Mercedes: Hamilton escape clause maintained Antonelli flexibility


Toto Wolff has shed light on the strategic thinking behind the escape clause in Lewis Hamilton's two-year contract with Mercedes, revealing a calculated gamble to potentially accommodate rising star Andrea Kimi Antonelli.

Last year, Hamilton's extension with Mercedes initially appeared straightforward, securing his position with the team until the end of the 2025 season at least.

However, upon the seven-time world champion’s bombshell decision to join Ferrari at the end of 2024, it emerged that the two parties both had an option to part ways after a single year.

For Hamilton, this gave the Briton a theoretical opportunity to reassess his future. For Mercedes, the clause kept the door open for another driver in the future, namely Antonelli, its 17-year-old prodigy.

The teenage Mercedes junior boasts an impressive resume, having secured victories in Italian F4 and the Formula Regional European Championship.

His rapid rise through the junior ranks, which has landed him a plum seat with Prema in the FIA Formula 2 Championship for this season, has cemented him as a hot prospect for the future.

Wolff compared the current situation to a similar one in 2014, when Mercedes missed out on signing Max Verstappen due to a lack of available seats within its organization.

"There was a situation many years ago where we had the opportunity to let Max drive,” Wolff told Austrian broadcaster ORF. "And that wasn't possible back then because we simply didn't have a cockpit.

"Rosberg and Hamilton were tied to us long-term, and Red Bull naturally seized the opportunity. They gave him a contract with Toro Rosso, with the possibility of driving for Red Bull the following year.

"We then lost the young driver, and you can see how successful he has become.

"And precisely because we have a junior on the horizon who is really driving at a very high level, I simply wanted to keep this option open."

Despite Mercedes’ strong commitment to Antonelli, Wolff made clear that the young Italian isn’t guaranteed a promotion to Hamilton’s vacant seat in F1 for 2025.

"That does not mean that we will actually put Antonelli in the car next year," said the Austrian.

"He is 17 years old, and that might be a bit early. But with a view to the next five or ten years, I just wanted to have this option.

"In a way, he's a wonderkid. He won everything there was to win in karting and then moved into F4. He won all the championships in his rookie year, then moved up a level and won everything there too."

"Now we've decided to skip F3, partly because there's not much time to test there. Instead, he'll go straight into F2, which is a huge leap for him.

“These are really big cars with power. Most of the races are part of the F1-supporting programme, so we'll have a good overview there too.”

Wolff confirmed that Antonelli’s apprenticeship this season will include an F1 test programme with Mercedes’ 2022-spec Silver Arrow.

“We’ll run a big test programme with him in 2024 and then we'll see,” he said. “Is he ready for 2025? Or for 2026, will there be a different situation?”

Handing Antonelli a race seat in 2026 would require Mercedes to contract with a driver for a single year, in 2025, assuming that George Russell’s extends his allegiance with the Brackley squad beyond 2025.

Wolff says he’ll review the situation “over the next two or three races”.

“Do we want to rely on experience and perhaps try something new? Or do we want to focus on youth and take the risk that we have a rookie and then have to look at this from a medium- to long-term performance perspective?" he concluded.

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