After Formula 1’s long winter break, it has become almost a tradition for Mercedes boss Toto Wolff and Lewis Hamilton to meet in person for a friendly kitchen chat.

It has been a chance for the pair to digest the events of the previous campaign, run through developments over the winter and talk through aims and ambitions for the battle ahead.

They were the perfect opportunity for the pair to spend a good deal of time together, better grasp each other’s mindset and get everything lined up as they battened down for the intensity of the season that lay in front of them.

Speaking previously about the value of these meetings, Wolff had said: “I think at the end of the season is a good moment, where you can put everything on the table, some of the frustrations and undiscussed topics, and to reflect on them, and to analyse them and to agree or find out what actually happened.”

That annual get-together was scheduled for this Wednesday at Wolff’s Oxford home – with Hamilton having been at Brackley the previous day for a seat-fitting with the 2024 car.

From Wolff’s perspective there was every reason to think that this would be a chance to hopefully draw a line over the team’s struggles for the past two seasons and get ready for what is hoped is a renewed competitive charge thanks to Mercedes’ all-new W15.

But things did not turn out as anticipated and instead, the key focal point of the meeting was Hamilton dropping the bombshell that he would be activating a release clause in his contract and had signed for Ferrari in 2025.

Almost simultaneously, Hamilton’s long-time confidante Marc Hynes, who has recently returned to a more active role in the seven-time champion’s management, had arrived at Mercedes’ Brackley factory to deliver a formal letter to the team notifying it of the situation.

Lewis Hamilton with Marc Hynes at Italian GP 2017

Hamilton’s departure was now official and, despite the shock, the ball began rolling on managing the news prior to Thursday evening’s public confirmation of what was happening.

While there have been suggestions that the January 31 date may have been significant as a cut-off point for Hamilton to activate any options he had, it is understood that this was not the case.

Instead, events only played out this week because it appears that Hamilton wanted to let Wolff know face-to-face at the first opportunity he had, rather than do it through a phone call or via lawyers.

Let’s not forget that when Nico Rosberg told Wolff he was retiring after winning the 2016 championship, he could not handle doing it in person – so did it via a phone call at the airport after they had spent hours together flying back to Europe.

Getting things cleared up before the start of the season also made a lot of sense for Hamilton in getting the news out of the way as quickly as possible.

If he had kept the Ferrari deal under his hat, knowing that whispers would inevitably get out, then he risked it turning into a season-long media frenzy that could have distracted from both his and Mercedes’ competitive focus.

While there have long been rumours linking Hamilton to Ferrari, which previously had gone nowhere, Hamilton’s revelation that he had signed for the team is understood to have caught Mercedes by surprise.

Carlos Sainz and Lewis Hamilton at Las Vegas GP 2023

As the first rumours of Hamilton’s departure emerged, it was inevitable to think that things had perhaps been bubbling away for a while and that Mercedes had been trying to line up everything to keep its driver happy.

The recent announcements that Wolff and technical director James Allison had extended their contracts were perhaps signs that the squad had been eager to make clear to Hamilton that there was long-term stability of senior management.

However, it is understood that the Wolff and Allison developments had nothing to do with Hamilton – especially because there had been no indication at that point that there was a chance he could leave.

It is also understood that there had been no behind-the-scenes issues that had triggered Hamilton wanting out, nor any concern about the progress of the W15 project that has offered some encouraging signs from the simulator.

Instead, as Hamilton confirmed in the eventual Mercedes press release, this was simply about being the right time to move on.

With Wolff and Mercedes’ senior management aware of the significance of Hamilton's decision, it made sense for the team to move quickly to get things lined up for the team and the public.

Wolff called a meeting at the Brackley factory for 2pm on Thursday where every team member was encouraged to attend.

Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team logo sign at factory

And it was here, via video link as he was in Milan for a Mercedes engineering team meeting with Pirelli, that Wolff announced that Hamilton would be leaving at the end of the season.

By this stage, despite no public comment from Mercedes and Ferrari, the news had already pretty much leaked out – before both teams made their announcements around 7pm on Thursday night.

Hamilton’s move to Ferrari is one of F1’s biggest shock stories for years and triggered one of the most dramatic news days we have had a while.

But it is a story that will excite grand prix racing for years to come – especially because how it plays out is anyone’s guess right now.