F1’s biggest defectors: When World Champions decided to join a rival team

Michelle Foster
Alain Prost, Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton.

Alain Prost, Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton all moved teams after winning World Championships.

Seismic and sensational, seven-time F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton will be off to Ferrari next season as he leaves Mercedes to replace Carlos Sainz.

After years of speculation that he could one day race in red, it will finally happen in 2025.

The announcement means Hamilton will race for a third different team in his 19th season in the sport having made his debut with McLaren back in 2007.

The Briton, though, is by no means a stranger to taking gambles, even ones that baffle others.

He shocked the F1 paddock when he announced he’d be joining Mercedes for the 2013 season with pundits questioning whether he’d made a huge mistake. He had not.

But four years after wrapping up his sixth title with Mercedes, his seventh overall, Hamilton is once again on the move as this time he heads to Maranello.

It’s not often Formula 1 sees a World Champion leave his title-winning team as it’s a risk that all too often isn’t worth it. Just ask Sebastian Vettel.

The most recent World Champion to jump ship as he moved from Red Bull to Ferrari in 2015, the German was not able to repeat his title-winning feats with the Scuderia.

And at a time when teams are intent on holding onto the talent they’ve nurtured, and often at considerable cost, a World Champion swapping teams is rare.

PlanetF1.com looks at six times World Champions defected to rival teams.

Alain Prost – McLaren to Ferrari

Alain Prost won the 1989 World title with McLaren, his third of four, but walked away from the team at the end of the season as he called time on his bitter and spiteful partnership with Ayrton Senna.

Their penultimate race as team-mates ended in a crash as they fought for the lead of the Japanese Grand Prix, Prost out of the race and Senna getting the marshals to push-start him.

He took the win on the road but was later disqualified for cutting the chicane with Senna bemoaning the “manipulation of the championship”.

It was the final salvo in their tension-fraught relationship as team-mates with Prost leaving McLaren to join Ferrari. That, though, didn’t last long as he was fired a year later for publicly criticising the team.

Ayrton Senna – McLaren to Williams

Wrapping up his third Drivers’ Championship title with McLaren in 1991, the Woking team’s results took a hit the following season with Senna winning just three Grands Prix.

A disappointing fourth to Williams’s all-conquering FW14B, it took some persuading from McLaren team boss Ron Dennis to get Senna to continue with stories that his late confirmation cost McLaren a “million dollars” per race.

Despite recovering to finish the 1993 season second in the Drivers’ standings with five wins to his name, Senna made his much-wanted move to Williams for the 1994 season.

Alas, the story had a tragic end as he was killed in a crash at the San Marino Grand Prix.

Michael Schumacher – Benetton to Ferrari

Despite winning back-to-back World titles with Benetton in 1994 and 1995, Michael Schumacher was lured by Ferrari over to Maranello. The team had last won the title in 1979.

Rumours emerged in July of ’95 that the German had been in Geneva to sign the Ferrari contract, even though Benetton – under Flavio Briatore – were keen to hold onto their World Champion.

But offered a reported $25 million to swap allegiances, he traded his championship-winning Benetton for Ferrari red, signing a two-year deal with the Italian stable.

Schumacher would go on to win five Drivers’ titles for Ferrari, dominating the sport from 2000 to 2004 before he was dethroned by Fernando Alonso – in the Renault.

Lewis Hamilton – McLaren to Mercedes

Lewis Hamilton made his Formula 1 debut with McLaren in 2007 and finished on the podium in his very first race, the Australian Grand Prix.

He would go on to win a World title with the Woking team in 2008 but four years later shocked the F1 paddock when he announced he’d be leaving McLaren for the untested Mercedes.

Heading into only their fourth season on the grid and with just one win on the board, Hamilton’s momentous move was questioned by past and present drivers.

“It is his decision, although I personally don’t think it is the right decision,” said Jenson Button, while Allan McNish said: “I don’t see Lewis winning races in 2013 – and there has to be doubts that the car will be good enough in 2014.”

Although Hamilton won only a single race in his first season with Mercedes, P1 at the 2013 Hungarian Grand Prix, a year later he would bag a second Drivers’ title that would turn out to be his first of six with the Brackley squad.

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Fernando Alonso – Renault to McLaren

A double World Champion with Renault and noted in F1’s history books as the driver who ended Michael Schumacher’s five-year reign, Alonso went from winning the 2006 World title with Renault to racing for McLaren.

It was a deal signed and sealed in 2005 already.

That year, on his way to the World title, Alonso only signed a one-year extension with Renault after secretly meeting with McLaren team principal Ron Dennis in Japan to discuss a possible partnership.

The move was announced in December 2005 with Alonso retiring the World title in 2006.

But with his move to McLaren already signed and sealed, he was off to Woking in January 2007 but it was a move that lasted only one season as the Spaniard left the team to return to Renault in the fall-out from SpyGate and his acrimonious relationship with team-mate Lewis Hamilton.

Sebastian Vettel – Red Bull to Ferrari

Even though Sebastian Vettel won four Drivers’ Championship titles with Red Bull from 2010 to 2013, a lacklustre 2014 campaign had the German jumping ship to Ferrari.

Vettel entered Formula 1 with Red Bull’s junior team, back in 2008 known as Toro Rosso, and wowed his team bosses with his Italian Grand Prix. So much so, they promoted him to the senior team a year later.

Second in his first campaign with Red Bull, Vettel won the 2010 Drivers’ title when he came from behind to beat his team-mate Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso. P1 in the standings after Abu Dhabi, it was the only time that year Vettel was on top of the log.

Adding three more titles in a four-year run, Vettel and Red Bull’s success story came to an abrupt end in 2014 when a power-less Renault engine was blitzed by the Mercedes power unit.

All it would take was that one disappointing season and Vettel was signing with Ferrari. Arguably the worst kept secret in the paddock, he followed in his hero Michael Schumacher’s footsteps although was never able to join his compatriot as a Ferrari World Champion.

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