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Formula 1

The mistake Mercedes admits it's made with its next F1 megastar

by Josh Suttill
8 min read

When you potentially have the next Max Verstappen on your hands, it’s hard for a Formula 1 team like Mercedes to stop its excitement from getting out of control.

Particularly when its current on-track prospects are a far cry from its title-winning glory years, and F1’s car and engine rules reset in 2026 is its next realistic hope of fighting for titles again.

And even more so when it missed out on the original Verstappen, all because it didn’t have the F1 seat ready and waiting that Red Bull poached him with for 2015.

This time Mercedes has that vacant seat for Kimi Antonelli, in its works team no less, so it isn’t going to make that same mistake again.

Antonelli remains the Mercedes ‘plan A’ for next season - as he has been more or less since Lewis Hamilton first announced his shock Ferrari switch. Only an equally bombshell Verstappen Red Bull exit would usurp Antonelli if the 17-year-old continues to perform in Mercedes’ private F1 testing programme.  

So there should be no repeat of its original Verstappen error, but the team has admitted to making a different mistake with its long-time protege.

‘We are a little bit guilty’

Kimi Antonelli

Mercedes has long stressed that it doesn’t want to pile too much pressure on Antonelli, something team boss Toto Wolff admitted it’s starting to become guilty of. 

“We are hyping that young man for a long time now and he will be a great driver one day in Formula 1,” Wolff said at Imola.

“But he's 17. Fourteen months ago he drove an F4 car [Antonelli last raced in F4 19 months ago], and there is so much expectation in Italy. We are a little bit guilty also of talking about him at that stage. 

“We should let him do his F2 thing and deliver results and not be too carried away with what could be or should be.

George Russell GP3 2017

“Look at George [Russell] - he won F3 [when it was GP3, pictured above] and F2 in his rookie year, and at the same time Kimi has delivered in those junior series and is in F2 now and so we'll see.

“He's going to be in Formula 1 one day, but let's not rush it.”

As Wolff said, at just 17 Antonelli has already made a seismic jump from Formula Regional (an intermediate step between Formula 3 and Formula 4) machinery to Formula 2 this year. 

Upon arriving there he’s found a far trickier situation at Prema’s F2 juggernaut than some of Prema’s previous F1 alumni, like Charles Leclerc and Oscar Piastri, experienced.

Kimi Antonelli Mercedes F1 test

And amid all of that, he’s started conducting a private F1 testing programme with Mercedes which will be the most important deciding factor in whether he’s named as Hamilton’s 2025 successor.

While the team has had Antonelli’s 2024 F1 test programme “in place for a long time”, Mercedes has added further days to it, once it became clear it would have an unexpected 2025 vacancy.

Mercedes technical director James Allison, who has overseen the likes of Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso and Hamilton, was positively gushing with praise for Antonelli when asked how Antonelli’s initial Mercedes tests in its 2021 and 2022 cars had gone.

“I have had the great pleasure of listening to the engineers describe the interaction with him,” Allison explained. 

“He’s just a young, enthusiastic driver, and very fast, metronomic in his pace.

“He’d not been in an F1 car until recently, but he made it look like he'd been in one for ages within a lap or two. 

“He came at this generation of cars, the ground effect cars, with an open mind. Yeah, he feels all the same things that you'd expect him to feel. But he's not sort of polluted by the previous cars.

“So he just takes them as they are and tells us what he is feeling as weaknesses and strengths, and lets the engineers work to try to improve those things.

“But he looks like a very promising young driver.”

Is the guilt justified?

Toto Wolff

You can’t blame Allison nor Wolff nor anyone within Mercedes for answering questions about Antonelli’s progress honestly.

They're simply, and refreshingly, relaying a genuine, honest enthusiasm for an exciting young talent. Allison’s eyes lit up when talking about Antonelli seemingly having an adaptability beyond his years.

It’s not declaring he’s going to win Mercedes several titles or even publicly confirming that Antonelli is the team’s plan A, it’s simply explaining why Antonelli has been and remains an important part of Mercedes’ F1 future.

Kimi Antonelli

Mercedes hasn’t paraded Antonelli around the F1 paddock at every opportunity since the news of Hamilton's exit as some kind of 'it's OK, we've got the next Mercedes champion rather than the last one'. It’s allowed Antonelli to focus on performing in his private testing programme and in F2.

You also can’t underestimate just how mature Antonelli is and the mental resilience he’s shown.

While there have been rookie errors, he’s appeared unfazed at Prema’s tricky start to this new era of F2, and has simply got his head down and worked hard with the team to find the performance.

Kimi Antonelli

It’s that same head-down and deliver attitude that’s impressed Mercedes behind the scenes, and it's evidence that he will soon be ready for more. Given how he’s performed in private, a public FP1 debut when Mercedes can get him the superlicence (he’ll meet the minimum age of 18 in August) would seem like the logical next step for his 2025 preparation and evaluation.

And of course Mercedes’ lack of a title-challenging car right now, given it’s firmly fourth-best as it stands, makes a potential 2025 seat far less of a pressure cooker and a much better fit for Antonelli than a Mercedes seat a few years ago would have been.

‘But surely he needs to deliver in F2 before we even consider any of that’, I hear you say…

Proof he’s been overhyped?

Kimi Antonelli Prema Imola F2 2024

It’s very easy to suggest a podium-less first four rounds of a rookie F2 season is not the track record of a driver demanding promotion to a frontrunning F1 team.

Antonelli has 36 points, 86 points fewer than Leclerc had at this stage during his title-winning rookie F2 season in 2017 - which started with four poles, two wins and three other podiums in the first four rounds.

And his rookie F2 season so far is statistically weaker than the rookie season of every GP2/F2 graduate in F1 now bar Sergio Perez (who had a rough start in 2019 before finishing runner-up in 2010).

But dig deeper into Antonelli’s season and there are some incredibly promising signs and an important caveat - Prema’s not always had the advantage that the likes of Leclerc enjoyed with it in 2017.

F2 introduced a new-for-2024 car this year that, just like in the first year of new F1 regulations, shook up the competitive order between the teams and left Prema on the back foot after the Bahrain season-opener.

Even though it’s a ‘spec-series’, make no mistake that the teams make a huge difference in F2, perhaps more so than ever before.

Kimi Antonelli Prema Bahrain F2

Bahrain was a nightmare for Prema, but Antonelli shaded his second-year team-mate Ollie Bearman at the first time of asking, albeit for 17th instead of 18th in qualifying.

Antonelli fought valiantly in both races and even picked up a solitary point from 17th on the grid in Sunday’s feature race, avoiding the tyre degradation pitfall that so many F2 rookies trip over and bouncing back from lap one contact.

While Bearman took pole in Jeddah but forfeited it to race for Ferrari in the grand prix, Antonelli was within 0.228s of his team-mate in qualifying and only anti-stall and an ill-judged move on Jak Crawford limited his points haul to eight that weekend.

He took a further step forward in Melbourne, picking up his first F2 front row and converting that into fourth in the feature race - a result he repeated at Imola, having once again been only two tenths slower than Bearman in qualifying.

Bearman forfeiting Jeddah and a dump truck of misfortune means Antonelli’s the lead Prema driver in the standings.

Of course Bearman’s meagre 2024 points total of six (the same number he scored in one F1 appearance), and his proven top-level F1 credentials in Jeddah are cast-iron evidence that the F2 standings are rarely an accurate, direct reflection of F1 potential, particularly only four rounds in. For Bearman alone, you already have to factor in engine failures, a withdrawal from pole, two pitlane stalls while leading and a rather harsh penalty for forcing Joshua Duerksen off the track.

But regardless Antonelli is already an encouraging sixth in the points despite plenty of his own trials and tribulations (starts have been a particular hindrance), and having only just begun to race on the more familiar European tracks first learned during his days dominating Formula 4 and FRECA.

Everything about Antonelli’s career thus far indicates there’s going to be a huge, very steep improvement and his starting point in F2 is far better than it looks.

Prema’s increasingly making Bahrain look more like a blip and its advantage has always been strongest in the upcoming middle section of the season. That was the bedrock of the title-winning campaigns of the last two Prema champions Mick Schumacher (2020) and Piastri (2021, pictured below).

Oscar Piastri F2 2021

So Antonelli is worth waiting for. Yes Mercedes will risk losing further potential Hamilton replacements the longer it waits, but why would it rush into picking a driver like Esteban Ocon - a former protege it already decided wasn't good enough - when Antonelli's given it every indication so far that he's the right man for 2025?

We wouldn’t want to be “a little bit guilty” of the overhyping mistake Mercedes thinks it has made too. But it’s hard not to with such an exciting prospect who still has so much more to show.

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