Do you hear that? The whirring sound off in the distance? That’s Formula One’s rumour mill, and it has been working overtime to catch up with last week’s shock news that Lewis Hamilton will leave Mercedes at the end of this year and move to Ferrari.
Hamilton will leave behind a gaping hole in Mercedes’ driver lineup as well as an intriguing storyline as team boss Toto Wolff attempts to fill it. In truth, very few can match the seven-time world champion’s driving ability and no one on the grid can match his marketing appeal, but Wolff said Friday that the situation is “a chance to do something bold.” George Russell represents a very safe pair of hands and is under contract until the end of 2025, meaning Mercedes could take a punt on a second driver in the knowledge they will have a very high benchmark to measure against.
Wolff admitted that the timing of Hamilton’s announcement had “bitten” the team as Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris recently committed their futures to Ferrari and McLaren, respectively, but there are still at least five very capable candidates available in one form or another.
Race wins: 2
Contract status: Signed for Ferrari until the end of 2024
Why he’s a fit: As solid of a contender as you’ll find and in need of a drive in 2025
Why he isn’t: Audi may prove more a more appealing destination
It’s fair to say that no one had “Sainz to Mercedes in 2025” on their driver-market bingo card at the start of this year, but with Hamilton taking the Spanish driver’s place at Ferrari next year, the two-time race winner has to become a possibility as a straight swap. Sainz is a solid racer with a track record of measuring up respectably against tough teammates, including Leclerc, Norris and Max Verstappen. Is that really what Mercedes needs, though?
In Russell, the team already has a proven race winner who is four years younger than Sainz and already embedded in the organisation. Wouldn’t a younger driver be a better bet long term?
For Sainz, Mercedes may not be the best option, either.
He has been linked with a move to Audi when the German manufacturer completes its takeover of Sauber and joins F1 as a full works team in 2026. His former McLaren boss Andreas Seidl is CEO at the team and would be able to offer Sainz the opportunity to be part of the building process from 2025 onward. With all the difficulties that a new team entering the sport faces, Sainz would be able to offer plenty of experience from his time working for four different F1 outfits as well as the vast technical knowledge he brings to Ferrari. In return, he would get a team largely built around him, something he is unlikely to receive at Mercedes as long as Russell is in the fold.
Andrea Kimi Antonelli
Race wins: 0
Contract status: Mercedes junior driver
Why he’s a fit: He represents the long-term future for Mercedes
Why he isn’t: Rushing him into F1 comes with immense pressure
If you’re good enough, you’re old enough. That was the philosophy when Red Bull fast-tracked Verstappen to F1 at the age of 17, and it may well apply to Mercedes’ prodigious talent Antonelli.
Born in 2006, Antonelli was scouted by Mercedes at the age of 11 and joined the team’s junior programme in April 2019. A series of European go-kart titles confirmed what Mercedes had hoped about the young Italian, and at the end of 2021 he got his first taste of car racing in Italian Formula 4. F4 titles in Italy and Germany followed in 2022 before he won the Formula Regional European Championship last year. This year, he will skip Formula 3 to make his debut in Formula 2, and the early signs from testing are all very promising.
Wolff: Hamilton’s desire to join Ferrari perfectly understandable
Toto Wolff says Lewis Hamilton wanted a new challenge when he joins Ferrari from Mercedes in 2025.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. While a fully prepared Antonelli would neatly solve Mercedes’s driver conundrum, a lot can happen during a rookie season in F2 — good, bad and unlucky. Russell, Leclerc and Oscar Piastri all won the title at their first attempt, but all three also had a year to prepare in F3. Nothing is guaranteed for Antonelli at this stage. Mercedes is also wary of the pressure an open F1 seat will heap on such young shoulders and is determined not to create a self-defeating prophecy.
“I think most important at that stage is he focuses on F2,” Wolff said when asked about Antonelli as a candidate. “If we start to spin his mind or unleash rumours, that’s not going to help his F2 campaign. He’s just stepped out of karts a few years ago. He’s not even 18. I would rather not start any speculation about Kimi going into F1 at this stage.”
Another issue with monitoring Antonelli’s progress in F2 is that other options on this list may get signed up to rival teams before Mercedes is ready to make a decision. On the other hand, if Antonelli wins F2, the rules mean he cannot race a second year in the series and F1 would be the next logical step.
Race wins: 0
Contract status: Signed for Williams until the end of 2025
Why he’s a fit: A seemingly perfect match for the team alongside his best mate Russell
Why he isn’t: Under contract for 2025 and could have his head turned by Red Bull
A close friend of Russell and a genuinely quick driver stuck in a lower-ranked team, Albon appears to be the perfect candidate for Mercedes in 2025, but there’s a catch: his contract with Williams includes the 2025 season.
“Alex is signed in Williams until the end of 2025, that’s signed,” his Williams boss James Vowles said on Monday. “It’s not something I’ve been public about because I don’t feel the need to. Any reports you’re seeing, that individual is speculating, at best. As I’ve also said publicly, it’s our job at Williams to create an environment that deserves someone of the calibre of Alex, as simple as that, I still maintain that.”
We all know contracts in F1 can be broken, though, especially when the price is right. In 2017, Mercedes paid roughly $12.5 million to release Valtteri Bottas from a Williams contract after Nico Rosberg’s retirement left the team flat-footed at the end of 2016. While Vowles’s Plan A is to make Williams successful enough to convince Albon to stay, he did hint that his mind could be changed by a deal that boosted the long-term future of his team beyond 2025.
“With the situation with Alex, would I stand in his way,” Vowles asked. “I have the responsibility at Williams for much longer [than 2025], that’s the most important thing to me, it’s not the responsibility towards one individual — in this case Alex — it’s the responsibility towards the team, so should any decision go that way, it’s because I’m very clear in my mind that I’ve made decisions with the team’s long-term goal in mind, not short.”
However, Albon may also have options elsewhere, including his old team Red Bull, who are known to be interested in him if Sergio Pérez continues to underperform alongside Verstappen this year. Albon will turn 28 in March, and while he still has plenty of time left in his career, his next move will be crucial in proving he is not just an underrated talent but a title contender on the same level as Russell, Norris and Leclerc.
Race wins: 32
Contract situation: Signed for Aston Martin until the end of 2024
Why he’s a fit: The most complete driver available
Why he isn’t: Age and his history with Mercedes
If Mercedes wants someone capable of driving on Hamilton’s level, with a name that resonates around the world and a couple of world championship trophies to prove those credentials, Wolff need look no further than Alonso. Throughout last season, Alonso proved that he has lost none of his speed or ability, and his podiums for Aston Martin removed all doubt that he could fight for wins and championships given a car to do so.
According to Alonso, he held talks with Mercedes in 2017 after Rosberg retired from F1 but, clearly, they didn’t lead to a contract. In an interview later that year, Alonso claimed he was the one who cut the conversations short as he was committed to McLaren, but Wolff later clarified that Alonso’s “history” with Mercedes meant he was not a consideration at that time.
That history refers to Alonso’s part in the 2007 “spygate” scandal in which his falling-out with McLaren-Mercedes team boss Ron Dennis led the FIA to reopen its investigation into the team’s possession of confidential Ferrari documents. McLaren, which was 40% owned by Mercedes at the time, was found guilty, fined $100 million and kicked out of the 2007 constructors’ championship. Whether enough water has passed under the bridge in the intervening 17 years remains to be seen, but it’s also not the only factor stopping a Mercedes-Alonso tie up.
Alonso’s start to the 2023 season with Aston Martin was superior to that of the Mercedes drivers and he finished fourth in the championship, 31 points clear of eighth-placed Russell and 28 shy of Hamilton in third. Does Mercedes still represent the step forward that Alonso desires in the late autumn of his career? Or would a renewal with Aston Martin, which says it sees him staying at the team beyond 2024, be a better path toward the elusive 33rd win and third world championship he so desires?
Race wins: 1
Contract status: Signed for Alpine until the end of 2024
Why he’s a fit: A known quantity for Mercedes
Why he isn’t: Lacks the star power of some of the others on this list
Although he has driven for Alpine since 2020 (or Renault, as it was known in his first season with the team), Ocon remains loosely in Mercedes’s orbit through his management team. His junior career and first steps into F1 were overseen by Mercedes, but he was never quite in the right place at the right time to make the step up to the full F1 team. When he left the junior programme for Renault, his intention was to be a part of the team that returns the French marque to the front of the grid, but like some other drivers on this list, he may feel the need for a change if he starts another season bogged down in the midfield.
His time at Mercedes means Wolff knows Ocon’s strengths and weaknesses, so whether he becomes a serious candidate will deliver deep insight into his potential to be recognised as a top-tier F1 driver. Ocon’s teammate Pierre Gasly will be at the end of his initial two-year contract with Alpine come the end of this season, but Ocon’s management means he would likely get the nod if it ever came down to a straight decision between the two.
This list has attempted to narrow down on the most likely candidates for the job, but after all the shocks of the offseason, it seems appropriate to enter into some slightly wilder speculation.
In the eyes of many fans, Daniel Ricciardo might deserve a more prominent place on this list, but he has made clear that his target is a Red Bull drive in 2025 to replace Pérez. Although he and Mercedes held talks in the past, they never bore fruit, and at 34 he would only likely be seen as a stopgap while Antonelli matures.
He only left the team two years ago, but Bottas is out of contract again at the end of this year. A return seems unlikely for both team and driver, and he said on Monday at Sauber’s launch event that he had not spoken to Wolff since the Hamilton news broke. Bottas added that he remains committed to the long-term Audi project at Sauber, but said if he is unable to continue where he is, “there’s no team that I wouldn’t go. I know my priorities and I’ve got my list.”
As Mercedes’ reserve driver, Mick Schumacher would be first in line to drive the car if either Russell or Hamilton are unable to at some point this year, but that doesn’t make him a front-runner for the seat in 2025. Perhaps if he were to get a one-off drive this year and impress under pressure, he might throw his name into the ring, but the results of his brief F1 career don’t stack up against the other names on this list.
And now for something completely different: Sebastian Vettel. Although he retired from F1 at the end of 2022, Vettel was one of the first drivers to call Aston Martin team principal Mike Krack when it looked like Lance Stroll wasn’t going to be fit for the 2023 season opener. Of course, he had a much closer link to Aston Martin having driven for the team during the previous season, but the thought of a single-year return with Mercedes — the team childhood hero Michael Schumacher made his own comeback with in 2010 — must have at least crossed Vettel’s mind when Hamilton announced his news.