Modern-day sport is as much about the off-field goings-on as it is about the on-field action. What happens behind the scenes keeps fans glued, sustaining the sport even when it’s not being played.
A popular instance of this phenomenon is the transfer day deadline in European football. The palace intrigue that surrounds where a player might go and for how much fills up social media and animates gatherings, with passionate fans getting their managerial hats on.
The bombshell from nowhere
The recent mid-season window closed on February 1 and a big-news signing dropped, shocking the entire sporting world. Only, it was not a football move but a transfer in another billion-dollar global sport — Formula One.
The bombshell was Lewis Hamilton announcing that he would leave the Mercedes F1 team after 12 years at the end of 2024 and join Scuderia Ferrari on a multi-year deal. One of the biggest driver switches ever, it was deemed noteworthy enough to be discussed on a TV show tracking football transfers that day.
In the past, big-name moves have generated buzz and altered the driver market significantly. But in years to come, this seismic moment could stand out for a few reasons.
For one thing, some of the notable team changes in the past had solid reasons underpinning them.
When Michael Schumacher moved from Benetton to Ferrari in 1996 after winning two world titles, he had outgrown the team in stature and fancied a new challenge: getting Ferrari back to winning ways. Alain Prost left McLaren after falling out with the team when battling Ayrton Senna. Later, Senna left McLaren once it declined competitively, to replace Prost at Williams.
This one, though, feels different because Hamilton had signed a deal only last year to keep him at Mercedes until 2025. We have learnt since then that there was a release option on Hamilton’s side to leave the team after 2024, and the seven-time champion chose to activate it, take on a different challenge and fulfil a life-long dream by moving to Ferrari.
While it might not make sense on the face of it, considering the Ferrari is no more competitive than what he currently has, it could be part of a long game. At the end of 2012, Hamilton left the championship-contending McLaren for Mercedes, which had a head-start in the Hybrid Power Unit era that started in 2014. The move has reaped rich dividends, with the Briton winning six world titles.
Has Hamilton seen something from Ferrari that has convinced him that the team is ready to tackle the new engine rules in 2026, or has he seen enough of Mercedes to conclude that it isn’t the right place to be? Only time will tell whether he has made the right call.
But what is certain is that regardless of whether they triumph on track, Hamilton and Ferrari are already winners. Hamilton will get top dollar for his services at the most famous name in F1; Ferrari has significantly weakened arch-rival Mercedes and put together the best driver pairing for next year, with Hamilton joining Charles Leclerc. Not to mention the boost in sponsorship income Ferrari will receive with the most successful F1 driver of all time in its car.
At the same time, the tie-up is also fraught with risk. The decision to have two ‘alphas’ in the same garage is a philosophical departure for Ferrari, which prefers a clear No. 1 and No. 2 driver, even if it is not stated explicitly. Though the team might claim Leclerc and Carlos Sainz are given the same tools, it is widely understood Ferrari is built around the former — or was until last week.
It will be intriguing to hear from Leclerc — who signed a multi-year extension just a few weeks ago — about when he learnt of Hamilton’s arrival and how he is preparing to square off against one of the greatest drivers in the sport’s history.
Conversely, Mercedes now faces a leap into the unknown with this sudden announcement. Its team boss, Toto Wolff, even admitted that he was surprised by the timing of the decision.
Without its north star and with the likes of Leclerc, Max Verstappen (Red Bull) and Lando Norris (McLaren) all locked in for now, the Silver Arrows don’t have a lot of options in the driver market.
Granted, in George Russell, Mercedes already has a bonafide star who was tipped to take over as the team leader whenever Hamilton left. But Russell had a poor season in 2023. Can he position himself as the team’s future, fully aware the engineers will value his feedback more than the guy who will leave them at the end of the year?
At the same time, the German team has always liked to have the most potent pairing possible, and there isn’t a bonafide star on the market, barring Fernando Alonso, who will turn 43 this year.
The Sainz situation
Another big loser in this development is Sainz, the incumbent Ferrari driver, who doesn’t have a contract for next year. The Spaniard had hoped to extend his stay at the Scuderia. While he might not be in Verstappen, Leclerc, or Hamilton’s class in terms of outright pace over a lap, Sainz is not very far off them and, in the right circumstances, can beat anybody on the grid.
The 29-year-old has a great work ethic and can read a race well. He is also assertive, as he has shown in the past, overruling his team’s dubious strategy calls. The two-time race winner could be a perfect fit at Mercedes, who will get a quick driver to pocket points in the constructors’ standings and also keep Russell on his toes.
In a media interaction after the Hamilton announcement, Wolff said, “The timing bit us a bit. But I always like change because change provides you with opportunity. Maybe it’s a chance to do something bold.”
One such bold choice could be Mercedes junior driver, Andrea Kimi Antonelli. The 17-year-old Italian is considered the next big thing and will make his Formula 2 debut this year. He is believed to be so good that he has skipped F3 and will graduate to the level below F1 directly from the Formula Regional championship. However, when asked about it, Wolff dampened expectations, saying he didn’t want to distract the youngster — but he did not rule it out either.
Though nothing has changed for 2024, the news has put the sport at the front and centre of things, giving a much-needed boost to the new season starting in three weeks after the damp squib last year when Verstappen and Red Bull steamrolled the opposition.
What was once thought impossible has happened when people least expected it, and there is palpable excitement about the most decorated driver heading to the most illustrious team on the grid. If Hamilton can get a record eighth world title with the Maranello-based squad, it would be the perfect bookend to one of the most extraordinary careers in the sport.