Russell: New man in Mercedes hot seat

January 5, 2022

As one driver climbs out of the Mercedes hot seat, another prepares to climb in to it. Out goes the 32-year-old Valtteri Bottas and in comes the 23-year-old George Russell, writes Gary Lemke.

This is new territory for Sir Lewis Hamilton, for whom there are strong arguments to be considered the best Formula One driver of all-time. At the very least, statistically, no one has been more successful than the Brit.

The 2022 season is going to be interesting. Because, as Hamilton gets to know his sixth teammate since he started out in Formula One, this is the first time he has been partnered with someone as young as Russell. In fact, Russell was just 10 when Hamilton won the first of his record-equalling seven world drivers’ championships, in the McLaren-Mercedes in 2008. There’s 13 years between the two drivers.

Fernando Alonso was nearly four years older than Hamilton when the future great made his debut in the McLaren-Mercedes in 2007, aged 22. After one season Alonso was replaced by Heikki Kovalainen, also four years older than Hamilton. The Finn lasted two seasons, winning just one race as Hamilton won seven, before Jenson Button replaced him. He was five years older than Hamilton and during this period of Sebastian Vettel’s domination in the Red Bull, Button outperformed Hamilton in the McLaren-Mercedes.

Enter Toto Wolff, who took the 27-turning-28-year-old Hamilton to Mercedes. He paired him with a driver six months younger, Nico Rosberg, and the two had a fiery relationship, one which ended when the German won the 2016 world drivers’ championship. Bottas replaced him, four years younger at 28 and under no illusion that he was the ‘second driver’ in the team.

In fact, that’s been the criticism of Formula One – that there is a designated No 1 and No 2 driver in each team. Most play the part to perfection, the submissive deputy, and as Hamilton has broken record after record, his deputies have largely complied. Certainly they have at Mercedes, although Rosberg upset a whole bunch of people in 2016, after which he walked away from the sport.

In total, though, at Mercedes, Hamilton won 32 grands prix, while Rosberg took the checkered flag 22 times. But the genuine rivalry meant that the high fives and fist bumps were slowly replaced by growls and forced smiles for the media and sponsors only.

With Bottas the pecking order was clear with Hamilton winning 47 times and the Finn 10 times as we entered the final few races of the 2021 season.

Only twice in 15 seasons has Hamilton had to play second fiddle to a teammate, at McLaren in 2011 (Button) and at Mercedes in 2016 (Rosberg).

Now the fresh-faced Russell becomes Sir Lewis’ wingman. We had a glimpse of what he could do a year ago when Hamilton contracted Covid-19 and had to sit out the Sakhir GP, with Russell replacing him in the same car.

Russell drove brilliantly, but the F1 paddock still whispers about the pit-stop errors that robbed him of the chance to win on his debut. They couldn’t allow him to come in and win in Hamilton’s car, the argument goes. It might suggest that it’s the car and not necessarily the driver who is the dominant force. Which is what many who watch F1 argue week in and week out.

For their part, Wolff explained the mistakes that robbed Russell of his moment. 

‘Overall for us, it was just a colossal f**k up. Simply, one of the tyre crews didn’t hear the call – we had a radio failure in the garage. When the car came in, they didn’t know we had changed the tyres for the wrong tyres [Russell was fitted with Bottas’ tyres], and this is why we exited with the wrong set of tyres.’

So, Russell went back to Williams where he finished in the top 10 three times in the first 17 races in 2021, a second in Belgium, an eighth in Hungary and a ninth in Italy.

But, given the nature of F1, expect the young Brit to be a lot more competitive in 2022. In fact, get used to seeing him on the front row of the grid and on the podium. 

‘I imagine George is going to be similar to me when I got to Formula One,’ said Hamilton. ‘He’s going to be hungry, he’s got everything to gain, nothing to lose. He’s going to throw everything and the kitchen sink at it. That’s what I would expect, he will get amazing support from our engineers, he’s got an amazing amount of support to be welcomed in and we will try to work as teammates

Russell represents the new, fearless young generation of F1 drivers. He’s even a year younger than Max Verstappen, who has been giving Hamilton grey hairs all year and the danger, for Hamilton and Mercedes, is that the youngster gets involved in ‘racing’ his teammate, instead of toeing the line as he waits for the great to retire. That’s the way to bet – that the younger Brit will be very much aware that he’s No 2 as he waits for Father Time to determine his future.

Wolff had to preside over an increasingly fragile dynamic between Hamilton and Rosberg in the past, one that eventually shattered completely, and says the lessons from those fraught times have been learned.

‘I think we as a team can manage it much better now than maybe back then, when we slid into the unknown. The dynamic between George and Lewis will be completely different. You’ve got the wizard and the sorcerer’s apprentice and I think they are both aware of that division of roles.’ 

Hamilton and Rosberg had progressed through the motorsport ranks, from their karting days right through to F1, but by the time Rosberg won the world title in 2016 the pair weren’t talking to one another. From 2014 Mercedes allowed Rosberg to go head-to-head, but although the PR fluff says both drivers get equal opportunities and treatment, only the truly naive would believe that.

Wolff invested wisely when he picked Bottas to partner Hamilton from the 2017 season. And it appears he has done the same with Russell.

Wolff feels that signing Russell was a chance to ‘rejuvenate the team by transitioning into the next generation’, noting that many of the team’s rivals have young drivers in their lineups. Verstappen and Charles Leclerc are 24. McLaren has Lando Norris, who is 21.

‘You can see that in most of the other top teams, there is a young driver with potential,’ Wolff said. ‘We opted for George to see how he can learn from Lewis. He has a lot of ability and talent. He is very ambitious. And when you look at his career record, he’s among the best of his generation.’

At the news of Russell’s appointment, Verstappen said Russell could ‘make it very difficult’ for Hamilton in 2022. Alonso said racing with Russell would ‘for sure be more challenging for Lewis than with Valtteri’.

But Russell will just be happy to have been selected to partner one of the great drivers for now, and wait his time. 

‘I’m under no illusion of how tough that’s going to be. We all know how strong Lewis is. In my opinion, he’s probably the greatest driver of all time. He’s a seven-time world champion for a reason, so I’m in an incredibly fortunate position that I can go in and learn from the best. 

‘Jumping into a race-winning car which is dialled in, and the team are at the top of their game, it’s in some ways quite straightforward for the driver,’ he added.

Tellingly, he noted: ‘I’m not thinking too far ahead and look at it from race to race. I realise we have to work together and I’m looking forward to seeing what we can achieve. The team management do not want a rivalry like the one between Lewis and Rosberg. Neither do I. That seems logical to me.’

In other words, don’t bite the hand that feeds. Russell’s time as a challenge for the F1 world title will come. It just won’t be in 2022.

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