'A great way to end my F1 career': when Hamilton revealed his Ferrari plan – Motor Sport

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A sideways glance at Monaco, 2023
Florent Gooden / DPPI
Let’s flashback to the evening of Monday September 28, 2015. I am sitting on a sofa towards the back of Lex Tokyo Lounge Bar, in the Roppongi district of the Japanese capital, enjoying beers and snacks with a few McLaren colleagues. We are drowning our sorrows, truth be told, because, as so often this season, over the past few days we haven’t covered ourselves in glory. At Suzuka our drivers, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, qualified 12th and 14th, after which they raced to 11th and 16th, both of them lapped by the winner, Lewis Hamilton, who enjoyed a gentle cruise to his eighth grand prix victory of the year, leading all 53 laps in his all-conquering Mercedes.
Lex has since been permanently closed, but in those days it was a favourite haunt of members of the Formula 1 travelling circus. Consequently, as that Monday evening wore on, various folk from Red Bull, Williams and Force India strolled in, along with a posse of F1 journalists, photographers and TV people, including a few ex-drivers who had made the transition to commentating for a living. Soon Lex was full of F1 people, and almost no-one else. More pitlane and paddock regulars continued to arrive, in twos, fours and sixes, including the odd current driver, until a band of senior Mercedes engineers trooped in, Hamilton in their midst.
After a while Lewis strolled over to our little group, for only three years had passed since he had left Woking for Brackley. Soon he and I found ourselves enjoying a tête-à-tête. Never before have I revealed what he said to me, although I jotted it down in my notebook as soon as I returned to my room at the nearby Conrad Hotel a couple of hours later. But now, after last week’s announcement, I think I can. Here follows what I jotted down.
Me: Congratulations, Lewis. You drove beautifully yesterday. You’re on course to win a second consecutive world championship, aren’t you?
Him: Well, either Seb [Vettel, Ferrari] or Nico [Rosberg, Mercedes] could still beat me.
Me: But they won’t.
Him: I hope not.
Me: Fernando and Jenson are both great drivers, but we miss you.
Him: You guys look frickin’ bad. Is the Honda [power unit] that useless?
Me: It’s not good, but our chassis isn’t great either.
Him: You know, it’s strange. When I see the lap times popping up during quali, obviously I check where Nico is first, then Seb, but then I always look out for you guys. I know you’re not going to be a threat to us [Mercedes] right now, but I still always look out for you.
Me: Well, you joined [the McLaren Driver Development Programme] when you were 13, didn’t you?
Him: Yeah.
A farewell picture with his crew before Hamilton’s final race for McLaren at Interlagos, 2012
Eric Vargiolu/DPPI
Me: Would you ever come back to us?
Him: I don’t know. Never go back, they say, don’t they? Sometimes you just feel you’ve been somewhere too long and you need a change.
Me: I guess so. You look pretty well set at Merc.
Him: Yeah, it’s great. I want to win a few championships if I can.
Me: You probably will. Do you want to do a Stirling Moss?
Him: What do you mean?
Me: I mean, do you want to race for Merc then become a kind of lifetime ambassador for them? I bet they’d be up for that.
Him: I don’t know. Maybe I’ll want to do other stuff after I stop racing.
Me: Music?
Him: Yeah, maybe, and other stuff, too.
Me: Do you think you’ll stay at Merc until you retire?
Him: Well, what I’d really like to do, one day, is drive for Ferrari.
Me: Really?
Him: Yeah. That would be a great way to end my F1 career, wouldn’t it? To win championships for McLaren, Mercedes and Ferrari?
Me: It really would.
So there you have it. Ferrari has always been part of his grand plan. The Scuderia will pay him a king’s ransom next year, obviously, but he already earns megabucks at Mercedes. His move is not about money, therefore. Is it about legacy? Yes, in part, surely, but it is also about taking on a challenge. Remember that when he left McLaren for Mercedes at the end of 2012 – a season in which he and Jenson had won the last two grands prix for us McLarenites, on merit, causing most F1 insiders, journalists, pundits and fans to whisper, write or broadcast that he might have made a monumental blunder – he appeared blissfully unperturbed. He can be a bit of a fusspot, we all know that – for example his many waspish exchanges with his long-time race engineer at Mercedes, Peter ‘Bono’ Bonnington, have passed into racing folklore – but that is one of his methods of motivating himself when a race is not going to plan. It is all part of his ‘hammer time’ schtick. When it comes to big thinking outside the hurly-burly of actual racing, he is very determined, very steadfast and very resolute.
Hamilton will join forces with Leclerc in 2025, at a team that has recently won more than Mercedes
Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images
His move from Mercedes to Ferrari has been compared by many to his move from McLaren to Mercedes. Clearly, there are similarities. But, although the former turned out to be a masterstroke, putting all those who thought he should have stayed at McLaren firmly in their place, in many ways his latest switch is more logical. Whereas McLaren had finished second, second and third in the 2010, 2011 and 2012 constructors’ world championships, Mercedes had finished only fourth, fourth and fifth. Moreover, McLaren was then a team eclipsed in prestige and pedigree by Ferrari alone. By contrast, although Mercedes went on to rule the constructors’ roost imperiously from 2014 to 2021, it slipped to third and second in 2022 and 2023, during which two seasons Hamilton added no wins at all to his extraordinary 103-victory tally. His Mercedes team-mate George Russell won once in that time, but Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz scored a combined total of five wins for Ferrari in the same period.
Lewis Hamilton’s Maranello move could cast a shadow over Ferrari’s ‘golden boy’. Or, as Andrew Frankel writes, will the Briton’s arrival spur Charles Leclerc on to greater heights?
Will Hamilton win world championships for the Scuderia? He may. He may not. He will be 40 when he first races a Ferrari, so precedent will be against him. But, like Fernando, who is almost four years his senior, he is significantly fitter than most butchers’ dogs and he is still driving brilliantly. Moreover, just as Mercedes bigwigs Niki Lauda and Ross Brawn lobbied him relentlessly during the latter half of 2012, repeatedly assuring him that Mercedes had the resource and the ambition to outclass McLaren sooner rather than later, so also have John Elkann (Ferrari chairman) and Fred Vasseur (Scuderia Ferrari team principal) been equally persistent in their efforts to convince him that Ferrari would be the team best prepared for all-new 2026-model-year F1. Elkann and Hamilton are firm friends, and Hamilton raced Vasseur’s ART Dallara when he won the GP2 championship in 2006. They all go back a long way.
Mercedes’ team principal, Toto Wolff, will doubtless be feeling a bit queasy right now. On the other hand he is probably already enjoying taking phone calls from, among others, Carlos Sainz, Alex Albon, Esteban Ocon, Pierre Gasly, Valtteri Bottas, Fernando Alonso and – hell, why not? – Sebastian Vettel. Andrea Kimi Antonelli, too? Yes, perhaps. He is the undisputed star of the current Mercedes Junior Team, and he recently aced an F3 test for F2 drivers, annihilating all the others’ lap times when it rained: always a good sign. However, he is 17. But Max Verstappen was 17 when he made his F1 debut, and he seems to have done OK. Wolff may actually be feeling a bit angrier with Vasseur than with Hamilton, for he and the Ferrari team boss are bosom pals. Indeed, Vasseur usually stays at the Wolffs’ large, opulent and scarily tidy Oxford pad when he is in England. Whether that arrangement will continue, time will tell.
F1 has been very samey over the past two seasons. This year things may well be similar. In 2025 they will not. The great switcheroo will do everyone a power of good, including Lewis Hamilton. As he said at Lex Tokyo Lounge Bar, in the Roppongi district of Tokyo, on the evening of Monday September 28, 2015, “Sometimes you just feel you’ve been somewhere too long and you need a change.” Indeed you do. I wish him well.
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