It's been a very long time since Toto Wolff found himself staring at an empty cockpit at Mercedes. Not since the end of 2016 when Nico Rosberg abruptly retired just days after winning the world championship has Wolff been left facing a driver-based decision of this magnitude.
If anything, since then Wolff's problem has been the reverse: too many top quality drivers waiting in line for their chance of a Silver Arrows seat, only to find themselves stymied. Short term stop gap Valtteri Bottas became a long term reliable wing man to Hamilton, until the pressure of George Russell's break-out performances at Williams finally forced Wolff's hand to make a change in 2022.
Hamilton's latest contract extension, signed just a few months ago, seemed to guarantee that the current Mercedes driver stability would persist until at least the end of 2025. Wolff could sleep easy over that, at least, and focus on getting the team back into race- and title-winning contention. But yesterday's news changed all that, and now Wolff has a new conundrum to crack in the coming weeks and months.
George's time to shine
The one man who probably can't believe his luck today is George Russell. He joined the team in 2022 and had a solid first season despite the well-known problems with the W13. But last year reminded him that he was still very much the number two driver to seven-time champion Hamilton, and it times it looked like he was being put firmly back in his box and told to wait for the proper time.
That time has come much sooner than even he would have been hoping or expecting. While Hamilton remains with the team in 2024, the internal balance of power is already shifting: Hamilton is no longer a Mercedes man, having forsaken them for the appeal of racing in red. The team will immediately start to reconfigure around its new leading man, its big hope for the future, while Hamilton is eased toward the exit and kept away from significant technical innovations.
Without doubt, it's Russell's time to shine. There are no more excuses or reasons for him not to become one of Formula 1's top drivers. But after so many years as F1's 'rising star', he has just one race win in 104 starts under his belt. Will he be able to seize the moment and finally prove he's up to the billing? A big part of the answer to that question is who he finds himself working alongside once Hamilton is in Maranello.
Has Albon already staked his claim?
Perhaps the nominal favourite to succeed Hamilton at Mercedes is Alex Albon, who emerged as one of the hottest success of 2023 in his second season at Williams - ironically having taken over the seat at Grove formerly occupied by Russell.
Many thought that Russell would be an impossible act to follow at Williams, but Albon did it and then some. We're a long way from his troubled rookie spells at Toro Rosso/Red Bull where he was firmly put in his place by Max Verstappen.
Albon is already good friends with Russell and has an existing relationship with Wolff and Mercedes. Recruiting the London-born Thai driver would be a very smooth and easy decision for the team to make, one that comes with genuine promise for the future.
Despite lauding his time at Williams and praising the new team boss James Vowles, Albon was reluctant to give long-term commitments to remaining with the team beyond the end of 2024 when asked recently. Maybe he saw the current opportunity coming in his tea leaves?
Can Alpine hold on to Ocon?
Esteban Ocon is another driver with strong links to Mercedes which helped launch his F1 career. He is still under a long term management contract with them despite currently racing for Renault's Alpine works team, where he's been since the start of the 2021 season.
In many ways Ocon is very similar to Russell, having started with a backmarker team (Manor) before going on to take part in 133 races, picking up his maiden Grand Prix victory in Hungary during his first season with Renault.
Ocon scored double the number of points Albon did in 2023, but then again he was in a much stronger team. Perhaps more pertinently, Ocon ended up P12 in the final standings, four points behind his current team mate Pierre Gasly. That's not the most convincing argument to secure him a seat at Mercedes, and his talent for falling out with other drivers might also prove to be a concern to Wolff.
Back to the future with Alonso?
Hamilton made his debut with McLaren all the way back in 2007, where his first team mate was the formidable Fernando Alonso who has long held a reputation for destroying any competition on the other side of the garage. On that occasion, the pair ended up tied in the points, which secured Hamilton's reputation and sent Alonso back to Renault.
Last year, Alonso rejuvenated his reputation in 2023 with a move to Aston Martin and a fantastic sequence of podium positions showing that his age was absolutely not an issue. But the fact remains that at 42 he is by some margin the oldest driver on the grid: a promising star of the future he is most certainly not.
In terms of star power, Alonso is arguably the only driver on the grid who can match Hamilton's appeal. He's already stepped into the shows of one multiple world champion by taking over from Sebastian Vettel at Aston, so there are no doubts or qualms on that score. If Wolff is looking for a one-year stop-gap to carry the team into a new era of engine regulations, then Alonso would be very appealing. But what Alonso would get out of it is another question given the time and effort he's put into his current team.
Second chance for Mick Schumacher?
Normally when there is a vacancy at a team, you would immediately take a look at their stable of reserve drivers for potential replacements. In the case of Mercedes, one name looms large in that list: Mick Schumacher, who was thrown a life line by Wolff after leaving Haas at the end of 2022 after two seasons.
Guenther Steiner's reasons for dropping Schumacher were that he was too mistake-prone and cost Haas too much money in terms of repairs and lost points. That appeared harsh to many - the VF-22 was a terrible car by any standards, and it felt like Schumacher became a scapegoat for their struggles.
Schumacher probably suffered from a lack of practical and emotional support at Haas, and Wolff - perhaps because of Mercedes' historic ties to Mick's father Michael - has put a metaphorical arm around the 24-year-old's shoulders and taken him in. But whether such consideration extends to putting the team's fate into Schumacher's hands is another matter entirely.
Having a German driver in the line-up of a proudly German team which has been dominated by a Briton for a decade would be good storyline for Mercedes. But it doesn't feel like the strongest option or safest bet for Wolff at this stage.
Sainz left out in the cold
The biggest casualty of Thursday's news is Carlos Sainz. The Spaniard was seen as something of a stop-gap solution when he was hired by Ferrari as Charles Leclerc's team mate in 2021, but that partnership has flourished and proved very productive. Right up to the last minute, his retention by Ferrari was viewed as something of a formality.
Sainz has matched Ferrari's Chosen One blow-for-blow over their three seasons together. He was just six points behind the Monegasque in last year's final standings, and was the only non-Red Bull driver to secure a win all season. That's a powerful calling card to have in hand as he seeks a new team.
But after starting in the Red Bull family with Toro Rosso followed by spells at Renault and McLaren before landing at Ferrari, Sainz has no existing links with Mercedes. Not only that, but Wolff will be wary of the optics of Mercedes being seen to do a direct like-for-like replacement with a driver that Ferrari didn't think was as good as the one they just took from their rivals.
The description 'sloppy seconds' is hugely unfair, but the very suggestion of it might ruin any chance Sainz has of finding his way to Brackley. Where he will end up instead is a very big question indeed: as a two-time race winner, don't be surprised if Audi aren't already gearing up to get Sainz' signature for their 2026 works team.
A chance to introduce fresh new talent?
The grid has been looking somewhat constipated in recent seasons, and Hamilton's decision to leave Mercedes may prove to be the powerful diuretic that opens things up nicely for a new generation of talent to finally break through.
Mercedes are backing Formula Regional European Championship winner Andrea Kimi Antonelli in Formula 2 this season, skipping F3 entirely. They will definitely be keeping an eye on how the 17-year-old does. He's been part of Mercedes’ F1 academy since 2019, so a title-winning run from the Italian could propel him straight into contention for F1 in 2025. But right now it would be a risk, and Wolff tends to be more circumspect.
Another young driver who has been building up a head of steam is Danish racing star Frederik Vesti, who was last year's F2 runner-up and who also featured in F1 young driver tests at Abu Dhabi after the end of the 2023 season. He briefly featured in gossip about who might usurp Logan Sargeant from his seat at Williams, but that quickly cooled and he is set to compete instead in this year's European Le Mans Series with Cool Racing.
Sticking with what you know
Perhaps it's too soon for Antonelli and Vesti; in which case how about a much more experienced figure like Daniel Ricciardo (assuming that his hopes of supplanting Sergio Perez at Red Bull don't pan out) or Nico Hulkenberg? Would Wolff consider turning back to Valtteri Bottas, if the Finn's hopes of a long-term role at Audi are dashed by Sainz?
One driver we would definitely have been talking about if not for his new contract with McLaren signed just last week is Lando Norris. Is he kicking himself at the timing of his new deal, meaning he's just missed out on what would have been the chance of a lifetime? He would have had the perfect star profile for Mercedes, is good friends with Russell, but the prospect of another all-Brit driver line-up there might have been an issue.
But Norris is ruled out now. Isn't he? We thought Hamilton was off the market too after signing his latest extension in September. Norris was coy about the duration of his new agreement with McLaren and one wonders about the existence of any break points in the deal, such as the one Hamilton triggered for his unexpected exit from Mercedes. Highly unlikely, for sure, but as Murray Walker used to say: "Anything can happen in F1, and it usually does!"
How long until we find out?
Assuming that the news of Hamilton's defection to Ferrari was almost as big a shock to Wolff as it was to the world as a whole, the team principal can be forgiven a short period of time to reflect and recover from the bombshell. After all, he really doesn't need to rush into anything at this point: the plum opportunity on offer will mean that the rest of the driver market will wait for him to decide.
Perhaps Wolff already has a back-up plan in mind and knows exactly what his next move is. In the meantime, every driver in the paddock with or without a contract for 2025 will be keeping their phone with them and checking their battery level in case there's a call from the Northamptonshire area code in coming weeks.