Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes struggles? Let’s hear it for George Russell instead

Oliver Harden
Lewis Hamilton looks downbeat in the Mercedes garage with George Russell in the background

Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes farewell is not going to plan, but George Russell has responded well after an untidy 2023

Lewis Hamilton finds himself in an unusual position with the first third of the F1 2024 season completed.

Last weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix marked the seventh time in eight races that he has been outqualified by George Russell, forced to settle for seventh on the grid – two places behind his team-mate – having been a fixture in the top three throughout practice.

Can George Russell lead Mercedes when Lewis Hamilton leaves?

Much was made of Hamilton’s comments after the session, as he pointed to being “automatically” two tenths down as a result of Russell running the team’s only new front wing before making the curious remark that he does not “anticipate being ahead of George in qualifying” too often in his final season with Mercedes.

To focus too heavily on Hamilton’s struggles, however, is to overlook a resurgence of Russell, returning to something resembling his best this year after an unsatisfactory F1 2023.

There were definite shades of Charles Leclerc about Russell last season – a talented driver frustrated by the limitations of his machinery, denying him the chance to build on a promising 2022.

F1 2024: Head-to-head statistics

👉 F1 2024: Head-to-head qualifying record between team-mates

👉 F1 2024: Head-to-head race statistics between team-mates

Once reality hit home that, no, Mercedes and Ferrari were still not in a position to challenge Red Bull regularly, it is perhaps no surprise that performances suffered and mistakes occurred with more frequency.

For Charles crashing twice at the same spot in the space of 24 hours in Miami, and simply unable to drive the Ferrari on chilly days at Barcelona and Zandvoort, see George striking the wall in his desperation to join the battle between Hamilton and Fernando Alonso in Montréal and overreaching when a scarce shot at victory appeared in Singapore.

Such is the way of the modern world – and the propensity to jump to conclusions based on a limited body of evidence – that some had made up their minds about Leclerc and Russell come the end of last season, convinced that Ferrari and Mercedes required more to stand a chance of taking down Max Verstappen and Red Bull in full flight.

Much of the damage to their reputations was self-inflicted, but with a new season and an improved outlook for both teams – albeit with progress altogether steadier in the silver corner – both Leclerc and Russell are now offering reminders of their vast potential and why they were so highly regarded when they first arrived in F1.

More than two years since he became Hamilton’s team-mate, the fact remains that Russell’s most eye-catching performance for Mercedes came when he was still a Williams driver.

That is no coincidence either, for the Sakhir Grand Prix of 2020 was the only glimpse to date of Russell in a car remotely capable of winning regular races and, by extension, the World Championship.

It has been forgotten lately, as memories fade and Mercedes’ post-2022 position in the pecking order has become the new normal, yet the ease with which Russell slotted into the cockpit of an unwell Hamilton – and in one fell swoop effectively ended the career of Valtteri Bottas as a leading F1 driver – remains one of the most impressive feats of the sport’s recent history.

He unquestionably caught Hamilton at a good time in 2022 too, when the fresh wounds of Abu Dhabi 2021 were salted by some of the worst performing cars of his whole F1 career, but Russell’s certainty in strolling into Mercedes and instantly matching, occasionally beating, a seven-time World Champion has been similarly taken for granted.

If he’s this impressive at such short notice, everyone wondered aloud that post-race night in Bahrain, just how good will he be when he has a winning Mercedes moulded around him?

Almost four years on, mostly through circumstance as a result of the team’s difficulties in cracking the ground effect code, it still hangs in the air as a question without an answer.

Yet that performance should be what Toto Wolff & Co cling to as all the evidence they need that Russell will – not just can – deliver when provided with a truly competitive car.

The great Russell revival of 2024 has come at an interesting time in Mercedes’ search for Hamilton’s successor for F1 2025, with PlanetF1.com reporting ahead of the Monaco Grand Prix that Carlos Sainz is no longer being considered (at least for now) for the vacancy.

Mercedes are instead believed to be keeping tabs on Max Verstappen’s situation at Red Bull and seem prepared to promote Andrea Kimi Antonelli, the 17-year-old Italian sensation, as soon as next season if the reigning World Champion is unattainable.

Yet if Wolff is so determined to land Verstappen sooner than later, and so convinced of Antonelli’s long-term potential too, where exactly could that leave Russell – out of contract at the end of 2025 – a year from now? Three into two does not go.

Remember, though, how Russell was portrayed when he was promoted from Williams at the end of 2021 as the face of Mercedes’ long-term future and the one to eventually lead Merc into life after Lewis.

Has he done anything over the last couple of years to dissuade the team from that viewpoint?

With Russell’s arrival coinciding with Mercedes’ fall from grace, Wolff really could not have asked for much more from him in the circumstances.

The temptation to make a statement signing – to remind Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren that his team are still armed and dangerous after two-and-a-half bleak years – must be overwhelming for Wolff, but it may be that Mercedes already have all they need for 2025 and beyond, if only they can finally get the car fixed.

Hamilton’s replacement? Mercedes already found him three years ago.

His name is George Russell.

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