Lewis Hamilton’s decision to join Ferrari in 2025 sent shockwaves through Formula 1 last week, and the ripples are still being felt far and wide.
Not only is there massive anticipation around what a Hamilton and Ferrari partnership is going to look like next year, but there’s the knock-on impact on the team he’s leaving, as well as the driver that he is replacing.
For Mercedes, it’s a strangely familiar situation. When Nico Rosberg stunned the team by opting to retire with immediate effect after becoming world champion in 2016, it suddenly had a highly-coveted seat that nobody had expected to be available.
The same is true now, although with two clear differences. One, the seat isn’t quite as valuable as it was when Mercedes was dominant, with Red Bull now the clear best car that a driver would want to jump in. And two, there’s a lot more time to work out who Mercedes wants to select, and a huge number of drivers out of contract and therefore available to join.
Back in 2016, the driver market had already played out and there were very few current race drivers available to be signed that Mercedes would have wanted. It had to come to an agreement with Williams to secure Valtteri Bottas, while Williams in turn needed to convince Felipe Massa to come out of retirement.
This time around, only Max Verstappen and the Ferrari (yes, by that I include Hamilton in 2025) and McLaren drivers are under contract. George Russell obviously is too but in a Mercedes seat, leaving the remaining 14 drivers awaiting their next deal. And that means there are so many potential candidates to be Hamilton’s replacement.
Within those are varying types of driver, and Toto Wolff admits he’s looking forward to working out which direction to head next alongside Russell.
“Of course with all the Lewis discussion something that has not been talked enough is George,” Wolff said. “George has the potential to be the next lead driver in the team. He’s of the generation of Lando [Norris] and [Charles] Leclerc and some of the others, and I couldn’t wish for a new team leader when Lewis leaves, no doubt about that.
“So we have such a solid foundation, such a quick and talented and intelligent guy in the car, that we just need to take the right choice for the second driver, the second seat. That’s not something I want to be rushed in.
“I guess that a few contracts have been signed a few weeks ago that we could have looked at, that could have been interesting, but the timing here bit us a bit. But in a way I always like change because change provides opportunity, and in the same way we’ve embraced the Nico situation – and that was equally from one moment to the other unexpected – I’m really looking forward in taking the right decisions for the team, together with my colleagues, in who’s going to be in the seat next year, and maybe it’s a chance to do something bold.”
If Mercedes wants to pair Russell with someone of a similar generation who needs a chance to try and prove themselves in a front-running seat again, then Alex Albon likely tops that list. Albon’s time at Williams has been hugely impressive and he has evolved into a team leader who is able to consistently deliver under pressure for a team that only gets a select few chances for strong results.
If Wolff’s idea of “bold” is a swing towards youth, Mercedes has Andrea Kimi Antonelli waiting in the wings. Image via Mercedes-Benz
Although it recently came to light that Albon is under contract at Williams for 2025, I understand there has been interest shown from Mercedes and Red Bull, and this week’s comments from James Vowles suggests an agreement could be reached.
Albon is 27 but has only made 81 grand prix starts, compared to another clear option in Carlos Sainz. The Spaniard has another 100 starts over Albon and has proven himself in race-winning machinery, offering a very solid all-round option for Mercedes and great experience in terms of race starts and teams driven for – Toro Rosso, Renault, McLaren and Ferrari – all before he’s turned 30.
That should make Sainz one of the frontrunners for the Mercedes seat, but also any other vacancy aside from perhaps Red Bull given his history with Max Verstappen at Toro Rosso. A seat swap with Hamilton would certainly make sense, but given the quality of some of the other candidates he’s part of a fierce battle for the drive.
His fellow Spaniard could well be a bold option that Wolff speaks of. Fernando Alonso has proven at Aston Martin that he’s lost none of his skills as he moves further into his forties, and has been a supporter of Russell’s for many years. Their strong relationship make an Alonso-Mercedes partnership far more conceivable, especially as it would be the closest thing in terms of pairing one of the best drivers with one of the most successful teams as Hamilton and Ferrari.
There’s another attractive aspect to opting for Alonso, as a similarly short-term deal to the one Hamilton signed would buy the team a bit of time to analyze the complete opposite end of the spectrum in Andrea Kimi Antonelli.
The Italian youngster is a name you might well have heard of by now, having been part of the Mercedes set-up since he was 11, and sensational in karts before also winning two Formula 4 titles in 2022. Mercedes is so excited by his potential that he has skipped Formula 3 completely to race for Prema in Formula 2, and how he fares will be fascinating to watch.
A strong year only furthers the feeling that Antonelli will be in F1 sooner rather than later, while a title-contending one might just put him in the frame for a Mercedes drive himself. Mercedes opted to blood Russell at Williams for a number of seasons but it didn’t have an immediate vacancy like it does for 2025, and was fighting for titles.
Wolff insisted he “would rather not start any speculation about Kimi going into F1 at this stage” when asked about the potential of Antonelli being the bold choice he speaks of, but had been offered the opportunity to say it’s too soon and declined to do so.
It’s just another option of many that cover pretty much every base that Mercedes wants. Reserve driver Mick Schumacher, former junior Esteban Ocon – there are numerous that the team has links to and good knowledge of, too.
That doesn’t play into the hands of Sainz so much in that he faces stiff competition despite the level of performance he can offer, and he’s now facing a situation where he is more likely to have to wait on Mercedes than the other way around.
It’s a seat that could come his way, but if not then he needs to be ready to react to the ripples Wolff’s decision will create, and realistically hope it’s not Antonelli who gets the nod in order to open up a space elsewhere.
Both the Mercedes seat and Sainz are highly attractive propositions, and surely someone is going to snap the two-time race winner up – with Audi long rumored to be suitors ahead of its entry in 2026 – but after Hamilton’s bombshell it’s now over to the team he’s departing to call the shots.