Former Formula 1 driver turned commentator and analyst David Coulthard says that Lewis Hamilton faces possibly the biggest challenge of his career to date after deciding to leave Mercedes and join Ferrari in 2025.
Coulthard says that if Hamilton is to make a success of his decision, he must not underestimate the threat of the man who will be his team mate at Maranello - Charles Leclerc.
“Charles is a young, brilliantly fast race driver," Coulthard told the latest Formula For Success podcast. “I think Charles is one of the quickest single-lap drivers out there.
“Charles is a young, brilliantly fast race driver. Yes, he doesn’t have the world championships and the experience of Lewis, but I think he’s a champion in waiting. That may well be where Lewis faces his greatest challenge."
Coulthard admitted that he had been shocked to learn of Hamilton's decision to leave Mercedes after 11 years together, but agrees that the shake-up will be good for Formula 1 and for Hamilton.
"You won't spend a lifetime with the team, that's the reality," he pointed out. “You might do eight, nine, ten years with a team, or even longer in the case of Lewis with his relationship with Mercedes.
"But it's always a case of 'if it didn’t suit him'", then he would leave. “Or it to put it the other way, if Mercedes felt he wasn’t performing for whatever reason, do you think they’d keep him there because of his name? Not a chance."
“I just never imagined he would effectively – even on good terms – break that winning relationship that’s been going since he was 12 years old with Mercedes," Coulthard said. “But that said, I think it’s very exciting for F1.
"It will give a huge impetus to Ferrari when it comes to bringing [in] engineers, and people really understand that they’re getting an unbelievable driver," he added. “But, I have to say, I think he will find one of his biggest challenges in Charles Leclerc."
Coulthard said that comparisons between Hamilton and Leclerc put him in mind of Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen, with the former renowned for consistency while the latter delivered when it came to pure speed.
“I think Mika Hakkinen was one of the fastest guys over a single lap - I would suggest even faster over a single lap than Michael," Coulthard explained. "I can’t prove that, because they never were in the same car together.
“Where Michael was exceptional, whatever qualifying lap he had done, he could do that 60 times," he added. “Everyone will have their own opinion, but I think that Charles is a stunning qualifier.
"Lewis is an amazing racing driver, but at 40 I don’t see him getting quicker over a single lap," he speculated. "And by that time, Charles will be at his prime.”
Coulthard rejected suggestions that Mercedes boss had taken Hamilton's presence for granted and taken his eye off the ball when it came to ensuring his star driver wasn't poached by a rival team.
"I think his eye is on many balls," Coulthard said of Wolff. “But even if you are a great manager – and in his case, owner and team principal – you can’t stop somebody leaving if they want to leave."
Coulthard said that the decision to frame Hamilton's recent contract as a 'one-plus-one' deal had given Hamilton to opportunity to leave.
"I assume that Lewis was able to trigger it – releasing or not taking up the option for him to continue – once he felt comfortable that Ferrari were offering him something magical for the future.
“This is his retirement plan. He is going to end his career at Ferrari, so this is about legacy, it’s about trying to win a World Championship with them."
If Mercedes' new W15 closes the on-track gap to Red Bull, it's not impossible that Hamilton could win another title with Mercedes before he leaves Brackley.
“He can [take] the eighth with Mercedes this year if they deliver him the race car," Coulthard said. "He could go to Ferrari as an eight-time Champion and then try and add to that with them."
But there's also the possibility that Hamilton's dream move to Ferrari could quickly sour, as it has for other former world champions like Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel who made the jump themselves.
"You sign these marriage papers, a contract, and it’s a beautiful thing," Coulthard commented. “But on the same day you sign the marriage paper, you’ve got the divorce papers prepared."