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Formula 1 Canadian GP

Ben Hunt: The factors behind Mercedes’ prospective Antonelli gamble

As Mercedes appears to be moving closer to promoting Andrea Kimi Antonelli as Ferrari-destined Lewis Hamilton’s replacement in its Formula 1 driver line-up, here are the considerations in play and why other bets have become outside shots

Andrea Kimi Antonelli drives Mercedes W12

Andrea Kimi Antonelli drives Mercedes W12

Photo by: Mercedes AMG

Toto Wolff has all but confirmed Andrea Kimi Antonelli would be driving in Formula 1 next season - but is it not a big gamble for Mercedes?

Wolff has had nearly six months to ponder his selection on who would partner George Russell after Lewis Hamilton activated an early exit clause in his contract to join Ferrari in 2025.

Speaking during the Canadian GP, the Mercedes boss inadvertently admitted the team would be picking the young Italian after cooling its interest in Carlos Sainz.

"Carlos deserves a top seat. He's done a fantastic job," said Wolff, "but for us, we've embarked on a route now to say...we want to reinvent ourselves a little bit going forward and Kimi Antonelli definitely plays a part in that.

"We haven't taken a decision yet for next year but we didn't want to have Carlos wait as well because he needs to take the decisions for himself. That's just fair. He's doing a super job."

A noble statement perhaps, but also one that has sent the rumour mill into overdrive with conclusions that Antonelli, 17, had now been selected by Mercedes for 2025.

It means we now face the prospect of one of the most exciting promotions in Formula 1 history.

It is similar to when Hamilton joined McLaren in 2007 when he went from racing in the second tier to a leading F1 team, rather than one in the midfield - although cynics could suggest that is where Mercedes currently finds itself.

Hamilton of course made the transition when F1 testing rules were more relaxed and had the benefit of more experience in driving the machinery compared to Antonelli, whose undoubted potential is balanced with considerable risk.

Andrea Kimi Antonelli, Prema Racing

Andrea Kimi Antonelli, Prema Racing

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Assessing his current season in F2 with Prema, it is obvious that he is still finding his feet as he is yet to score a podium and finds himself in sixth place in the driver's championship, 32 points off the leader, Paul Aron.

His points return in the early stage of his rookie season has not matched that same level achieved by the likes of Russell, Lando Norris or Charles Leclerc when they raced in championship.

However, for context his Prema team have struggled with this season's new F2 car and you only need to look at his team-mate, Ferrari's young driver Oliver Bearman, who is place in 13th in the championship - albeit having forfeited the Jeddah round to replace Sainz when was ruled out by appendicitis.

Also worth nothing is the breathtaking speed at which he came through the motorsport pyramid, leaping from Formula Regional to Formula 2 for this year.

Antonelli was born in Bologna, Italy, in 2006 and has been part of the Mercedes Junior Programme since April 2019.

The son of accomplished sportscar driver Marco Antonelli, he has raced in karts since he was seven and had various wins in the junior categories before winning the CIK-FIA European Championship OK class in 2021, having also won it the previous year, before stepping up to single-seaters.

He raced in F4 before progressing to the Formula Regional in 2023 winning the Middle Eastern series and also taking the Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine title.

People who know him back him to reach the top, as does Hamilton, who in Imola was asked who Mercedes should pick as his replacement.

He said: "Carlos is a great driver, so I think wherever he goes I think he would be a positive for any team.

"Honestly, I have no idea what Toto's plans are, but for me, taking on a youngster, if it was my role, I would probably take on Kimi."

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG F1 Team, in the garage

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG F1 Team, in the garage

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Those who are close point out that despite his young age, and rather like Max Verstappen, he has spent the majority of his life at a track to watch his father's career.

They speak about an impressive mental strength, which has been supported by the vigorous test programme Mercedes has sent him on.

He received a glowing report from Riccardo Musconi, Russell's former race engineer who now heads up the testing programme for the F1 team.

Musconi's feedback is coupled with that of Mercedes' talent scout Gwen Lagrue, the man Mercedes trusts and holds responsible for unearthing gems from the lower formula.

Together they have appeared to have convinced Wolff that Antonelli can suitably fill Hamilton's seat.

According to former Formula 1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve, Wolff did not need much convincing.

The 1997 world champion said during the Canadian Grand Prix on Sky Sports F1 that Wolff "will not accept any other solution than Antonelli. The door has closed there. This is now Antonelli's team for the future. He has been preparing for this for years".

Villeneuve added: "Toto Wolff's ego also played a big role in his decision to choose Antonelli. He wants to prove to the world that it was right to bet on the young Italian when he was only 12 years old. He wants to show that he already saw the future world champion in him back then."

It is an interesting take, especially when you consider the lengths Mercedes has gone to prevent adding extra pressure on to its prodigy.

Andrea Kimi Antonelli inside the Mercedes AMG F1 motorhome

Andrea Kimi Antonelli inside the Mercedes AMG F1 motorhome

Photo by: Franco Nugnes

In contrasting to boasting, it has kept him away from the mainstream media and been quick to assert caution over someone with such an incredible rise through the ranks.

Perhaps, though, Villeneuve is referring to how Wolff let Verstappen slip through his fingers in 2015 when he had Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in the team and was not prepared to ditch either one for the highly-rated Dutch racing driver.

Instead, it was Red Bull who was able to offer Verstappen a spot in their sister team Toro Rosso and the rest, as they say, is history.

Maybe that is a decision that still wrangles with Wolff, given Verstappen's obvious talent and that Rosberg sensationally retired in 2016, leaving Mercedes in the lurch and the hurried signing of Valtteri Bottas as a late replacement.

If the reports are correct and Antonelli is that good, plus if Wolff is determined not to let the next star slip from his grasp, then maybe there is no gamble for Mercedes after all.

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Because, realistically what options do they have?

It is unlikely it will be fighting for the championship in 2025 and after turning down Sainz and already having run the rule over the likes of former drivers Bottas and Esteban Ocon, who else can they pick?

Maybe they are in a unique position of having nothing to lose and everything to gain. And that is a gamble worth taking.

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