Lewis Hamilton’s shock move leaves Mercedes with incredibly daunting decision

Sam Cooper
Lewis Hamilton and Toto Wolff.

Toto Wolff must now guide Mercedes into a new era.

Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes. It is one of those sporting combinations that seems so synonymous that the idea of it being broken up is unthinkable.

Hamilton is not alone in this regard though. Lionel Messi and Barcelona seemed intertwined until one day they were not. Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, too.

Even in the Formula 1 world, there are teams and drivers that are so linked that the eras before and after seem totally different from one another.

Now, for the first time since he arrived in 2013, Mercedes are staring down the barrel of a post-LH future.

Of course they knew it was coming eventually. Hamilton turned 39 last month and time comes for us all but they would not have expected his departure to be made in this manner. To a major rival, a few weeks before the new season and leaving a damning indictment of Mercedes’ future prospects.

As Barcelona, Manchester United and every other example also faced, Mercedes have the challenge of picking up the pieces when a genuine superstar walks out the exit door.

The obvious first question is who do they get in to replace them and there is not a long list of outstanding candidates.

Lando Norris and Charles Leclerc both signed new deals last week. Max Verstappen is not going anywhere and even the newer talent like Oscar Piastri is committed long term. In terms of Mercedes’ academy, Andrea Kimi Antonelli is a highly-rated prospect but he is making the big step up to F2 this year and unlikely to be ready for an F1 stint anytime soon.

Who then? Carlos Sainz is suddenly free but a driver with two victories in nine seasons is not the kind of all-star name you would look to fill Hamilton’s boots. Fernando Alonso is the only other World Champion on the grid and would be tempted by a move – but would Mercedes be tempted by a 42-year-old?

For Toto Wolff and co. it is not an easy problem to fix and whichever way they go, it will be a historic moment for the team.

In every season that a Mercedes car has run, there has been a World Champion piloting it. Fangio in the 1950s became Schumacher in the 2010s and then later, Hamilton. For the first time, Mercedes will not have one of the very best drivers on the grid in their cars.

There is also the question of George Russell. Billed as the heir apparent, even he would not have expected to be leading the team so soon into his tenure and there are doubts over whether he is ready for it.

In 2022 he surprised, but it came at a time when the Mercedes car was poor. As it improved, his performances went in the other direction and of those young drivers on the grid, Russell currently finds himself behind Verstappen, Leclerc and Norris in the pecking order.

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Is he then ready to fill the void left by Hamilton on track? The seven-time World Champion pulled in 57% of Mercedes’ total in 2023, a big hole to fill. Mercedes have a year to figure that out.

But away from just on track, it is a monumental moment for the company as an F1 constructor. The idea of a driver jumping ship during the peak of Mercedes’ powers was unheard of and it tended to be a case of the team showing them the door rather than the other way round.

This is the first time a driver has felt the grass may indeed be greener on the other side.

Of course, there is an element of romanticism behind Hamilton’s decision so it may not be such a damning indictment of Mercedes’ prospects but choosing to jump ship just a few weeks before the season starts says a lot about what he thinks lay ahead for the team.

There have been plenty of new dawns in Mercedes’ F1 history. The first foray into the sport, return to the grid, the game-changing engine regulations in 2014 but now for the first time, they are facing one where the prospects look less rosy.

The form that post-Hamilton Mercedes takes will be decided over the coming year and it could just be the most important job Wolff has ever had to do.

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