Lewis Hamilton used his Mercedes contract to engineer a shock move to Ferrari in a move that stunned Formula 1 fans, but the same legal document could also prevent him from getting everything he wants with the Scuderia.
A week has passed since the 39-year-old announced he would be leaving the Silver Arrows at the end of the 2024 season after 12 years of service, in what has proved to be an earth-shattering decision for Mercedes and Toto Wolff, who didn’t see it coming.
The seven-time world champion will see out his final season before departing, having exercised a break clause in his contract with the German manufacturer that allows him to join Ferrari.
But Hamilton is set to face disappointment in his attempts to reunite with key personnel from the Mercedes organisation whom he wanted to move with him to Ferrari’s Maranello base in Italy.
According to Motorsport Italia, his £50million-a-year deal signed in August 2023 contains a “no poaching clause” with Mercedes, which would prevent him from being able to offer a job to his race engineer Peter ‘Bono’ Bonnington or trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin.
Hamilton signed the agreement which apparently stipulates that the eight-time constructors champions can “prevent him from inviting colleagues in case the working relationship is broken by proposing him employment in another workplace”.
Why teams resort to no poaching clauses
These non-compete and no poaching clauses are relatively common in F1, although key engineers often move between teams due to the specialised nature of their jobs. In many cases, the person will be placed on gardening leave to protect the team’s confidential information before they move to a rival.
And sure enough, Mercedes have inserted the same contract clause as they did with Hamilton for team principals, technical directors and other essential members of the team.
One of the precedents that triggered this type of clause occurred in 2014, when Fernando Alonso left Ferrari to join McLaren. The Spaniard took his race engineer, Andrea Stella – now the Papaya’s team principal – along with him.
But Ferrari were unable to repeat the same process when they signed Sebastian Vettel to replace Alonso in the Prancing Horse in 2015. The German had a ‘no poaching’ clause written into his deal, meaning his trusted engineer Guillaume ‘Rocky’ Rocquelin, who worked with him for all four of his championship-winning seasons, was unable to move with him.
There are special cases where such transfers are possible, but there must be consent from all parties in order to break their contracts. And it does not appear that Mercedes will grant permission for Bonnington or Shovlin to leave.