team, and Alonso came within one strategic gamble of winning in Monaco, again it’s unlikely he would have seen the move to Mercedes as a sensible one to make.

In 2016, when he was embroiled in the McLaren-Honda nightmare, most definitely. But now, not so clear cut.

Williams already had Alex Albon locked down until the end of 2024. Pierre Gasly and former Mercedes reserve Esteban Ocon were and are both locked into Alpine for at least another season too.

It turns out Haas even had options on both Nico Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen, so again Mercedes would probably have needed to pay compensation to extract either of those two drivers.

So, the pool of readily available drivers looks like one from Bottas, Zhou Guanyu, the AlphaTauri drivers, or Williams rookie Logan Sargeant…

At this point in the season, Red Bull hadn’t yet decided to replace Nyck de Vries with Daniel Ricciardo, so the Australian would potentially have been available, though obviously still contracted to Red Bull as a reserve driver.

So, realistically, Mercedes would have been looking at a choice between taking Perez, trying to sign Ricciardo, reuniting with Bottas, promoting Mick Schumacher from his 2023 reserve role, taking a punt on trying to tempt Schumacher's mentor Sebastian Vettel out of retirement, or paying through the nose to try to extract someone from Aston Martin, Ferrari, McLaren, Alpine or Williams (for Albon).

Perez would be the easiest option, but not very convincing - and a definite downgrade on the Hamilton/Russell pairing. Vettel would make for a great story, but there would be obvious questions too about the level of driver Mercedes would be getting.

If you were Gasly or Ocon you might see becoming George Russell’s new Mercedes team-mate as a step up the grid, especially now the team has changed its development direction, but it’s difficult to see the likes of Alonso, Norris, Leclerc or Sainz being so easily convinced there is more potential in leaving where they are than staying put.

Mercedes would no doubt feel a certain degree of relief at having Russell ready to step up into the team leader role, which in itself might also limit the attraction of Mercedes to those who are clearly the spearheads for their current teams.

Of those, maybe only Albon would see it as an obvious step forward - and there would be a delicious amount of irony in Mercedes having to pay Williams again to sign a replacement for one of its world champions.

If I were Wolff in this scenario, I’d probably get my cheque book out and try to sign either Sainz or Albon. Sainz wouldn’t necessarily be easy to extract from Maranello (though probably a bit easier than Leclerc would be), but could maybe be lured by the prospect of overtaking Russell as team leader.

If not, I’d go for Albon. He’s friendly with Russell anyway and they would make for a very strong line-up in less than ideal circumstances.

But in any case, Wolff would have to put some work in this time - because a lot has changed in the past seven years and I doubt his phone would be ringing constantly like it was in 2016.

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