Toto Wolff admits that the Mercedes Formula 1 team didn’t commit to a longer-term contract with Lewis Hamilton because it didn’t want to risk losing protégé Andrea Kimi Antonelli.

Last August, Hamilton signed a two-year contract with the team, which was widely assumed to be fixed for the full term and left open the possibility for Mercedes to take Antonelli in 2026.

However, Hamilton was able to use escape clauses to miss the second year and take up an offer from Ferrari, leaving his seat free for 2025 and giving Mercedes the chance to take Antonelli as early as next year.

Antonelli, who is just 17 years old, is moving up to Formula 2 with Prema this season, having won Italian F4 in 2022 and the Formula Regional European Championship with the team last year.

Wolff has compared the situation with 2014, when the team was keen to sign Max Verstappen but had nowhere to put him, while Red Bull was able to offer him a Toro Rosso seat for the following year.

"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.

Nico Rosberg leads Lewis Hamilton at Monaco GP 2014

"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."

Wolff reiterated what he said in a response to Motorsport.com in Bahrain last week by stating that the newly-vacant 2025 seat is not necessarily being saved for Antonelli, who has yet to start his first F2 race.

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

Regarding the Italian’s potential, he said: "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."

Andrea Kimi Antonelli 2023

Wolff has confirmed that Antonelli will do some private running in a 2022 car, noting that Mercedes will "run a big test programme with him in 2024 and then we'll see, is he ready for 2025? Or for 2026, will there be a different situation?"

The conundrum over opting to hold him back until 2026 is that it would require another driver stepping in for 2025 only, assuming that George Russell remains in the other seat and his contract is extended beyond 2025.

Wolff said that the driver market will be "incredibly interesting, because really strong people will be available for 2025", and that Mercedes will review the situation "over the next two or three races".

He added: “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?"