Lewis Hamilton’s switch to Ferrari has ended the most successful driver/team partnership in F1 history, so why would he do it?
Having made the ballsy decision to leave the proven McLaren team for the very much unproven Mercedes team at the end of 2012, Hamilton’s move to Brackley has since been cemented firmly into F1 history as perhaps the best team switch ever.
With six titles over the last decade since joining Mercedes, that dream partnership even eclipsed the success of Michael Schumacher and Ferrari. But, with the rumours now confirmed to be true, Hamilton is pulling the plug on that dream. Why?
Has Lewis Hamilton lost faith in Mercedes?
Hamilton is currently without a win in Formula 1 since the tail-end of that tumultuous 2021 season, with Mercedes having fallen off the boil at the start of the new ground-effect regulations.
While George Russell has managed to grab his first win in the two seasons since, Mercedes has had to watch forlornly on as Red Bull, and occasionally Ferrari, have won pretty much everything after getting to grips with the regulations.
While it’s logical that a team can’t remain at the top forever, the question mark for any driver is how quickly the situation can be addressed to turn it around. After all, while Mercedes proved massively resilient to performance loss through staff losses and brain drain while the regulations were stable, that resilience weakened for the new regulation cycle.
While not the be-all-and-end-all of their performance issues, the ‘zero-pod’ concept proved the wrong direction and, with former technical director Mike Elliott falling on his sword for that, Mercedes has attempted to right the ship by bringing back ol’ reliable James Allison.
But things have changed over the last five years. At one point, Mercedes had a peerless power unit and a chassis the equal – if not the outright best – of the lot. While competitive, Mercedes’ power unit was eclipsed by Honda before the current engine freeze, and their chassis and aero designs have not been up to their lofty standards.
Mercedes has been very forthright in how the team’s car concept will set off in a markedly different direction for 2024, a direction the team will, for reasons of practicality rather than regulation, end up locked into for ’25 and the final year of the current regulations.
But, of Ferrari and Mercedes, it was Maranello that nailed the start of the current regulation cycle – perhaps even to a greater extent than Red Bull. It wasn’t until mid-season rule changes were introduced that Ferrari’s speed was neutered – a fact that won’t have been lost on Hamilton.
If Hamilton is scrambling to find a way out of Mercedes after just the first few weeks of factory visits and sim sessions, even after the positive noises being made about their 2024 car, the signs are ominous that Hamilton doesn’t see it as a title contender.
Is it one last roll of the dice for Lewis Hamilton?
At the end of the day, Hamilton is much, much closer to the end of his career than the start, having just turned 39. By 2026, Hamilton will have turned 41. While Fernando Alonso has proven age doesn’t necessarily mean anything anymore, history goes against Hamilton here.
Just three drivers have won the F1 World Championship after turning 40, and the last one of those – Jack Brabham – was in 1966. The sport has moved on considerably since then and, with considerably younger rivals like Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris, and Oscar Piastri, Hamilton’s chances dwindle year on year.
Assuming Mercedes won’t have Red Bull-toppling speed for this year or next, Hamilton’s gamble could be on 2026 and who he thinks will interpret the new regulations – both on the chassis and power unit front – in the best way possible.
After all, Hamilton has proven he isn’t risk-averse when it comes to his future. His switch to Mercedes at the end of 2012 was seen as a huge risk at the time, with the W03’s performance roughly the equivalent of where Ferrari is now.
But, one year before the major power unit regulations change for 2014, Hamilton jumped from safe and secure McLaren to forge a new path with Mercedes by treading water for a year beforehand. Who’d bet against him doing the same, and timing a move to a Ferrari coming good, ahead of 2026?
A chance to team up again with Fred Vasseur
A move to Ferrari means partnering up with Fred Vasseur again, a boss with whom Hamilton has enjoyed great success in the past.
Long before his involvement in F1, Vasseur was the founder and team boss of ART Grand Prix – a prominent outfit in the junior categories.
Rising through the ranks with McLaren’s backing, Hamilton drove for Vasseur’s squad in Formula 3 Euro Series in 2005 – racking up 15 wins en route to the title. Rising into ART’s GP2 team for 2006, Hamilton’s five wins secured him the title and were enough to convince Ron Dennis to put him in the McLaren alongside Fernando Alonso.
Hamilton and Vasseur remain in constant contact – Vasseur has joked about how many times he’s been asked about signing Hamilton based on them having a conversation together.
For all Vasseur’s joviality and sense of fun, he has razor-sharp teeth no less biting than the established main players like Christian Horner and Toto Wolff. With Ferrari not quite at the front during his short tenure so far, this hasn’t been hugely evident – perhaps the best example being his fury in the press conference in Las Vegas at the end of 2023.
But with boss John Elkann breathing down his neck to try signing Hamilton, Vasseur’s ‘innocent’ conversations with his former driver would allow him to impart plenty of knowledge about the direction of Ferrari’s journey over the next couple of seasons – including being forthright about the likelihood of success.
Now Vasseur has secured Hamilton’s signature, it underlines his evolution into a very serious player on the F1 grid – an image that he perhaps hasn’t had up until now.
The allure of the Scuderia, and doing what Ayrton Senna couldn’t
Regardless of their competitive prowess in any given year, Ferrari continues to have a hold over drivers. As the only team to have been on the F1 grid since the very first year of the championship, nearly all the greatest drivers have come through their doors.
But the notable absentees from the very top of the record books are Lewis Hamilton, and his idol Ayrton Senna. Having eclipsed all the statistics from Senna’s career, Hamilton’s adoration for the Brazilian driver hasn’t dwindled over the years.
With Senna’s life cut short by his fatal accident at Imola in 1994 at just 34 years old, the three-time World Champion never made the move to Ferrari – something that may have come to pass in the mid-1990s.
The history, prestige, and allure of Ferrari continues to enchant drivers to the point where their hearts sometimes overrule their heads to the detriment of their own careers. While obviously not suggesting this is the case for Hamilton, the alignment of brand Hamilton and brand Ferrari would be perhaps the most exciting driver/team partnership ever – and the most lucrative for both sides – in the history of the sport.