Toto Wolff had heard the rumors linking Lewis Hamilton with a shock switch to Ferrari in the days leading up to their pre-arranged coffee at his home in Oxfordshire.
They were the same whispers that have long lingered around Hamilton, Formula One’s seven-time world champion – Mercedes’ champion. The same ones briefly silenced when Hamilton signed a two-year deal to remain at Mercedes last August, appearing to commit his future until the end of 2025.
Wolff, the Mercedes team principal, wanted to wait until they met on Wednesday morning to discuss it over breakfast, where Hamilton broke the news to him.
“He said to me that he has decided to race for Ferrari in 2025,” Wolff explained. “That was basically it. We had a good hour of conversation, and this is where we are.”
In that hour, Wolff did not try to change Hamilton’s mind, accepting his reasoning. “He felt he needed change,” Wolff said. “I can understand that.”
It’s the timing of Hamilton’s decision that left Wolff, and F1 as a whole, shocked. Hamilton had decided to leave the team at the end of the year without even driving the new, totally redesigned car – the one both he and the team hoped would return Mercedes to the front.
Ever the pragmatist, Wolff started to think about the next steps. How would the rest of the team be informed? How would the news be communicated publicly? What would the pressure points be? And what would it mean for the future of the team?
“Clearly, the timing was surprising for us,” Wolff said. “But I guess now, maybe (it will) give us a long time to decide what we want to do going forward for next year, and we will extract everything we have.”
The steps that followed
Hamilton was scheduled to return to the Mercedes F1 factory this week from his winter break. The team shared a picture of him sitting in the new chassis on Tuesday, and it planned a simulator session for Friday. On Thursday, Hamilton was also scheduled to go paintballing with the race team, including some engineers.
By the time they got together for paintballing, news of Hamilton’s exit was already emerging. It gave Hamilton the chance to speak directly with those most heavily involved in his race operations about the decision.
When Wolff spoke to Hamilton’s race engineer, Pete Bonnington, about the news, Bonnington replied, “Is it April 1st already?”
Mercedes called a team meeting for 2 p.m. on Thursday to properly deliver the news, lasting around 10 minutes. Preparations were laid for the official announcement before 7 p.m., including coordination between Mercedes and Ferrari, the latter issuing its 20-word statement around 10 minutes later.
Since being informed by Hamilton of his decision, Wolff said he has spoken “numerous times” with Ferrari team principal Fred Vasseur, a close friend. “It’s a little bit like rugby,” Wolff said. “We punch each other in the nose, but we are able to get off the pitch and have a respectful relationship.”
Why the door was left open
When Mercedes announced Hamilton had signed a new two-year contract in August, it appeared to end any talk of him leaving the team for the foreseeable future. In fact, that very contract included the clause that meant he could leave.
Unknown to the wider world, the contract was actually only good for one year because it included an exit clause that Hamilton triggered to facilitate the move to Ferrari at the end of 2024. So why agree to the exit clause in the first place? Wolff explained it was designed to keep options open for both parties, given the potential volatility of the driver market heading into 2025.
“We felt that a longer-term contract would limit our options going forward,” he added. “So (we were) absolutely aware of all the positives and negatives, weighing it up. That is what we decided to do.”
Wolff always knew the structure of the deal made an exit possible. “The events are not a surprise,” he said. “But maybe the timing is.”
What changed for Hamilton
Wolff and Hamilton had spoken in the past about the allure of Ferrari and how driving the red car could be “exciting to do one day.” Those conversations always ended in agreeing an even more exciting prospect would be finishing at Mercedes and writing a great F1 legacy.
“But I never ignore the possibility of change, whether it’s Ferrari or another team,” Wolff said. “So this is what it is.”
As recently as the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton was talking about Mercedes’ push to return to the top in F1 and his commitment to the project. He claimed last year he had “unfinished business” with the team, with which he anticipated maintaining an association beyond his racing career.
“I cannot tell you exactly (what changed),” Wolff said. “All I know is that we were very aligned when we went into the Christmas period, and I think we have said that in public and in the team.
“You need to ask Lewis why he changed his mind. How he framed it to me is perfectly understandable; he needed a new challenge and he was looking for a different environment, and this was maybe the last possibility to do something else.”
Hamilton is yet to speak publicly about the specific reasons for leaving Mercedes, only saying in the press release issued by the team, “The time is right for me to take this step, and I’m excited to be taking on a new challenge.”
No driver-team relationship in F1 history has spawned the success of Hamilton and Mercedes. Few have borne such warm off-track feelings, either. It meant there was always an emotional aspect to Hamilton’s call to leave. In the statement confirming his departure, he said it was “one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make” — and it will have been hard news for the Mercedes team to hear.
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Wolff denied he was hurt by Hamilton’s decision, again focusing on the future. “It doesn’t hurt because I need to keep calm and decide how we’re going to manage the 2024 season and what the decisions need to be going forward,” Wolff said.
“It’s not like someone that I like a lot is disappearing. It’s changing the team, and we’ve been very conscious in signing the contract that it could happen.”
What comes next?
Wolff has never been someone to dwell on the past, always willing to make the necessary moves for the good of the team. Throughout his first media briefing since Hamilton’s exit was announced, he talked about what was to come.
It’ll be the start of a new era for Mercedes, one led by George Russell. The young star the team nurtured all the way from Formula Three to F1 will now step up and spearhead its efforts for the future, having gone toe-to-toe with Hamilton over the past two years. It’s a prospect that excites Wolff.
“I couldn’t wish for a better team leader when Lewis leaves, no doubt about that,” Wolff said. “We have such a solid foundation, such a quick and talented and intelligent guy in the car. We just need to make the right choice for the second seat.”
Wolff smirked when The Athletic suggested his phone was likely inundated with inquiries about that seat. It’ll become hot property in what could be the most fluid F1 driver market in years, with many free agents to choose from. Wolff noted, “A few contracts have been signed a few weeks ago that we could have looked at, that could have been interesting” — Lando Norris signed a long-term McLaren extension last month — “but timing here bit us a bit.”
Mercedes is in zero rush to decide, nor does it need to be.
“I always like change because change provides opportunity,” Wolff said. “I’m really looking forward to taking the right decisions for the team together with my colleagues in who’s going to be in the seat next year. Maybe it’s a chance to do something bold.”
Mercedes has 24 races to go with Hamilton, one last year to make more memories and bring home more silverware. “We want to make it the most successful (year) we can,” Wolff said. “Is it realistic that we are competing for a world championship against Max (Verstappen) in a Red Bull? If I am a probability person, the odds are against us, but nevertheless, we will give it our best shot.”
Wolff vowed that Hamilton’s achievements and legacy with Mercedes will remain a crucial part of its F1 story. But the focus in Brackley will be on writing the next chapter.
“It doesn’t take anything away from the historic legacy that will always exist,” Wolff said. “This journey together will be in the history books, as much as the next journey of a Mercedes will hopefully be.”
(Lead images: Getty – Mark Thompson, Lars Baron; Design: John Bradford/The Athletic)