Lewis Hamilton’s heir? Lando Norris and George Russell facing first big questions

Oliver Harden
Lewis Hamilton, Lando Norris, George Russell

Lando Norris and George Russell are aiming to succeed Lewis Hamilton as Britain's main F1 superstar.

There are two types of people in this world: those who know they belong and those who need some convincing.

The opening lap of last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix sprint race provided final confirmation, if needed, that George Russell and Lando Norris sit at opposite ends of that spectrum.

After being left devastated that his rookie team-mate Oscar Piastri had beaten him to a first F1 victory in the Qatar sprint, Norris had the perfect opportunity to strike back four weeks later at Interlagos.

On pole position, marginally yet consistently faster than Max Verstappen’s Red Bull throughout sprint qualifying, this felt for all the world like Lando’s time at long last.

Then those five red lights went out, Verstappen muscled him aside into the first corner and the momentum Norris had been building up all day, seemingly on the path to his own maiden triumph, was lost in an instant.

“Oh, Lando…” the world sighed in unison.

Worse was to come halfway around the opening lap, as Russell too pounced with a late, opportunistic move down Norris’s inside, punting him down to third in a race only a minute earlier he had seemed set to lead from the front.

Oh, Lando…

It was a first lap to reflect the different personalities of both drivers – Norris tentative, vulnerable, exposed in the decisive and high-pressure moments; Russell eternally aggressive, always seeking – almost regarding it as a basic matter of principle – to impose himself on every situation.

Comparisons between the two have been unavoidable since their earliest days when, as teenagers still competing in the junior categories, Russell and Norris were effectively presented to a British audience as Mini Jenson and Mini Lewis.

There was George: polished to within an inch of his life with his perfect annunciation and his winning smile, every last ‘i’ dotted and every last ‘t’ crossed.

And there was Lando: quieter and shier yet somehow touched with the air common among the most gifted drivers. There always was something about Lando.

They are F1’s Siamese twins, both landing on the grid in 2019 after a season as direct title rivals in F2 and experiencing their first breakthrough moments almost simultaneously across 2020/21.

After their joint rise comes some difficult questions, however, with doubts now hanging over both in the race to step forth as the heir to Lewis Hamilton.

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In many ways Norris has never had it so good in F1, leading McLaren’s recovery from a slow start to last season to equal his best result of second on six occasions. But 2023 also offered little hints that his temperament could prove at best inhibitive and at worst self-destructive.

As his first victory edged ever closer the further away it felt, Norris’s over-emotional reaction to Piastri’s Qatar win revealing the true depth of the pain of his own extended wait.

Second no longer brings much satisfaction and there were moments towards the end of last year when a first victory felt like it had become a matter of urgency for Norris, that he could be prevented from progressing to the next level until he reached that milestone.

Just how transformative will that day be for him? How will the validation and sense of achievement that comes with winning a grand prix – you sense he’d gladly settle for a puny sprint race at this stage – affect his self-belief?

Will that finally be the moment to convince him that he does belong after all?

Until that first victory comes, Norris’s development is at risk of stalling – even regressing – especially alongside Piastri, one of those who knew he belonged long before he even arrived and, yes, already has that crucial first win and all that comes with it to his name.

A crisis of confidence? The very idea is alien to Russell, who even after the scruffiest season of his career to date still preferred to focus on the positives.

Yes, he acknowledged, he did stand on the podium just twice all year and he did lag 59 points behind Hamilton in the Championship.

But the pace difference between them? George felt he was right where he needed to be in 2023.

He had a point too – the Mercedes drivers were the second-closest team-mates on raw pace, only behind Alpine, on average last season – yet Russell is intelligent enough to know that his greatest quality sometimes proved to be his biggest weakness.

At its best his attacking, let’s-go-for-it-now-and-worry-about-the-consequences-later style is intoxicating and, now Verstappen has mellowed into his dominance, it makes him one of the most entertaining and exciting drivers in the sport today.

Once too often in 2023, however, his self-confidence bled into the territory of recklessness.

That Brazil sprint race? He eventually slid back to fourth, potentially guilty of pushing his tyres too hard too soon (even if Mercedes were fighting other battles with the woeful W14 that weekend).

That also undid Russell in his attempt to seize the day in Singapore, where after pitting for new tyres in a bold move to win the race found himself running out of rubber when he finally reached the leaders, actually compromising Mercedes’ victory hopes as Hamilton sat frustrated behind.

The nature of Russell’s retirement on the final lap, clipping the outside wall, was reminiscent of his crash in Canada where in his desperate attempts to keep up with Hamilton and Fernando Alonso he clobbered the kerb and hit the wall.

Such incidents are a function of Russell’s spiky, on-the-edge inputs, making him a driver prone to clipping outside walls, taking too much kerb and dipping wheels into the grass on corner entry.

Yet as he enters his third full season with Mercedes, when he will likely have a more compliant car at his disposal, now is the time for Russell to strike a better balance and accept that the world will not end if he is not anything other than 100 per cent on the limit, 100 per cent of the time.

For years the balance between the two potential heirs to Hamilton’s throne looked set: Norris, it seemed, was the more naturally gifted but Russell, as a product of Mercedes’ junior academy, had a smoother route to F1’s summit.

Is that quite so certain now?

As they have grown to face ever-greater challenges, so the limitations of both Norris and Russell have gradually become apparent.

One thing, though, is for sure: a blend of the two, Lando’s natural talent combined with George’s total self-belief, would be utterly lethal.

Read next: Smart or scared? Why Lando Norris avoided a Max Verstappen battle