Lewis Hamilton shocked the Formula 1 world by signing with Ferrari for 2025 and bringing his 12-year partnership with Mercedes to an end, after years of speculation that he’s join the prancing horse.
Hamilton‘s even been part of the Mercedes ecosystem since joining the McLaren development programme aged 13 and strongly rebuffed any Ferrari rumours in 2023 as he appeared set to see out his F1 career for the Three-Pointed Star.
However, Mercedes will now be scrambling for his replacement after Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris locked themselves down in January, and questions remaining over George Russell‘s ability to lead the team to a world championship.
So who will partner Russell? Mercedes have only made five driver changes since returning to F1 in 2010, signing Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg for their maiden season, then bringing in Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and most recently Russell so there’s not really a particular trend or type compared to Red Bull, for example.
But after two down years and this hammer blow, whatever decision they make could decide whether they stay as a frontrunner in F1.
Alex Albon‘s career has been resurrected at Williams since 2022, and he’s felt like the favourite to be the next driver stepping up into a top seat for at least a year.
Ironically, that was thought to be Ferrari when news of the Carlos Sainz stand-off first emerged, but and enjoys a good relationship with Russell too.
Albon‘s proven all over again that he combines good race management and ability as team leader with his obvious speed on Saturday and Sunday, and wheel-to-wheel strength and has made it clear he feels the time is now to make the step up.
He told the High Performance Podcast in the off-season: “Weirdly I’m getting old in the world of F1, I’m 27 and I feel I’m near my peak, I feel my experience and speed is in a good place and I’m ready to win races and fight for a championship.
“I have the inner self-confidence, it’s taken a long time to get there, I don’t think I’m one of the drivers who’ve had it from the very beginning. I do feel I owe the team for what they’ve given me as a chance to get back into F1 but at the same time I know I’ve given them back just as much as they’ve given me.”
So while he remains grateful to Williams, that debt is settled as far as Albon is concerned and he certainly won’t reject Mercedes for sentimental reasons. So there are a lot of reasons that this could work, but the question still remains of whether can really win a title in equal machinery against the very best drivers in F1, and whether he offers a better chance of doing that than the next driver on this list…
It could end up being a straight swap deal between Mercedes and Ferrari if Carlos Sainz heads the other way.
Sainz is perhaps still a bit underrated after Leclerc pipped him in the drivers’ championship and he finished seventh in 2023, but he entered the final weekend well within range of fourth place and got the worst luck of any of his four rivals in Abu Dhabi.
While he’s maybe not one of the absolute fastest drivers in F1 on pure pace, Sainz is gritty, he’s a fighter and generally does the best with whatever comes his way.
He generally dealt with the unique challenges that come as a Ferrari driver better than Leclerc and Abu Dhabi 2023 notwithstanding, has the rare knack of rising to the biggest occasions better than almost any other driver on the F1 grid.
Sainz‘s drive to third in the 2023 Italian GP was one of the best and most memorable performances of the season by any driver while his canny win in Singapore a fortnight later was the Spaniard at his best and certainly showed he can be more of a match for Russell.
But he’s also been linked with rejoining Andreas Seidl at Audi after a successful two-year spell with the German at McLaren that really helped rebuild Sainz‘s career and at this stage it’s hard to judge which of the automotive giants would be the more attractive option.
Andrea Kimi Antonelli
Aged just 17, Andrea Kimi Antonelli is currently preparing for his first season of Formula 2 after skipping F3, but there’s a reason he’s being fast-tracked.
The precocious Italian is one of the hottest junior prospects since… Lewis Hamilton. A karting prodigy, Antonelli only graduated to cars full-time in 2022 and has won every single one of the four championships he’s completed since then.
Most recently he won Formula Regional Europe – the standard stepping stone between F4 and FIA F3 – at the first time of asking and will make his F2 debut for Prema alongside Ollie Bearman (himself one of the hottest commodities in feeder series racing).
It’s not so much being thrown in at the deep end as being thrown into the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but if anyone can handle that transition it’ll be Antonelli and by the end of the European leg of the season in Baku, Mercedes should have a good idea of how their charge is progressing.
There’s not been a rookie make their debut as high up the grid as Mercedes since Hamilton at McLaren in 2007 but it’s no exaggeration to say Antonelli is the best-placed driver in at least a decade to make that step successfully.
And what better way to replace Hamilton than show a rookie the same faith that McLaren showed the seven-time champion at the start of his career?
Fernando Alonso‘s Aston Martin contract is up at the end of 2024, though both sides have expressed their desire to extend that for at least another year.
However, could Alonso be tempted by Mercedes particularly if Mercedes outperform the mean green machines at the start of 2024?
The Brackley team certainly ended 2023 better than Aston Martin but Alonso seemed confident that they could turn those tables over the offseason, and if that doesn’t come to pass then the Spaniard must start to wonder what to do next.
Though he seems to defy the aging process, Alonso can’t go on forever – he’ll turn 43 in 2024 and must think short-term about which team can offer him the best shot at a third world championship.
The long shots
Pierre Gasly has been waiting for a seat like this to open up since he was demoted from Red Bull in 2019, and is probably the best-placed midfield driver aside from Albon to make the jump if Mercedes do opt for a Bottas-like signing to pair with Russell.
Meanwhile his Alpine teammate Esteban Ocon is still managed by Mercedes and it’s no secret that Toto Wolff is fond of the Frenchman whose contract expires in 2024. However, neither driver would come anywhere close to replacing Hamilton’s star power and both aged 27, don’t offer as much growth potential as other options
Norris seems pretty content at McLaren having just signed a contract extension that will keep him at Woking until at least the end of 2026. However, if Mercedes can get back on track in 2024, could his head be turned?
He must back himself to beat Russell and it would still offer Norris the opportunity to build a powerhouse team around him to challenge Verstappen.
Or if Mercedes‘ dream replacement isn’t available until 2026 (e.g. if they want to give Antonelli one more year), Daniel Ricciardo, Nico Hulkenberg or even Valtteri Bottas would be a safe pair of hands to stand in for a season.
And there’s always a host of young drivers waiting to break through to F1, from Liam Lawson to F2 champions Felipe Drugovich and Theo Pourchaire to whoever triumphs from this year’s star-studded grid that includes Bearman.