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Opinion

The risks in Hamilton’s Ferrari F1 move

OPINION: Lewis Hamilton shook the Formula 1 world with his decision to sign for Ferrari for the 2025 season, ending a prosperous relationship with Mercedes. It's one of the biggest moves in the championship's history, and while there are obvious pros to his move, there are also big risks

Charles Leclerc, Scuderia Ferrari, 3rd position, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG, 2nd position, talk in Parc Ferme

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Lewis Hamilton heading to Ferrari for 2025 is the biggest Formula 1 driver market move since Hamilton opted to leave McLaren and move to Mercedes.

That decision came back in late 2012, ahead of his Formula 1 debut with the Silver Arrows for the next year. This one has a longer wait time but tops it and both of Sebastian Vettel’s moves into and out of the Scuderia in the decade and change since.

Its only rival is in shock factor, where Fernando Alonso’s Alpine-to-Aston Martin transfer enters the fray. And apologies to Tazio Nuvolari and Auto Union fans, but there’s a case to be made this is the biggest motorsport driver switch ever.

Ferrari remains F1’s most evocative and successful squad; Hamilton transcends the championship’s driver fame stakes. That’s especially enshrined with current dominator Max Verstappen keen to shun the wider limelight.

In this news, the parallels with Hamilton’s McLaren exit are obvious. Then the V6 turbo hybrid era was set to arrive one year into his Mercedes tenure, and all that success that eventually brought. Although the massive rules reset of 2022 still feels so fresh, the 2026 regulation changes – especially with the added importance on electrical power and sustainable fuel in engines – are no longer over the horizon now 2024 has begun.

But, while a positive and exciting new chapter for F1 overall and clearly to Hamilton himself, the risks of a move are different for him this time around.

Back in 2012, the question was whether an untested and even openly doubted Mercedes works squad could ever provide Hamilton with title-winning machinery as he'd enjoyed at McLaren. F1 has long known how that would work out, with the inevitability that Hamilton would have to leave his junior driver nest at McLaren often forgotten in the story of that first switch.

Hamilton will replace Sainz at Ferrari in 2025

Hamilton will replace Sainz at Ferrari in 2025

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

In joining Mercedes for 2013, Hamilton had no way of being sure he’d get to add to his 2008 world title and 21-race victory haul, just as his prime years were unfolding. But there was a huge upside possible in that looming rules change.

In 2024, Hamilton is not long on from explaining the “raw excitement” of starting that Mercedes building project. That was something where he says both parties “expected it to be shite to start off with because they hadn’t had a lot of success”.

This call should therefore initially be viewed as an equally sideways step as that of 2012/2013, given how close Mercedes and Ferrari were against each other, and both way off in Verstappen’s wake in 2023. Although, Red Bull is actually in an even more bulletproof position right now given we can’t know how close the field spread will be this year before the new car designs hit the track.

Should Mercedes succeed in making its W15 challenger a Red Bull rival, Hamilton faces another short-term risk: that he will be isolated at his current team

But the first risk for Hamilton is that, in the short-term, it eventually works out as backwards step from his clear goal of an eighth world title. Long-term career longevity is also an important factor to bear in mind overall, as he was announced in Ferrari’s typically brief press statement as joining on a “multi-year” deal, which would take him beyond 2026 in theory.

In 2013, he and Nico Rosberg snared sporadic triumphs for Mercedes. In 2023, Ferrari threatened Red Bull for wins and stood to benefit when the dominant squad lost its way in Singapore. But Mercedes’ consistency was a key part of it pipping its red rival to second in the constructors’ championship.

More pertinently, while such words arrive on a bed of hot air at this time of year, there’s a markedly different approach in Mercedes and Ferrari’s positions on their respective burgeoning 2024 cars.

Should Mercedes have a competitive car in 2024, Hamilton may find himself isolated in his own team

Should Mercedes have a competitive car in 2024, Hamilton may find himself isolated in his own team

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Mercedes’ technical director James Allison stated his team feels “some of the more spiteful characteristics of the rear end of our car” have now been eradicated. That they were there at all in a package that began in the recalcitrant W13 robbed Hamilton of the braking confidence he requires to reach the class-leading levels he possesses in this area of F1 driving skill.

Should Mercedes succeed in making its W15 challenger a Red Bull rival, Hamilton faces another short-term risk: that he will be isolated at his current team. This will, surely, galvanise around George Russell as the two have different driving styles, with Hamilton’s more a high-energy, many movements dance combination and Russell deploying fewer, but more decisive wheel sweeps.

PLUS: The driving style secrets of F1's current stars

Meanwhile, Ferrari technical director Enrico Cardile ended 2023 saying “suspension set-up to me is a bit overrated”. This is a staggering statement given how open Red Bull has been about that element being key to its cars’ being so good in the current formula and offered a clue into what to expect from Ferrari’s SF-24 design in this area. As in, don’t expect much change.

Running through all this, however, is Hamilton’s call to abandon Mercedes in the first place.

It would be logical to expect that what he has seen from the team’s W15 pre-track running data has not inspired him to be sure of Mercedes success – short or long-term. At the very least, it suggests Hamilton lacks confidence Mercedes will get back to title-winning ways.

But the same is true of Ferrari, which actually doesn’t have the pedigree of succeeding through recent regulation changes – as Mercedes did in 2017 – or being able to successfully maintain a title challenge in the current era. This was most obviously seen in 2022. Ferrari has rather haemorrhaged technical staff of late. Head of vehicle concept David Sanchez is now at McLaren, while sporting director Laurent Mekies joined VCARB and Mattia Binotto’s near-quarter century involvement in red car building roles is also absent after his axing as team principal. Ferrari’s only signing of note has been Mercedes' former performance director, Loic Serra, who can’t start until 2025 anyway.

Serra has been Ferrari's only significant technical signing of late

Serra has been Ferrari's only significant technical signing of late

Photo by: Sutton Images

A key element in signing Hamilton is that by attracting statistically F1’s most successful driver, still close to the peak of his powers, key technical staff might be lured in or back. But should a hiring spree at the Scuderia now follow, it will surely take years to bear proper fruit thanks to F1’s typically long car design lead times and gardening leave periods.

So, it might be that, results-wise, 2025 plays out very similarly to 2013 as the pack converges around Red Bull’s downwash sidepod and vital suspension layout design path once Hamilton is onboard at Ferrari. But, again, ensuing 2026 success is by no means guaranteed.

Some might snark that by joining Ferrari, Hamilton is now exposed to the various strategy shambles the team has enacted in the last few campaigns. But it would be worth remembering that in 2023 Mercedes made several communications blunders that cost Hamilton and Russell – mainly in qualifying – and ended the season concluding its pitstop procedures and equipment needed enhancing too.

Some will make the tiresome argument that this development is all about money. Such lazy takes miss that Hamilton was set to make a reported £50m at Mercedes anyway, and any financial improvement isn’t exactly life-changing for a star with a fortune north of £220m

A greater risk in the grand scheme of things comes via how Hamilton might fare against upcoming new team-mate Charles Leclerc.

Russell proved to be much closer to Hamilton’s level than Valtteri Bottas at Mercedes, however much of the younger Briton’s run of 2023 mistakes stick in the memory. And Leclerc’s qualifying gifts mean he is likely to have the edge on a driver with a record 104 poles.

Leclerc is also massively more experienced with Ferrari packages that tend to be peaky in terms of car handling. He also speaks Italian and is familiar with what remains a complex organisation to adapt into.

Leclerc's one-lap pace in the Ferrari will be a big challenge for Hamilton

Leclerc's one-lap pace in the Ferrari will be a big challenge for Hamilton

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Yet Hamilton is clearly still a step better – with Russell the key yardstick – when it comes to the skill that brings the points in F1: tyre management. How his mastery of this art could boost a team with a long-stretching history of in-race tyre weakness will eventually be seen.

But perhaps the biggest risk in Hamilton’s move concerns his reputation.

Inevitably, some will make the tiresome argument that this development is all about money. Such lazy takes miss that Hamilton was set to make a reported £50m at Mercedes anyway, and any financial improvement isn’t exactly life-changing for a star with a fortune north of £220m.

Hamilton also can’t lose his Mercedes titles – the biggest threat to his current haul coming via Felipe Massa’s 2008 Singapore court case. But there is the risk he has now jettisoned a potential life-long association with the marque through a mooted ambassadorial role at Mercedes and its contributions to his Mission 44 charity initiatives.

There’s precedent in other sports of teams eventually reconciling with stars that jump ship – see the NFL’s New England Patriots and Tom Brady after he ended up retiring with one more championship at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And in any case, Ferrari could grant Hamilton such legend status at Maranello.

On this front, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff’s words – “Lewis will always be an important part of Mercedes motorsport history” – may one day be significant.

Hamilton will be

Hamilton will be "an import part of Mercedes motorsport history" according to Wolff

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

In this sensational switch, Hamilton risks spending years in the packed wilderness beneath the top step of an F1 podium that he hasn’t visited since the 2021 Jeddah race, all while being entangled with a young, determined team-mate. Comment on that in the context of his previous success would swell.

But that was already happening at Mercedes in the last two years after his 2021 heartbreak.

In joining Ferrari and making the romantic dream move so many other F1 legends had too – one many believed his hero Ayrton Senna would make – Hamilton has actually boosted his reputation in many quarters.

Plus, we know the Ferrari dream is one which he has long dwelled on.

Can Hamilton win an eighth world title with Ferrari?

Can Hamilton win an eighth world title with Ferrari?

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

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