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Mercedes knew risks of leaving exit clause in Hamilton F1 contract

Mercedes says it accepted there was always a risk element in leaving an exit clause in Lewis Hamilton’s most recent Formula 1 contract with the team.

Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes-AMG, with Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

As the German manufacturer comes to terms with Hamilton’s shock decision to join Ferrari from 2025, it is well aware that the new two-year deal it agreed with the seven-time champion last year had flexibility on both sides to be terminated as early as the end of this season.

It is understood that this was a compromise arrangement to give both parties a degree of movement for 2025 in case performances were not as expected through 2024.

While this meant Mercedes had the freedom it wanted to pursue another driver if it felt like it didn’t want to continue with Hamilton, equally it knew that it could lose the seven-time champion if he elected to look elsewhere.

And that is exactly what happened after Hamilton signed for Ferrari recently and informed team boss Toto Wolff this week in a face-to-face meeting that he was making use of his current contract’s exit clause.

Speaking to selected media on Friday, Wolff said Mercedes was not blind to the door being open for Hamilton to leave – but equally admitted the team had not been interested last year in committing to him any longer.

Reflecting on the changed circumstances that prompted Hamilton’s departure, Wolff said: “We were very aligned when we went into the Christmas period. We've said that in public and in the team. You need to ask Lewis why he changed his mind.

“How he framed it to me is perfectly understandable – that he needed a new challenge, that he was looking for a different environment, and that it was maybe the last possibility to do something else.

Carlos Sainz, Scuderia Ferrari, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG, talk after the race

Carlos Sainz, Scuderia Ferrari, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG, talk after the race

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

“We're big boys, we knew that by signing a short-term contract, it could be of benefit for both sides.

“We couldn't commit for a longer period, and he's taken the option to exit. We totally respect that you can change your mind. There's different circumstances. Switching to Ferrari, maybe for the last gig in his career, maybe rolling the dice a bit. I can follow that decision.”

Wolff reckoned that Ferrari’s eagerness to give Hamilton a long-term contract, something Mercedes could not, was an important element in convincing him to move teams.

“I think maybe one of the considerations was the opportunity to sign a long-term contract with Ferrari and give it a really big go at the end of his career,” added Wolff.

“We didn't talk about whether the opportunity was better there or with us, because I don't think you can say.

“At the end of the day, he is the most successful driver. We've had a sensational spell and journey together and that's something that will go down in the history books, and also the Mercedes history books.”

Timing is a surprise

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG, with Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes-AMG

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG, with Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes-AMG

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

Wolff is well aware that Hamilton/Ferrari rumours have been bubbling away for a while, and said that it was ultimately not a shock that the British driver had been lured by the Italian team.

Analysis: How Hamilton's exit could leave the Mercedes F1 team in a tough spot

However, what did catch him out was the sudden timing of it all, with Wolff only finding out during a pre-arranged meeting with the driver at his Oxford house on Wednesday morning.

“The surprise was that I'd heard the rumours a couple of days earlier, but wanted to wait for the breakfast we had planned,” he said. “And it was Wednesday morning, this is when he broke the news.

“You know with me, you can be very straightforward, because I'm straightforward too. So, once he said this is what I'm trying to do, that was the fact. I didn't try to convince him otherwise.

“But just look forward: okay, what are we doing about communications? What's the timing? How do we protect the team best? And how do we protect this 2024 year to be successful together with our two drivers without causing too much awkwardness?”

Asked of Hamilton’s decision had hurt him, Wolff said: “No, it doesn't hurt because I need to keep the calm and decide how we're going to best manage the 2024 season and what the decisions need to be going forward.

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“It's not like someone that I like a lot is disappearing. He's just changing team, and we've been very conscious in signing the contract that it could happen.

“Maybe the timing was a surprise, but I've had many black swans swimming in front of me, the unexpected. And I think in F1, it's all about agility and being able to embrace change of circumstances."

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