Hamilton, Russell and the problem with equal status

Finley Crebolder
Lewis Hamilton and George Russell at the Mercedes W13 launch. Silverstone February 2022.

Mercedes-AMG F1 W13 E Performance Launch - Lewis and George

Mercedes say their drivers will have equal status this year, but if they want to win a title fight, that may not be a possibility.

For the past five seasons, there’s been a clear hierarchy there, with Lewis Hamilton the lead driver and Valtteri Bottas the number two.

According to George Russell, Bottas’ replacement, such a hierarchy won’t be in place again in 2022.

“I’m definitely going on level terms and that was made very clear to me,” he told reporters in Italy shortly after his move was announced.

While Toto Wolff and co may want to treat the two Brits as equals though, that could well cause some serious problems if they end up facing a title challenge from other teams again.

Mercedes undoubtedly could have done with Bottas performing better last season, and his inability to challenge Max Verstappen regularly is largely why the team opted to replace him with Russell.

However, on the whole, having someone who wasn’t able to match Hamilton was ideal for the German outfit, particularly in the three years of the hybrid era where they faced outside challengers in the forms of Sebastian Vettel and Verstappen.

Both the German and the Dutchman were their team’s leaders when battling Hamilton and had a team-mate willing to assist them in any way they could.

So too did the seven-time World Champion, and that saw him, like his rivals, pick up much-needed extra points on a number of occasions with Bottas letting him through at various races.

Had the Finn fought him for the title too rather than playing second fiddle, it undoubtedly would have cost the 37-year-old points.

Verstappen almost certainly won’t face such a problem in 2022 with Sergio Perez most likely not being able to challenge him even if allowed, which is a big if.

Given they’ve always done so in the past, Ferrari too will pick an outright lead driver should they find themselves in the title fight again as many expect them to.

Simply put, if Mercedes are to fight a rival’s man for the Driver’s Championship this year, it’s likely that man will have the full support of his team and team-mate.

Considering just how good Verstappen and both Ferrari drivers are, it’s difficult to see how Hamilton or Russell could beat them in equal machinery if they didn’t have that luxury too.

If Russell is unable to match Hamilton, the two technically having equal status won’t be an issue. He won’t often get in his compatriot’s way and a hierarchy between them will naturally form without the team having to issue many orders.

If he’s as good as many expect him to be though, it will become one.

While their rivals are waved through and helped out by their team-mates, they’ll be busy fighting one another, costing them time and points. That’s no way to go about a title fight, as history shows.

The only time in modern F1 that a driver has prevailed in a championship battle against drivers from other teams and his own was in 2010, when Sebastian Vettel won his first title, but Red Bull’s decision to allow the German and Mark Webber to fight one another that year so nearly cost them.

The Aussie was ahead of Vettel for most of the season, but the team refused to instruct the latter to let go of his title aspirations and support his team-mate. As a result, the two did battle, came together in Turkey, and only a poor strategy for Fernando Alonso in Abu Dhabi gave Christian Horner and co a happy ending.

Things just about worked out for them, but that wasn’t the case three years prior when McLaren were in a similar situation.

To the surprise of many, rookie Hamilton was more than a match for Fernando Alonso, and the British team allowed both to fight Kimi Raikkonen for the title.

With the Finn receiving a helping hand from team-mate Felipe Massa, he ultimately prevailed, finishing the campaign one point ahead of both. Considering it was such a small margin, there’s little doubt that the championship would have been McLaren’s if they’d had one driver leading their charge and the other supporting him.

The parallels between that line up and Mercedes’ this year are clear to see: a multiple World Champion who has grown accustomed to being a number one driver and a young Brit eager to prove he can battle with the very best.

Treating Hamilton and Russell as equals, steering clear of issuing team orders, could well work out if the team don’t face a title challenge from a competitor or if the 24-year-old isn’t able to challenge his elder.


However, there’s every chance that another team, most likely Red Bull and/or Ferrari, will produce equal or stronger machinery. Should that happen and Hamilton and Russell get in each other’s way, Mercedes’ commitment to treating the two as equals will be tested.

So too will Russell’s patience assuming Hamilton is given the lead of the team in such a scenario. He happily waited for his promotion, but is he willing to do so again for his shot at the title?

Keeping both drivers happy while trying to beat rival teams to the championships would be a tricky task indeed. Good luck, Toto.


Wolff discusses Hamilton v Russell dynamic

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