Why Lewis Hamilton is joining Ferrari and what it means for Max Verstappen

The seven-time world champion is leaving Mercedes to join the team coveted by every driver in Formula One

Hamilton hasn’t won a race since 2021 (Photo: Getty)

Lewis Hamilton is still shooting for that rainbow in the shadow of his 40th birthday. Which self-respecting alpha wouldn’t want to turn that page with a Prancing Horse on the bonnet? The difference is most of us will never know what that feels like. Hamilton, on the other hand, has always thought big, and always got what he wanted.

It does not take much to light the Hamilton-Ferrari fuse. A casual drink at an F1 reception in Germany in 2008 shared by Hamilton’s father Anthony and the then Ferrari general manager Stefano Domenicali, now Liberty Media’ F1 CEO, led one respected English news outlet to speculate a deal taking McLaren’s soon-to-be world champion to Maranello was imminent.

Last season Ferrari flatly denied claims that a deal had been done to rescue Hamilton from his Mercedes ordeal. Hamilton too said there was nothing in it before signing a new two-year deal to keep him in Brackley until 2026. A contract is only ever a bargaining chip in the F1 paddock, especially one with a release clause triggered by Ferrari.

Hamilton has not won a race since 2021. Red Bull are so far ahead of the field, it is almost impossible for Mercedes to close the deficit in this regulatory window. New engine regulations come on stream for 2026, offering rivals a chance to regroup around an amended design template. The Ferrari power unit is its strength. New team principal Fred Vasseur is desperate to beef up his design department. The pursuit of Hamilton, led by Ferrari chairman John Elkann, is thought to be the catalyst to build out the technical team to take advantage of the new regulations.

Red Bull enter a new era in 2026 with their engine partnership with Ford, developing power units with F1 that are mandated to use greener fuels and greater energy recovery. There is no guarantee therefore that Red Bull carry their present superiority forward in 2026. It is this potential for Red Bull to fall back as much Ferrari to gain that represents opportunity for Hamilton and jeopardy for three-time world champion Max Verstappen.

Thus Hamilton has nothing to lose. Indeed this mirrors his switch from a moribund McLaren to Mercedes in 2014 ahead of the migration to hybrid engines. That was just as much a shock as this, but it proved a masterstroke by Hamilton, who went on to add six world titles to his 2008 triumph for McLaren. The ability of Hamilton to manipulate the environment to suit his needs has been in evidence since he tapped Ron Dennis on the shoulder at the 1995 Autosport Awards aged 10, telling him he wanted to drive for McLaren one day. Three years later he was signed to McLaren’s junior driver programme.

In 2006 when he was racing in GP2 on the promise of promotion to the McLaren F1 race team should he win the title, Hamilton’s father ran out of patience waiting for Dennis to confirm the seat would indeed be his and approached Red Bull. It did not take Dennis long to act after that.

The link to Ferrari has been there throughout Hamilton’s career, born of the universal appeal of the historic marque for all drivers, and the desire of Ferrari to have the best. The red team, like Real Madrid in football, are the sport’s ultimate reference point. It required the circumstances to converge for Hamilton and Ferrari to consummate a deal.

Hamilton on his way to a maiden world title in 2008 (Photo: Getty)

Hamilton is all about winning. At the outset, McLaren offered him the best chance to succeed and he did, winning the title in only his second season. Had it not been for “Spygate” and the illegal possession by McLaren of a Ferrari design dossier, Hamilton would almost certainly have been crowned champion on debut in 2007.

When it became clear that McLaren were in decline, Hamilton correctly identified Mercedes as the optimum move. Now he has engineered what will be his final career move. That it meets a life-long ambition is just a happy co-incidence. The switch, scheduled for 2025, pairs him with Charles Leclerc, who extendeds his deal with the team last month.

Carlos Sainz was also pushing to extend his Ferrari contract, but was unsuccessful. Now we understand his difficulty. Sainz will not be out of work. He could easily move in the opposite direction to Mercedes or pick up the Red Bull seat should Sergio Perez not be rebooked as expected for 2025.

The Ferrari development is unlikely to have much bearing on Hamilton’s performance in the season ahead, though it does come at an awkward time with Mercedes launching the new 2024 car in a fortnight. Fernando Alonso raced in the same circumstances after winning his first world title at Renault in 2005. Dennis poached him in the Interlagos paddock before the champagne corks started popping and announced he would race for McLaren in 2007. This did not stop Alonso retaining his crown for Renault in 2006.

If the 2024 Mercedes, complete with new chassis, gear box and suspension geometry, is somehow on the money, Hamilton will wring every last drop if it brings him the chance of an eighth crown. Failing that he will just have to augment his legend at Ferrari, who are even more desperate for silverware than he is after a hiatus stretching back 17 years to their last driver’s crown in 2007, and that ripped from Hamilton’s grasp in the final two races.

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