BUXTON: Hamilton's Ferrari move is the biggest driver signing in F1 history – and the prospects are delicious
The biggest driver signing in F1 history? It’s all too easy to get carried away with recency bias and over romanticise the moment in the moment, but as F1 TV commentator Alex Jacques and I ran through the permutations of Lewis Hamilton’s move to Ferrari earlier in the week, the two of us came to the same conclusion. It is. And by some measure.
We’ve seen big-name moves before, of course, but few come close to being quite this meaningful. Fittipaldi leaving Lotus for McLaren, Alain Prost’s defection from McLaren to Ferrari and Nigel Mansell’s sensational switch to IndyCar were all worthy of note.
Senna’s move from McLaren to Williams and Schumacher’s from Benetton to Ferrari were seismic as they were both, at the time, the only active champions in the sport. Schumacher’s was even more so as he moved from the title-winning team to one in the midst of a rebuild. Hamilton’s own move from McLaren to Mercedes was huge news, but although highly regarded he was, at the time, only a one-time title winner.
Lauda, Prost and Schumacher were all pulled out of retirement for high profile returns with McLaren, Williams and Mercedes respectively, and you can’t overlook Sir Jack Brabham’s decision to go it alone and set up his own team in 1962 as a two-time champion.
But this is different. This is the most successful driver in the history of the sport moving to the most successful team in the history of the sport.
The last time that happened? Over seven decades ago, when Juan Manuel Fangio, then a three-time champion and the most successful driver in the then only six-year-old world championship, also joined Ferrari from Mercedes.
While the constructors’ championship didn’t exist back then, Ferrari’s 20 wins over those six years made them, at the time, the most successful team in the sport’s young history.
The best for both Hamilton and Mercedes?
Hamilton was never going to race for Mercedes forever. Indeed, the short-term nature of his only recently penned Mercedes deal is what seemingly allowed a well-timed phone call from Maranello to bring the previously unbreakable alliance to an end.
Had Hamilton won an eighth title in 2021, there’s every chance he might have walked off into the sunset. Perhaps, then, this is the best for both, to enable them to finally move onto the future.
Mercedes is already looking forward and has already singled out Hamilton’s long-term heir, a precocious talent marching his way through the junior formulae in a manner potentially even more impressive than Lewis managed two decades ago. Andrea Kimi Antonelli is set to contest Formula 2 this season having been skipped past Formula 3 by the three pointed star.
Should he win the title in 2024, Toto Wolff has already hinted the team might make a “bold” call on its 2025 line-up.
'Don’t underestimate the increased desire a change in team can also create'
Hamilton’s detractors will of course tell you that Ferrari won’t be getting him at his brilliant best. With no Grand Prix victories in two seasons, statistically the best he may be, but a racer in his prime he is no more.
And to that I say rubbish.
To my mind there are only three drivers in modern day Formula 1 who we could term to be the complete racer: Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Max Verstappen. For all the accolades we can bestow on their rivals, none can yet claim to be at the same level. No others have experience of what it takes to win the world championship.
And while Hamilton is already hungry to return to the top step of the podium and the fight for the world crown, don’t underestimate the increased desire a change in team can also create.
So what Ferrari gains is what Mercedes loses. While George Russell could be presented with a great opportunity, what Charles Leclerc gains is the ultimate benchmark. The ability to compare and contrast with one of the greatest and discover from whence that sprinkling of magic dust comes, and if he can recreate it.
But it's not just championship-winning know-how behind the wheel that Ferrari is set to gain. With a world champion driver comes the magnetic appeal of star quality. The best engineers, designers, mechanics – even sponsors – gravitate to the best drivers.
Ferrari has already started making plays in its recruitment drive, so expect to see even more big names join Hamilton’s quest at the Scuderia.
The emotional draw
And what of Hamilton? Was this an emotional decision?
Deep down, to a degree, I’m sure it was. A tough decision, but an emotional one. To jump out of the comfy seat is always easier when you’re jumping into the arms of an employer who really wants you, but overtures and promises are no guarantee of greater success.
Yet the pull of Ferrari and the chance to win with them is something incredibly special to a racing driver. There’s the chance to do what Hamilton’s two most respected rivals never achieved, and return the world championship to Maranello. And, perhaps, after years of facing the bewilderingly uniformed suggestion that it has all been the car, it’s yet another opportunity for him to mark out just how special he is, and help to build another title run at another team.
But that emotional draw will have been made even deeper by the presence of Fred Vasseur who guided Hamilton through his formative years in F3 and GP2 as team boss of ASM and ART. It was Fred who moulded the unstoppable force of nature who became so undeniable that McLaren had to field him as an F1 rookie almost 20 years ago. Arguably, it was Fred who was responsible for one of the most potent and exciting versions of Hamilton we’ve ever seen.
The chance to make history, for Hamilton to take his eighth and for Fred to return Ferrari to the world championship at the same time, is simply too romantic.
Back in 2007 Hamilton, as a GP2 title-winning rookie, replaced the Ferrari-bound Kimi Raikkonen. At the end of the season they were split by one point, and Raikkonen was crowned Ferrari’s last drivers’ world champion. How poetic if, 18 years later, an F2 champion named after Raikkonen should replace the Ferrari-bound Hamilton, and fight it out with him for the world championship.
The thought alone, is delicious.