Shock. Disbelief. Confusion. These were the reactions of the Formula 1 world when it was announced that Lewis Hamilton would be leaving Mercedes at the end of the 2024 season to join Ferrari in 2025.
Hamilton and Mercedes have become synonymous in Formula 1. It was a marriage that seemed unthinkable could come to an end. But in 24 races time the most dominant driver-team pairing in Formula 1 history, will be just that, history.
The Hamilton-Mercedes era would have spanned 12 seasons and 246 races when it ends after 2024
The seven-time champion will be swapping his Silver Arrow for Scarlet Red. He will be swapping Brackley and Brixworth for Maranello. The most successful driver in the history of the sport will drive for its most successful team.
And attempt to put himself clear of Michael Schumacher with eight Drivers’ World Championships, in the team that the great German rebuilt himself.
Michael Schumacher won five of his seven World Championships with Ferrari
End of the Hamilton-Mercedes era
When Hamilton made his shock move to Mercedes from McLaren back in 2013, many saw it as a massive risk.
Why would a World Champion move from McLaren, the second-most successful team in Formula 1 history, to Mercedes? A team that had only returned to the grid as a Constructor in 2010 after a 55-year hiatus from the sport, and finished fifth in the Constructors’ Championship in 2012?
McLaren signed Hamilton in 1998 when he was just 13 years old
It was a question that had no legitimate answer at the time. But looking back 11 years later, it proved to be an absolute masterstroke. In 222 races for Mercedes, Hamilton has 82 wins, 148 podiums, 78 pole positions, 3726.5 points, seven Constructors’ Championships, and six Drivers’ Championships.
This dominance came in the ‘Hybrid Era’ of Formula 1 from 2014 to 2021, where the Hamilton-Mercedes duo snapped up every single significant accolade available, outside of the 2021 Drivers’ Championship.
Hamilton also lost out on the 2016 Drivers’ Championship to teammate Nico Rosberg by five points
The controversies of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which remains the most Hollywood-scripted ending to a season in Formula 1 history, prevented Hamilton from winning a record eighth Drivers’ Championship, which would have put him clear of Schumacher.
The safety car that changed the course of Formula 1 history
The Hamilton-Mercedes dominance came to an end once Formula 1 entered a new generation in 2022, which was characterised by ground effect aerodynamics, better known as the ‘Ground Effect Era’.
Mercedes completely misjudged the Ground Effect Era and had a torrid 2022. However, they did finish second in the 2023 Constructors’ Championship, and Hamilton finished third in the 2023 Drivers’ Championship, only behind Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez in the all-conquering Red Bull RB19.
Hamilton also took pole position at the 2023 Hungarian Grand Prix, his first pole since 2021
So why has Hamilton decided to leave Mercedes, especially before he’s even taken the wheel of the W15 for the first time on track?
Zero sidepods, zero faith
In 2022 Formula 1 underwent the biggest technical regulation change since 1983. The Hybrid Era, where Mercedes had crushed all competition was over, and Formula 1 had now re-entered the Ground Effect Era.
Formula 1 teams first began to experiment with ground effect aerodynamics in the 1970s
This made 2022 the most eagerly anticipated season in decades, and to the shock of the whole paddock, Mercedes rocked up to pre-season testing in Bahrain with a car that had no sidepods. A design that was vastly different to that of their two main rivals, Red Bull and Ferrari.
The Mercedes W13, absent of any sidepods
However, as Mercedes had dominated the sport for the past eight years, many feared the Silver Arrows had got the jump on the pack again for the second-successive technical regulation change. But this couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Mercedes’ ‘Zero-Pod’ concept proved to be a disaster, and the W13 porpoised (bounced) its way around most tracks throughout the 2022 season, making Hamilton and teammate George Russell feel as if they were driving rollercoasters on wheels.
Mercedes W13 Extreme Porpoising | Formula 1 2022 pic.twitter.com/tonksMunO4
— Motor Racing Clips (@MotorRacingClip) March 10, 2022
In hindsight, the worst thing that happened to Mercedes in 2022 was their 1-2 finish at the Brazilian Grand Prix, because it gave them false hope that they could indeed be successful with their flawed Zero-Pod concept.
The 2022 Brazilian Grand Prix remains Mercedes’ strongest result to date in the Ground Effect Era
The first race of 2023 in Bahrain quickly killed that hope. In truth, the W14 was no better than the preceding W13, as porpoising remained an issue that tormented both cars.
Technical disarray, mechanical brain drain
The biggest technical regulation change in almost 40 years coincided with a severe weakening of Mercedes’ technical team.
In April 2021, James Allison left his role as Technical Director and was appointed to the newly created role of Chief Technical Officer of Mercedes AMG and INEOS Britannia’s America Cup team.
In short, the head of the Mercedes technical team, a key department in ensuring the competitiveness of a Formula 1 car, was appointed to lead Ben Ainslie’s campaign for the 37th America’s Cup, while Hamilton was in the midst of one of the fiercest championship battles in Formula 1 history.
Allison was also part of the technical teams that designed Schumacher’s five championship-winning cars at Ferrari
Allison was replaced by Mike Elliott, and it was the Elliott-led Mercedes technical team that stubbornly stuck to the flawed Zero-Pod concept.
This mistake would cost Elliot his position in April 2023, when Allison returned as Technical Director and Elliot took Allison’s previous position of Chief Technical Officer. Elliott eventually left Mercedes in October 2023 after 11 years with the team.
Meanwhile, in 2023, Red Bulls’ legendary Chief Technical Officer Adrian Newey was watching another one of his mechanical masterpieces win both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships.
Newey is widely regarded as one of the greatest engineers in Formula 1 history, his cars have won 25 World Championships and over 200 races
From 2021 onwards, Mercedes also began to lose employees to bitter rival Red Bull.
Red Bull Powertrains (RBPT), the power unit manufacturing company established in 2021 to supply Red Bull with engines in collaboration with Honda, began to recruit staff from Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains (Mercedes AMG HPP).
By 2023, over 120 staff members had made the switch from Mercedes AMG HPP to RBPT. Most notably, Ben Hodgkinson, who was head of mechanical engineering at Mercedes AMG HPP, was hired by RBPT as their technical director.
Mercedes AMG HPP managing director Andy Cowell also left in June 2020
The Hybrid Era of Mercedes’ domination was characterised by the superiority of their power unit. Now, some of the key architects of that power unit were swapping Brackley and Brixworth for Milton Keynes.
Average pitstops, average strategies
The Ground Effect Era also saw the introduction of bigger 18-inch tyre rims, a change from the previous 13-inch tyre rims that had been used since the 1980s. The tyres were now heavier, and the bigger rims brought big problems for Mercedes.
Only Haas F1 Team and Stake F1 Team Kick Sauber had slower average pitstops than Mercedes throughout the 2022 season, and even though 2023 saw incremental pitstop improvement, Mercedes still finished the season seventh in the pitstop rankings.
After the 2023 United States Grand Prix, Mercedes’ team principal Toto Wolff stated that their Achilles heel was their pitstops
All the while Red Bull took the DHL Pitstop Award for a sixth-consecutive year in 2023, an award presented to the team with the fastest average pitstops throughout a season.
Alongside their subpar pitstops, Mercedes’ strategy calls also began to come into question. This was then compounded by the departure of head strategist James Vowles in January 2023, who left to become Team Principal of Williams Racing.
Vowles had been an integral part of Mercedes ever since they returned to the grid in 2010
All this disarray came amid Hamilton having to watch Verstappen win 34 of 45 races in 2022 and 2023 to become a three-time world champion.
And considering Hamilton turned 39 years old last month, this move to Ferrari signals the last role of his championship dice.
Ferrari are the most storied team in the history of Formula 1. They are the only team to have competed in every season since the World Championship was established in 1950.
Alberto Ascari won the Scuderia’s first Formula 1 World Championship in 1952
Their 16 Constructors’ Championships put them seven clear of the next-best team in Williams. While their 15 Drivers’ Championships put them three clear of the next-best team in McLaren.
Kimi Räikkönen won Ferrari’s last Drivers’ World Championship in 2007
There is just something contagious about that scarlet red of Ferrari, and in the words of Sebastian Vettel:
“Everyone is a Ferrari fan. Even if they say they’re not, they are Ferrari fans.”
Alongside the obvious infatuation every driver has with Ferrari, it must be noted that they did begin the Ground Effect Era in 2022 with the fastest car.
It was not until a mid-season aerodynamic directive introduced by the FIA that year, that Red Bull overtook Ferrari in terms of outright pace.
This was shown by Ferrari’s performance at the 2022 Austrian Grand Prix, which Charles Leclerc won
In 2022 Ferrari took four Grand Prix victories and 12 pole positions. In 2023 they took seven pole positions, while Carlos Sainz’s victory in Singapore was the only win by a non-Red Bull driver all year.
Hamilton will be replacing Sainz at Ferrari
Red Bull will be the class of the field until the slate is wiped clean again in 2026. But outside of the McLaren resurgence from mid-2023 onwards, Ferrari has had the strongest package to challenge Red Bull so far in the Ground Effect Era.
Hamilton also has a great relationship with Ferrari president John Elkann and team principal Frederic Vasseur, rising through the junior categories under Vasseur’s tutelage at ART Grand Prix.
Hamilton won his Formula 3 and GP2 championships driving for ART Grand Prix, the team that Vasseur co-founded
Can Hamilton win with Ferrari?
Hamilton is now at a crossroads in his career. He has not won a race since 2021 and his last championship came back in 2020.
His 40th birthday is less than 12 months away, and the last Formula 1 driver to win the World Championship after the age of 40 was Jack Brabham back in 1966.
To put that into perspective, in the days of Brabham, seatbelts had not yet been introduced into Formula 1.
A 40-year-old Brabham celebrates winning his third World Championship
Although Hamilton continues to defy the passage of time, the clock is ticking against him. Throwing the fastest racing cars on earth around the most comprehensive tracks on the planet, in today’s demanding 24-race calendar, is a task that requires youthful exuberance.
Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris, George Russel, Oscar Piastri. A new generation of fearless hungry young drivers. Dangerous competition for Hamilton, in an already dangerous sport.
But the seven-time World Champion is not going to Ferrari just to fade into the Italian sunset. He is going there to etch his name into the hearts of the Tifosi.
The Tifosi live and breathe Formula 1
He is going there to return the team of Enzo Ferrari to the summit of motorsport and eclipse Schumacher with eight World Championships.
Achieve that, and will firmly cement himself as the greatest of all time.
Feature image credit: Morio, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons