This isn’t Lewis Hamilton’s first audacious team switch.
Ferrari’s announcement Thursday that Hamilton would be leaving Mercedes and driving its storied red cars in 2025 was one of the biggest shocks in recent Formula 1 history. Heck, it can be convincingly argued that it’s the biggest shock in nearly 12 years — when Hamilton made a decision that rocked F1 in 2012.
Hamilton was an immediate star when he arrived in Formula 1 in 2007. He won four races his rookie season and finished just a point behind Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen for the title. If Hamilton and McLaren teammate Fernando Alonso hadn’t spent the entire year racing each other as much as they raced Raikkonen, Hamilton could have been a world champion right away.
A year later, Hamilton won the championship in dramatic fashion. He had five wins that season and got past Timo Glock in the rain on the last lap in Brazil to sneak past Ferrari’s Felipe Massa for the championship. With nine wins in his first 35 races, Hamilton and McLaren looked like a pairing that was set to dominate F1 for years to come.
That didn’t happen. Thanks to a stroke of genius from Brawn GP in 2009 and the emergence of Red Bull Racing in 2010, Hamilton won just eight times from 2009-2011 and didn’t finish higher than fourth in the points standings as Sebastian Vettel started a streak of four consecutive world titles.
With Vettel on the way to a third consecutive title at Red Bull in 2012 — and Hamilton on the way to another fourth-place finish in the standings — Hamilton decided to leave McLaren for a historic manufacturer looking to re-establish itself at the top of Formula 1.
After Brawn shocked the world in 2009 when Jenson Button won the championship, Mercedes bought the remains of the team ahead of the 2010 season. The German manufacturer brought seven-time F1 champion Michael Schumacher out of retirement as it rejoined Formula 1 for the first time since the 1950s.
Success was far from immediate. The 41-year-old Schumacher failed to score a podium finish in 2010 and had just one over three seasons before retiring for good after 2012.
With an opening on the team — and a commitment to get back atop the podium — Mercedes poached Hamilton from McLaren ahead of the 2013 season. Mercedes was familiar with Hamilton as it served as McLaren’s engine provider. And it felt like the combination of Hamilton and a meticulously designed engine would be unbeatable.
Mercedes was right. Hamilton ripped off six championships in seven seasons as the team won eight constructor’s titles in a row. In that eight-year stretch, Hamilton only lost to teammate Nico Rosberg in 2016 — Rosberg immediately retired after that season — and to Max Verstappen in 2021 after F1 race director Michael Masi didn’t follow protocol during a late caution flag in the season finale at Abu Dhabi.
From 2014-2021, Hamilton won 81 of a possible 160 races and failed to finish on the podium in just 31 of the races he participated in.
But just like 2014, 2022 brought sweeping new car regulations. The designs that Mercedes had used in its era of dominance were obsolete. And the team that Hamilton was driving for suddenly found itself getting beaten soundly by a driver in a Red Bull car.
As Verstappen has won three consecutive titles and an astonishing 34 of 44 races over the past two seasons, Hamilton enters 2024 in the midst of the longest winless streak of his career. Until 2022, Hamilton had won at least one race in each of his previous seasons in F1. That streak is now at two years after Red Bull drivers won all but one race in 2023.
The one non-Red Bull team that won a race in 2023? Ferrari.
Though Mercedes finished second and just ahead of Ferrari in the constructor’s standings a season ago, Ferrari appeared to have a faster car for much of the season. Better reliability and race strategy for the Scuderia would have relegated Mercedes to third.
And much like Mercedes in 2013, Ferrari is desperate to get back to the top of Formula 1. Raikkonen is the last driver to win a championship in a Ferrari and the team hasn’t won a constructor’s title since the following year in 2008.
It’s an incredible drought for the longest-running and most successful F1 team. Ferrari’s 16 constructor’s titles are the most of any team in F1 history. Williams — a backmarker for the better part of the 2000s — is second with nine. And its last constructor’s title came in 1997.
Ferrari is desperate for another championship. And so is Hamilton. As Hamilton looks to further entrench himself as the winningest F1 driver ever, he also wants to officially break a tie with Schumacher that many feel should have been broken in 2021.
It’s way too early to say if this is a partnership borne solely out of desperation, however. Like he did in 2012 at McLaren, Hamilton could feel that Mercedes doesn’t have what it takes to catch Red Bull. And while there’s no shortage of resources at Mercedes, there are no financial obstacles to success at Ferrari either. And with both Hamilton and Charles Leclerc under contract for 2025 and beyond, the pressure for F1’s most popular team to get back to the top is going to be greater than ever.