Damon Hill identifies four drivers who stamp their authority over team radio

Michelle Foster
Fernando Alonso speaking with George Russell at the 2023 pre-season photo call in Bahrain.

Fernando Alonso speaking with George Russell.

Damon Hill reckons if Mercedes and Ferrari can reach the point where they’re racing Red Bull, F1 could be in for a very interesting season in which the likes of George Russell and Carlos Sainz could have an advantage over their team-mates.

Last time out in Australia, Mercedes briefly led the fight for the race lead with Russell and Hamilton overtaking Max Verstappen off the line to run 1-2. While Russell was pitted under the Safety Car that came out on lap 7 for Alex Albon’s crashed Williams, Hamilton was left out with the seven-time World Champion worried that had hampered his race.

But within a lap their circumstances did a 180 as the race was red flagged with Hamilton handed a free pit stop, while Russell found himself down in seventh place.

He would retire a few laps later with an engine failure, Hamilton going onto finish the race in second place as the Briton didn’t have the pace to keep Verstappen with his “insane” DRS at bay.

For Hill it was interesting watching Mercedes playing the strategy game against Red Bull, something they haven’t often had the opportunity to do in recent times.

“The thing about Melbourne to point out,” he told the F1 Nation podcast, “it was interesting the shoe was on the other foot a little bit because Mercedes had the option, they had two drivers threatening Max.

“But Max was all alone because he’d lost Sergio, Sergio was down the back with his own battles, so they couldn’t do this game where you go ‘Okay, well, one of our guys is going to do one thing, and the other guy is going to do the other thing’ so now you are covered.

“The guy in front hasn’t got the option of the luxury, let’s say, of choosing his tyre choice so he’s sort of stuck with whatever the guy who is nearest to him has got.

“So that was interesting that they had that option, they played that card, and I think Mercedes were very threatening in the sense that tactically they were astute, and they were using both their drivers and they had the luxury of having two extremely fast, brilliant drivers in their team. So that gives a strength to them.

“I’m not saying that Sergio is not. I’m saying in that particular race Sergio had his issues in qualifying and was out of the frame. So things will get really interesting if you get Sergio back up the front.

“And let’s not forget Ferrari. They will sort this out, somehow they’ve got to find out what they’re doing wrong. I mean they’re not that bad, they shouldn’t be where they are but it’s conceivable that they could find a way forward and join the fray.”

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Should Ferrari enter fray Hill believes Sainz has something that sets him apart from his team-mate Charles Leclerc, he’s forceful of the radio.

It was noted several times last season that Sainz would insist on a strategy that he felt served him best whereas Leclerc went with whatever Ferrari suggested.

This played out in Monaco with Sainz taking second place after insisting he wasn’t ready to pit when the team called him in, while Leclerc came in when he was told and then had to pit two laps later because he was on the wrong tyres.

Hill believes that’s a trait the Spaniard shares with reigning World Champion Verstappen as well as Russell and Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso.

“And then it becomes really interesting,” he continued.

“When you’ve got races where teams choose to put drivers on different strategies, and it can always be immensely frustrating to drivers, particularly if they’re in the latter stages of a championship because a team might say something which is detrimental.

“So this is what happened with Charles Leclerc at Ferrari where he was not given preference, where he was given the wrong strategy, or the strategy that benefitted or covered the team from a competitive point of view.

“But it actually, from his point of view, put him at a disadvantage to his team-mate because you got this lovely contradiction in our sport where you have two championships going at the same time and the teams run everything. So the drivers have very little control.

“And this is why you have Max who is so forceful. And I’ve heard this, I’ve heard a similar thing coming from George Russell as well, which is he’s very forceful. You might even say Carlos Sainz at Ferrari, they direct to the team. And of course, Fernando Alonso.

“These drivers they direct the team from the cockpit, they can swing it, if the team is not bothered either way then it’s possible to get what you want for your strategy for a particular race, but you have to think quickly.”