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Kimi Antonelli: The Mercedes junior tipped to replace Hamilton

When Toto Wolff said Mercedes “may try something bold” in selecting their 2025 replacement for Lewis Hamilton, many took the apparently vague statement to be very specific.

It’s certainly no easy task to fill the boots of Formula 1’s most successful driver but Mercedes may have a future superstar on their hands in 17-year-old Andrea Kimi Antonelli.

Antonelli, who goes by Kimi rather than Andrea, will compete in Formula 2 this year, with every race live on Sky Sports F1, and could be in Formula 1 as early as 2025.

While Mercedes boss Wolff urged caution when directly asked about Antonelli as a potential replacement for the Ferrari-bound Hamilton, it was notable that he didn’t rule out the prospect of the Italian being fast-tracked into one of F1’s most desirable seats.

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

“It’s clear Kimi has been in our junior academy since he was 11 and we have had great pleasure in watching him grow as a young man and growing through the ranks.

“But I also want to take a little bit of pressure off him. He’s just turned 17. He’s won everything he needed to win in his rookie season, but I think he is going to be in Formula 1.

“He’s going to be a very, very successful driver in Formula 1. But he hasn’t started his Formula 2 campaign yet. They had a difficult test in the first days in Bahrain and we shall see how he develops. That’s why I want to want to wait out the first few [F2] races that are actually going to go with Formula 1.

“There are many very good pilots in Formula 1 available for next year or so and 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.”

So who is this teenager that we appear likely to be hearing a lot more about in the future, and why is there so much excitement? We spoke to Sky Italy’s F1 expert Roberto Chinchero, who has closely followed Antonelli’s career, to find out.

Karting dominance attracts F1 attention

Mercedes junior Kimi Antonelli could be the next big star to drive in F1 (Credit Mercedes)
Image: Mercedes junior Kimi Antonelli could be the next big star to drive in F1 (Credit Mercedes)

Antonelli, born in Bologna, was signed by Mercedes as a junior driver in 2019 having impressed in karting.

He has been successful in just about every motorsport category he has entered, dominating various karting championships before making the step up to racing cars in 2021.

“He comes from a family that was a motorsport one,” Chinchero says. “His father was a racing driver in touring cars, he had a team in F4, so the family knows how it works in the business and they are trying to protect him too.

“In the last, at least, 20 years, I have never seen an Italian as strong as Kimi. He’s F1 material. He’s won four championships in two years in single-seaters and has won all the series. Formula 2 is a big step from Formula Regional.

“Antonelli is already under pressure. I think he’s a top driver and I’m sure we will see him in F1.”

Italian F4 was the destination which Antonelli took halfway through 2021 when he turned 15 years old. Towards the end of the season, he challenged eventual champion Oliver Bearman, the English Ferrari junior, who will be his team-mate in F2 this year.

“When he started karting, immediately we saw he was a super guy, so lots of junior programmes approached him like Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes and others,” continued Chinchero.

“But you always ask, how good will he be in single-seaters? The answer is, very strong. After his first F4 tests with Prema, I called the team and asked how is he doing. The team said ‘absolutely amazing’.

“We said ‘let’s wait for the first race because testing is testing’. The first races confirmed that this guy is very, very good. We have had no Italians like Kimi until now. I’m confident he will not only be the next Italian in F1 but the next Italian that will win in F1.”

Seamless switch to junior categories

In his first full F4 campaign in 2022, Antonelli had a difficult start to the season with gearbox issues and contact on the opening weekend. However, he went on to win 13 of the remaining 17 races, generating plenty of attention along the way.

Alongside Italian F4, Antonelli competed in German F4, and took seven consecutive pole positions and seven victories from the opening eight races. Despite missing three rounds, he dominated the championship to win by 47 points from Britain’s Taylor Barnard.

In October 2022, Antonelli won the F4 category in the FIA Motorsport Games with a broken wrist, which perhaps says something about his character as well as his calmness.

The next jump up the ladder was to Formula Regional in 2023. Antonelli continued to impress as he won the Formula Regional Middle East Championship 12 months ago and the European Championship last year.

Mercedes were so impressed that they opted to put Antonelli straight into Formula 2 for this season, rather than Formula 3. It’s reminiscent of Max Verstappen’s fast rise when he went from karting to Formula 3 to Formula 1 in the space of 15 months.

Asked if Antonelli could be at a similar level to the best young drivers currently in F1, Chinchero said: “Absolutely yes. From some people’s point of view, he’s maybe even more impressive. F2 will be a big challenge because it’s a huge step.

“We have to consider Mercedes will try in every way to protect Kimi. The target now is to do as good as a job possible in F2.

“He does not have an easy job because his team-mate is Oliver Bearman, who’s in his second year and is a very talented guy.

“It won’t be easy for him but I had the opportunity to speak to him in February and he looked anything but an under-pressure guy and was very excited about his next chapter.”

Why Italy’s big star chose Mercedes over Ferrari

Like the UK, Italy loves its motorsport but they have had very few drivers thrive in F1. The last Italian race winner was Giancarlo Fisichella at the 2006 Malaysian Grand Prix.

Nino Farina and Alberto Ascari are the only Italian world champions but they both drove in the 1950s. Enzo Ferrari didn’t like the idea of having an Italian driver racing for Ferrari, so the desire hasn’t been strong for young karters to reach F1.

You may also be wondering why Antonelli choose to join Mercedes over the Ferrari junior programme…

“I asked Kimi a few times this question,” Chinchero says. “He said in that moment he signed with Mercedes, he was the youngest driver in the category. Ferrari already had other guys who were the same age as Kimi.

“From his point of view, Mercedes went ‘we believe in you and only have you’ so that’s why he signed with Mercedes. He had no internal competition.”

How will Antonelli fare in F2?

Antonelli will drive for Prema, one of the best F2 teams on the 22-car grid. Charles Leclerc and Oscar Piastri both won the F2 title in their rookie campaigns and Antonelli would love to do the same.

His team-mate Bearman had an impressive first season in 2023 and is expected to be a title contender along with the likes of Victor Martins, Zak O’Sullivan, Franco Colapinto and Gabriel Bortoleto.

It promises to be a very exciting season, perhaps the best since George Russell, Lando Norris and Alex Albon went head-to-head in 2018 before moving up to F1.

“I think the answers in terms of how well Kimi does will arrive after the first two or three races,” said Chinchero.

“For Kimi, it’s completely new with tyre management and having two tyre compounds, the car is more powerful too.

When is Formula 2 live on Sky F1 this weekend?

Day Session Time
Thursday Practice 9am
Qualifying 1.40pm
Friday Sprint Race 2.10pm
Saturday Feature Race 10.25am

“We will know early on if he can fight for the title this season. If that’s the case, it will be very, very big news. Mercedes don’t put pressure on him though and have always said it’s a two-year programme in F2.”

Could Antonelli really replace Hamilton?

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Lewis Hamilton discusses his reasoning for moving to Ferrari and his relationship with team principal Frederic Vasseur

The idea of Antonelli replacing Hamilton in 2025 cannot be totally dismissed, even if it sounds unlikely now.

If he continues his trend of winning in everything he drives, Mercedes will strongly consider him as much as they want to keep pressure off the Italian.

Chinchero, however, thinks Mercedes will push for Antonelli to join Williams first, if he impresses in F2.

“I think the plan will probably see Kimi in Williams, like we saw with George Russell,” he said.

“When the Lewis announcement happened, people said ‘Kimi should be involved in the driver market for the Mercedes seat.’ But I think it’s difficult because Mercedes cannot wait until September. They have to decide before that time.

“Even if we have a scenario with a super Kimi that is winning in F2, the title is still won in November so I think everything points to the Williams path.”

Asked if Mercedes will look at Hamilton’s route to F1 when he went from F2, then called GP2, to a top seat at McLaren on debut, Chinchero answered: “In that time, you had no testing limitations. You had the opportunity to test every week and that is absolutely important for a rookie – not only with the car, but also with the management, team, with your engineer, with data and everything.

“Nowadays, it’s not possible because the kid only had one-and-a-half tests in Bahrain before the first race and that’s it.

“You can work on the simulator but it’s not like testing on track. That’s the difference and why I think Mercedes will protect Kimi and plan for him to join Williams.”

Watch Formula 2 on Sky Sports F1 throughout 2024, starting at this week’s Bahrain Grand Prix with the first Sprint Race at 2.10pm on Friday and the Feature Race on Saturday at 10.30am. Stream every F1 race and more with a NOW Sports Month Membership

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