Wolff seeking to 'take a little bit of pressure' off Antonelli

Toto Wolff (GER) Mercedes AMG F1 Shareholder and Executive Director in the FIA Press Conference. 21.02.2024. Formula 1 Testing, Sakhir, Bahrain, Day One. - www.xpbimages.com, EMail: requests@xpbimages.com © Copyright: Charniaux / XPB Images
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Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff says he wants to take some of the pressure off rising star Andrea Kimi Antonelli, who has emerged as one of the leading contenders to take over Lewis Hamilton's race seat in 2025.

At the start of the month, Hamilton announced that he was leaving Mercedes for a new role at Ferrari next year, leaving one of the most coveted spots on the F1 grid up for grabs.

Established F1 talents including Alex Albon, Esteban Ocon, Mick Schumacher, Carlos Sainz and even Fernando Alonso have been linked to the vacant seat, but the name of Antonelli has also been right at the top as well.

The 17-year-old Mercedes protege won the Italian and German F4 titles in 2022 with 22 wins in 35 races before being crowned Formula Regional champion in 2023. This year with Mercedes' backing he will skip F3 and move straight into F2.

His name was being linked to the F1 team even before Hamilton made his decision to leave Mercedes, but the question is whether or not it's still too early in his career and whether he needs more time to develop his full potential.

“It’s clear Kimi has been in our junior category since he was 11," Wolff said this week. "We have had great pleasure in watching him grow as a young man, and growing through the ranks.

“He’s won everything he needed to win in his rookie season, and I think he is going to be a Formula 1 driver," he continued. “But I also want to take a little bit of pressure off him - he’s only 17.

“He’s going to be a very, very successful driver in F1 but he hasn’t started his F2 campaign yet," adding that Prema's pre-season preparations hadn't gone all that well. “They had a difficult test ... We’ll see how this develops.”

George Russell (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W15 practices a pit stop. 23.02.2024. Formula 1 Testing, Sakhir, Bahrain, Day Three. - www.xpbimages.com, EMail: requests@xpbimages.com © Copyright: Coates / XPB Images

Wolff said he wanted to see how the first F2 races of the season - which will be run alongside F1 Grands Prix as support races - play out before making any firm decisions, and that there was no reason to rush into anything.

“We got that curveball thrown at us, with Lewis, in the beginning of February,” he noted. “I want to do the opposite when choosing the driver for next year.

“There are many very good drivers in F1 available for next year," he pointed out. “This is all going to come into the equation when deciding on the driver line-up for next year, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon.”

It was James Vowles who was among the first to spot Antonelli's potential when he was motorsport strategy director and Wolff's right hand man at Mercedes.

James Vowles (GBR) Williams Racing Team Principal. 22.02.2024. Formula 1 Testing, Sakhir, Bahrain, Day Two. - www.xpbimages.com, EMail: requests@xpbimages.com © Copyright: Batchelor / XPB Images

“When you're looking after a junior who is 11, you have no idea that they are going to be incredible, or perhaps good, great or average,” Vowles recalled. “But with him you could see early on that he was developing exceptionally well.”

Vowles has now moved on to become team principal at Williams, sparking rumours that Antonelli could make his F1 debut with the Grove-based squad and earn his promotion to Mercedes in the same way that George Russell did.

“I have no doubt that Kimi will be in F1,” Vowles said when asked about Antonelli's prospects. “He’s done incredibly well in his junior series. But that doesn't mean he will be in Williams, necessarily.

“From my perspective it's more about looking what happens going forward," he continued. “I believe in investing in youth but I'll take people on merit into the organisation.

Alexander Albon (THA) Williams Racing. 23.02.2024. Formula 1 Testing, Sakhir, Bahrain, Day Three. - www.xpbimages.com, EMail: requests@xpbimages.com © Copyright: Coates / XPB Images

“I'm fortunate enough to have two juniors myself, in F2 and in F3," he said. “We're starting to build a programme that is a sensible programme to develop the next generation of drivers.

“In the case of Toto, he's in the position that you would hope for - one of if not the best team on the grid, with a range of options available to him."

One of the names associated with the Mercedes seat is Albon, who after a curtailed tenure at Toro Rosso and Red Bull has rejuvenated his career with conspicuous success at Williams in the last two years.

Vowles is certainly keen to keep hold of the Thai driver for as long as he can, and pointed out that Albon is under contract to the team for another two seasons.

“I have Alex Albon here next year under contract, and I have Logan Sargeant obviously under contract as well, along with juniors," he confirmed. “So it's just a question of seeing how everything plays out across the next six months."

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