Jacques Villeneuve believes George Russell’s proactive strategy call at Zandvoort showed he is “quickly developing into the leader” at Mercedes.
Russell finished second to Max Verstappen in the Dutch Grand Prix, passing his team-mate Lewis Hamilton on track to secure that position.
But it was not exactly a level playing field at the time because Russell had stopped for fresh tyres during the Safety Car period at a decisive point, whereas Hamilton had not been given the opportunity to do likewise because the team wanted him to keep track position in the lead.
It worked out badly for Hamilton, who had earlier been compromised by a Virtual Safety Car period, and he took out his ire on the strategists with an expletive-ridden blast over the team radio.
Russell, meanwhile, had urged the team to call him into the pits and his plea was the right one as he finished two places above his colleague, extending his advantage over Hamilton to 30 points in the World Championship.
In terms of their race head-to-head record for the season – Russell’s first with Mercedes – that now stands at 9-6 to the younger of the two Britons and, according to Villeneuve, the internal balance of power is very much shifting towards the 24-year-old.
“I see a change within Mercedes,” said the 1997 World Champion in his column for Formule1.nl.
“George Russell is quickly developing into the leader of the team.
“He took the decision to go for the soft tyres himself. Hamilton, with all his experience and championships, could have done the same.”
The Canadian also gave his opinion on Hamilton’s rant over the team radio, for which he was later contrite.
“I was astonished by Lewis Hamilton‘s outburst in the race and especially by the way in which he did it,” said the 51-year-old, who has been given a test run in a 2021 Alpine at Monza in the days after the Italian Grand Prix.
“He was aggressive, almost insulting. It’s good that he apologised, but this does not befit a champion. After everything the team has meant to him, you shouldn’t speak to them like that.”
💬 "There are many great things to take away from this weekend. If it's the same in future races, we’re going to be continuing to breathe down their necks and get that win. I’m taking all these positives forward. So grateful for the team and their hard work. Let’s not give up." pic.twitter.com/KUZxhxA5ld
— Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team (@MercedesAMGF1) September 4, 2022
Are Mercedes really tilting towards George Russell?
Villeneuve may have got ahead of the true situation slightly. But there will clearly come a time when Russell becomes the No 1 driver at Mercedes, whether it is before or after Hamilton’s retirement.
The duo have taken it in turns this season to be the more productive driver.
Between the Saudi Arabian and Azerbaijan Grands Prix it was Russell; from Canada through to Hungary, Hamilton re-established supremacy. The last two races suggest things may have turned on their head again.
At this point, we would say there is little to choose between the duo. But obviously one significant aspect at this point is which driver will have the bigger say in the direction of the 2023 car, currently at a critical juncture, you would expect, in terms of its design and planning.
Perhaps Hamilton and Russell are wanting and saying the same things. If not, whose preferences are acted upon?
You would have to think at this stage, given all his experience and success, it would still be Hamilton with the upper hand in that respect, but that is by no means 100% guaranteed.
As Mercedes appear to be increasingly competitive as the season goes on, it will be interesting to see how things shake out between the two drivers – and just how prophetic Villeneuve’s words prove to be.