Andrea Kimi Antonelli could make his Formula 1 debut before the season is over, according to some of the speculation earlier this year.

But even if he has to wait longer than that it seems a near-certainty that Mercedes junior driver will end up on the F1 grid.

George Russell, who is currently without a team mate for next season at Mercedes, believes that Antonelli is “no doubt going to be a Formula 1 driver in the future”.

Not yet legally old enough to race in F1, the 17-year-old has a level of hype around him not seen since another teenager, Max Verstappen, made his record-shattering F1 debut back in 2015. The rules introduced by the FIA following Verstappen’s debut, such as the 18-year age limit, are potentially all that has kept Antonelli from arriving even earlier.

After letting an opportunity to have Verstappen in their stable slip through their fingers all those years ago, Mercedes are eager to harness one of the most outstanding young talents of his generation – especially as Lewis Hamilton will be leaving the team at the end of the season, leaving them a seat to fill.

On the face of it, Antonelli’s performances in this year’s F2 championship give few clues why he is being hailed as ‘the next big thing’. After 10 races, Antonelli lies sixth in the championship, his best finish a trio of fourth places, with no wins or even podiums to his name.

So what is it about Antonelli that has led Mercedes to consider him as a viable candidate to replace the most successful F1 driver of all time?

2014-21: The karting years

Antonelli already had Mercedes’ backing while he was in karts

The son of touring car and GT racer Marco Antonelli, who founded the Antonelli Motorsport team, Kimi – as he prefers to be called – arrived on Mercedes’ radar before their last newcomer, George Russell, made his grand prix debut.

A multiple champion in various junior Italian karting series, Antonelli began to forge a relationship with Mercedes in 2018 before he was a teenager, not yet having even arrived at OK Junior level. He was outstanding in mini karts in 2018 before stepping up to the CIK-FIA level in 2019, officially signing as a Mercedes junior in April the year Russell became an F1 driver.

Antonelli finished second in the OK European championship behind Marcus Amand but ahead of Ferrari junior Tuukka Taponen, then took fifth place in the world championships in Finland, behind current F2 rival Pepe Marti. Antonelli showed improvement the next season in 2020, taking that year’s CIK European championship. However, after a crash with Maya Weug during a chaotic start to the world championship race at the Algarve circuit left him with a broken leg, Antonelli was unable to compete for the world title.

The next season in 2021 was another successful one. He defended his European title in the OK class, but despite qualifying fourth for the world championship race in Sweden, a poor start dropped him out of contention and he finished outside the top 10.

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2021-2022: Stepping into single-seaters

Andrea Kimi Antonelli, 2022
The Italian Formula 4 championship was one of three contests Antonelli won in 202

Before the end of 2021, Antonelli made his first major step towards his future by making his debut in cars in the Italian F4 championship. Antonelli joined the series from September for the final nine races with Prema alongside future F2 team mate Oliver Bearman. He finished ninth in his first ever car race, then secured a podium finish in each of the three races at Monza for the final round of the championship.

The following year of 2022 was 15-year-old Antonelli’s first full season in car racing out of karting. Racing in the F4 level, the Mercedes junior was the standout Formula 4 driver of the year. He won his first two races of the year in the UAE F4 championship at Yas Marina, running a part-schedule of just eight races of which he reached the podium at five.

Returning to Europe, he led the entire German F4 series, cruising to the championship with nine wins. Combining this campaign with his first full season of Italian F4, he took the top step of the podium in a remarkable 13 of the 22 races to secured his second F4 title in a single season.

Towards the end of the year in the FIA’s Motorsport Games event at Paul Ricard, Antonelli had a chance to punctuate his dominant F4 year by winning the F4 cup. Despite breaking his wrist during qualifying, he still managed to secure pole position. Then, even while nursing an injury, he led every single lap from pole to take a gutsy and incredibly impressive victory.

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2023: Further success in Formula Regional

Andrea Kimi Antonelli, Prema, Zandvoort, Formula Regional European Championship, 2023
Antonelli’s FREC success delivered his fifth title in two years

After F4, the next step up the single seater pyramid is not Formula 3, but rather Formula Regional. Once again, Antonelli began his year in the Middle East, competing in the Formula Regional Middle Eastern Championship against several fellow F1 juniors like Ferrari’s Dino Beganovic and Alpine’s Gabriele Mini.

Antonelli won three races out of the 15 over the month-long season with seven podiums and three pole positions. He took the title by a healthy 40-point margin over Taylor Barnard. It was his third successive championship victory from the last three series he had competed in.

Could Antonelli build on that success in the coveted Formula Regional European Championship and add a fourth title in two years? He put himself in a strong position to start the season with three second place finishes from the opening four races.

His first victory of the campaign came in the second race at Spa-Francorchamps. However, it was not a victory he could take any joy from, as MP racer Dilano van ‘t Hoff suffered fatal injuries in an appalling accident along the Kemmel Straight in low visibility conditions.

The series continued one week later at Mugello. Antonelli took second place in race one, then victory in the second and final race of the weekend. He was now just two points off the championship leader, Martinius Stenshorne, at the halfway point of the championship.

Antonelli secured three more victories and five podium finishes from the final ten races of the season to comfortably secure the title by just under 40 points over Stenshorne by the end of the championship. On top of that, his pass on Nikhil Bohra on the final lap of the season at the Nurburgring won Prema the teams’ title.

His FREC success meant Antonelli had taken the top prize in both of the competitions he had been entered in for 2023, and his fifth significant title win in just two full calendar years racing in single-seaters.

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2024: On the cusp of Formula 1

Andrea Kimi Antonelli, Prema, Formula 2, Monaco, 2024
Steady improvement rather than headline results characterise Antonelli’s F2 campaign to date

Antonelli’s success at a Formula Regional level in 2023 left Mercedes wondering what to do with their brightest junior prospect for the next season. The logical step forward for the 17-year-old would be Formula 3, where he would enter as likely the overwhelming favourite. However, Mercedes opted to push for him to jump straight up into Formula 2, with the same Prema team he had enjoyed so much success with over the previous two years.

He is not the first driver to make the jump from Formula Regional to F2, or even this only one this year. But the leap in performance between the two categories should not be underestimated.

Going from Formula Regional’s 270bhp of Tatuus T-318, bypassing the 380bhp Dallara F3 car to jump straight into a 620bhp 2024 F2 car with a turbocharged engine, a maximum speed of over 200mph with DRS and lateral loads of almost 4G, this is by far the biggest jump in car performance Antonelli has experienced. However, teaming him alongside Bearman, another teenager gunning for a title and an F1 seat for 2025, team principal Rene Rosin had no doubts about his ability to step straight into F2.

Andrea Kimi Antonelli, Prema, Formula 2, 2024
Antonelli has faced several unfamiliar tracks in F2

“He has been with us since the very beginning so not only do we know him well, but we are also particularly proud of what he was able to achieve in his first two years full-time in single seaters,” Rosin said. “Kimi is a gifted racer and a great team player.”

But just days before the pre-season test in Bahrain, Antonelli’s debut F2 campaign suddenly took on a whole new meaning when Mercedes confirmed Lewis Hamilton would leave them at the end of 2024. Although Toto Wolff insisted that they did not want to rush Antonelli or put pressure on him over his first season in F2, he was now a legitimate candidate for the F1 seat that Mercedes now had to fill for 2025.

If the decision to promote Antonelli into F2 was partly motivated by a new chassis for the 2024 season putting the inexperienced drivers on a more even keel with those with at least a year under their belts, it appeared to have backfired in the opening round in Bahrain where Prema endured a torrid weekend. But the team bounced back immediately in Jeddah, Bearman securing pole position before having to abandon his F2 car to act as substitute for Carlos Sainz Jnr at Ferrari.

Over the opening ten races of the championship, Antonelli remains yet to take a top three finish – the only driver in the top 12 places in the championship not to have a podium. But given his lack of experience of a racing car this powerful, not to mention many of the tracks which made up the opening rounds, he has demonstrated a lost of potential.

Antonelli has only failed to score points twice since that difficult opening round of the season in Bahrain and placed in the top five in three of his last five races. That consistency could go a long way to helping him move further up the standings. He is 32 points off leader Paul Aron (who lost his place on Mercedes’ young driver programme at the end of last year) with 351 available.

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Andrea Kimi Antonelli, Mercedes, Red Bull Ring, 2024
Antonelli’s first F1 test came in dire conditions

Following the Formula 2 round in Melbourne, Antonelli had his first ever run in a Formula 1 car at the Red Bull Ring in April, driving Mercedes’ 2021 constructors’ championship-winning W12. Soon after, the tested a ground effect F1 for the first time by running the 2022 W13 at Imola.

Andrea Kimi Antonelli, Toto Wolff, Monaco, 2024
Wolff is keen to reduce pressure on Antonelli

This is part of a wider programme of tests in F1 machinery designed to prepare Antonelli for his eventual debut. The fact the team is going to this length to prepare him shows how serious they are about giving him an F1 chance.

Most recently, Antonelli was back in an F1 cockpit at Silverstone, running along with Russell and the team’s reserve driver, Mick Schumacher. His progress has been the focus of huge media interest, prompting Mercedes to deny his last run was a ‘shootout’ between him and Schumacher to help decide who should fill Hamilton’s 2025 seat. Mercedes insisted the pair and Russell ran completely separate programmes that could not be compared.

This week, Antonelli will be back in a Formula 1 car yet again – this time at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona. While Mercedes are not making any decisions about their driver line up soon, it seems as though they will have copious amounts of private testing data from which to decide whether they want to promote a soon-to-be 18-year-old into their seat for 2024 or even lobby a customer team like Williams to take him on instead. Until that decision is made, all Antonelli needs to focus on is on scoring points in Formula 2 and pushing for that elusive podium.

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