To be adventurous or safe — the Mercedes conundrum after Hamilton’s shock exit

Replacing arguably one of the greatest drivers in the sport’s history is not going to be an easy task for the German marquee; who it selects could indicate how the team looks to build its post-Hamilton future

February 05, 2024 06:07 pm | Updated 06:07 pm IST

Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz Jr. and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton ahead of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz Jr. and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton ahead of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. | Photo Credit: FILE PHOTO

The Formula One’ Silly Season’ looked like it would be sedate this year when two key drivers, Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris, signed long-term deals with Ferrari and McLaren, respectively. Little did anyone in the F1 world expect a bombshell that dropped on February 1 when it was announced Lewis Hamilton was set to join Ferrari in 2025. While there had been rumours about Hamilton taking a swing in the red car, it appeared the door had been shut when the seven-time world champion signed a two-year extension with Mercedes last year, taking him till the end of 2025.

At the end of 2024, Hamilton would have spent 12 years at Mercedes, a team he joined in 2013 and has had incredible success, winning six world titles. With his decision to activate a clause in a contract that allowed him to leave in 2025, the most successful driver in F1 has put his team in a bind as it scurries for a replacement.

With most top drivers tied up already, Mercedes does not have a lot of A-listers to replace one of the greatest drivers the sport has ever seen. The Hindu looks at the possible options who could step into Hamilton’s shoes next year in the Silver Arrows.

Carlos Sainz: Apart from Mercedes, Sainz is one of the biggest losers in Hamilton’s move to Ferrari. The incumbent Ferrari driver had hoped to sort his contract before the start of the season and was angling for a long-term deal from the Scuderia. Instead, the Spaniard is out of a drive for next season and is not in the greatest bargaining position when he sits down to speak to other teams. Though Sainz is not the quickest driver on the grid, especially over a single lap, he has also held himself admirably going against Leclerc, who is one of the fastest drivers on the grid.

The 29-year-old was the only non-Red Bull driver to win a race in 2023 and brings with him lots of experience and a great work ethic. He has managed to keep the gap to Leclerc at a respectable margin and has been assertive enough to overrule some questionable calls from his team, showing his race awareness. At times in 2023, he even looked quicker when the car was less suited to Leclerc. In Sainz, Mercedes will get a solid driver who is quick enough to win races in the right circumstances, keep Russell on his toes, and bank the points for the team in the constructors’ championship.

Fernando Alonso.

Fernando Alonso. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Fernando Alonso: The double World Champion will be 43 when the 2025 season starts and it might not make sense to hire a driver in the last phase of his career. But never count against the wily Alonso to spring a surprise, and he will be craving for one last dance with a factory team as he still chases a third world title, nearly two decades after his first. The Spaniard is still operating at an extremely high level, as he showed with his regular podium finishes when the Aston Martin was competitive at the start of 2023. What he lacks in outright qualifying pace, he makes up for it in his racecraft and opportunism, especially on the opening laps. He has loads of experience and can hold his own against anybody on the current grid on a Sunday over a race distance. At the same time, his baggage of being a divisive personality who can destabilise the harmony inside the team has dissuaded big teams from hiring him in the past. But if Mercedes chooses this route, it would be fascinating to see what the old fox could do.

Alexander Albon.

Alexander Albon. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Alexander Albon: The Williams driver was one of the best performers last year despite being in a car that was in lower midfield. The British-Thai driver finished in points seven times in one of the slowest cars on the grid and helped his team finish seventh in the standings. After being beaten comprehensively by Max Verstappen at Red Bull in 2020, Albon’s stock was at an all-time low and had to sit out one season before landing at Williams in 2022. Since then, he has rediscovered himself and become the de-facto team leader. He is fast, doesn’t make many mistakes and has been able to grab points on weekends where Williams was remotely in contention to fight for points. The 27-year-old could be a good option for Mercedes to play the perfect rear-gunner to Russell.

Esteban Ocon.

Esteban Ocon. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Esteban Ocon: The Alpine driver could be another low-key contender for the second Mercedes drive, considering he was part of the Mercedes family and doesn’t have a contract with the French team for next year. Toto Wolff still manages Ocon and was a reserve driver for the team in 2019. He was seen as a future driver for the German team before Russell’s efforts in the junior category saw him get ahead on the pecking order. Ocon hasn’t set the stage on fire, but he is still a Grand Prix winner, and Mercedes knows enough about him, which takes the unpredictability out of the equation. He could be a decent stop-gap solution for a year or two. What will count against him is that his teammate Pierre Gasly - in his first season at Alpine - seemed to get the better of him towards the end of the last season.

Andrea Kimi Antonelli.

Andrea Kimi Antonelli. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Andrea Kimi Antonelli: This is a name that F1 fans might start hearing more regularly in the years to come. The 17-year-old Italian has been part of the Mercedes Young Driver Academy since 2019 and won the Formula Regional European Championship last year. Widely considered a generational talent like Max Verstappen, Antonelli will debut in Formula Two this year and could be a courageous but realistic move for Mercedes. While team boss Wolff recently said he wants the youngster to focus only on F2 this year, he also hinted that the team has the option to go for a bold choice. The Italian will have a steep learning curve this year in F2, having been deemed good enough to skip F3, and a promising rookie season in the feeder category could well propel him into a full-time race seat with Mercedes.

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