Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff has insisted Lewis Hamilton’s decision to leave for Ferrari in 2025 was not a surprise, but admitted the timing, just three weeks before the first day of testing for the new season, was.
The 2024 season will be Hamilton’s last at the team that has delivered him six of his seven world titles, and the 39-year-old described parting ways with Mercedes as “one of the hardest” decisions he has ever had to make.
The news comes just five months after Hamilton signed a two-year Mercedes contract for 2024 and 2025, albeit with an exit clause that allowed him to force a split at the end of the upcoming season.
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Wolff learned of Hamilton’s plan when the two met for breakfast on Wednesday morning, the day before the news was announced to the world.
“When we re-signed the contract with Lewis we opted for a shorter term, so the events are not a surprise, but maybe the timing is,” Wolff said.
“What happened is that we got together for coffee in my place in Oxford, with him returning to the factory [this week], and he said to me that he has decided to race for Ferrari in 2025.
“That was basically it and we had a good hour of conversation and this is where we are.”
Wolff said he had heard rumours in the build-up to his meeting with Hamilton and said the seven-time champion’s desire to race for Ferrari did not surprise him.
“In a way, Formula One and my previous life have made me impervious to surprises. I’ve been confronted so many times in my life with black swans that it was a surprise, but as I said before we went open-eyed into this phase of our relationship.
“We knew that it could be a year, it could be two [before Hamilton left]; we knew that it would come to an end at the latest the end of 2025. The surprise was that I heard the rumours a couple of days earlier, but I wanted to wait for the breakfast we had planned, and that was Wednesday morning. This is when he broke the news.
“But you know with me you can be very straightforward because I’m straightforward too. So once he said ‘this is what I’m trying to do,’ that was the fact and I didn’t try to convince him otherwise, but just looking forward: ‘OK, what are we doing about communications? What’s the timing? How do we protect the team best? And how do we protect this 2024 year to be successful together with our two drivers without causing too much awkwardness?'”
Wolff said at the end of last year he believed his driver was still fully committed to Mercedes but understands why Hamilton changed his mind.
“I cannot tell you exactly [the reasons for Hamilton’s decision], all I know is that we were very aligned when we went into the Christmas period and I think we have said that in public and in the team,” Wolff added. “You need to ask Lewis why he changed his mind.
“How he framed it to me is perfectly understandable, he needed a new challenge and he was looking for a different environment and this was maybe the last possibility to do something else.
“We are big boys, we knew that signing a short-term contract could be of benefit to both sides. We couldn’t commit for a longer period and he has taken the option to exit.
“So, in a way, we totally respect that you can change your mind in different circumstances, and switching to Ferrari maybe for the last peak in his career, maybe rolling the dice a bit, I can follow that decision.
Every race driver dreams about being in a red overall and in the red car. We’ve discussed it many times before that this would be an exciting to do one day. But over the years we came to the conclusion that staying at Mercedes and finishing the legacy here is something that one can be proud of.
“But I never ignore the possibility of change — whether it’s Ferrari or another team — so this is what it is. The fact didn’t surprise me at all, maybe the timing, but I can understand where he was coming from and that was to protect the team’s interest going forward.”
Wolff said he was fully aware that the contract he signed with Hamilton last year would allow for this scenario and that Mercedes had been open to it as it provided the team the potential to approach rival drivers.
However, he admits that the recent signings of Charles Leclerc on a long-term contract to Ferrari and Lando Norris to McLaren beyond 2026 have limited Mercedes’ options.
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“When we decided Lewis and us to go for a short-term contract, we knew why we were doing it. It is to leave him options open and at the same time us. It’s an exciting situation at the end of 2024 with some drivers becoming available, others just signed a few weeks ago so these ones would have been opportunities.
“If it was six weeks earlier, there would have been more opportunities, but it is what it is. But in 2025 and beyond, the driver market is very interesting and we need to look out to the future.
“Who is it that we can partner with George? What’s the best combo? What’s the best combination? And I think in terms of the drivers who could hopefully join, that could join, there are a variety of options. At that stage, I wouldn’t want to commit to this is when we’re going to do it. I want to take my time.”
Asked about potential replacements, Wolff said he wanted to keep options open.
“I haven’t really properly reflected with the team on where we want to go. From a rookie to very experienced because I don’t know yet what is the best for any potential driver coming or for the team going forward. Let me say if you told me two days ago that Lewis would be going to Ferrari, I didn’t think it was possible.
“Situations and things can change quickly. Contracts are only as good as the driver or the teams want to race and who knows what’s happening in the driver market that could be unexpected or opportunities for us.”
Wolff’s mention of a rookie replacement poses the question of whether Mercedes junior driver Andrea Kimi Antonelli, who is about to embark on his first season in Formula 2, could be an option.
The 17-year-old was racing go-karts just two years ago and while Wolff did not rule him out, he was reluctant to put additional pressure on the Italian.
“Kimi has been with Mercedes since he was 11,” Wolff said. “He’s been in the junior programme and his career was very successful. I think most important at that stage is he focuses on F2.
“If we start to spin his mind or unleash rumours that’s not going to help his F2 campaign. He’s just stepped out of karts a few years ago. He’s not even 18. I would rather not start any speculation about Kimi going into F1 at this stage.”