A former F1 team manager believes the battle for supremacy at Mercedes between Lewis Hamilton and George Russell needs a firm hand.
Hamilton has been with Mercedes for 10 years, enjoying complete supremacy of the Brackley-based squad for most of that tenure on his way to six of his seven titles during that time.
But the arrival of the young Mercedes protege George Russell two years ago has seen the two British drivers fighting for team leadership, with the form ebbing and flowing between the pair as Russell has sought to make his mark and underline his potential as Mercedes’ future.
Joan Villadelprat: F1 team staff take priority, not the drivers
In recent weeks, there has been signs of increasing tensions between the two drivers as their on-track battling escalated. In Japan, Hamilton pushed Russell onto the escape area at Spoon corner while, in Qatar, the pair collided at Turn 1 – resulting in Hamilton’s immediate retirement and Russell spinning down to last.
The incidents occurred while team boss Toto Wolff was off recovering from knee surgery and, speaking in an exclusive interview with PlanetF1.com, former Benetton team manager Joan Villadelprat said if he were in Wolff’s position, he’d be re-iterating a key message to both Hamilton and Russell to ensure harmony.
“It’s difficult,” the Spaniard explained to PlanetF1.com.
“There’s no one way, one book you can read on how to manage to have two animals in the same garage, but you need to convince them that the most important thing is to work as a team, that they can only be as good as the team is when helping each other – that’s how the team grows.
“Make the basics that everybody knows but everybody forgets: In the end, you are an employee and you will be here today and, tomorrow, you might not be there. And the team will be there.
“So that kind of mentality – think Frank Williams at Williams – the mentality of ‘Hey boys, remember that you are both working here’ has always been a big difference in England than what has been, say, at Ferrari. The drivers there are stars, they’re gods, you name it.
“As a team principal, what you need to focus is on the hundreds of people you’ve got in the factory. Not on the two drivers. You need to think about how a thousand families eat – that is your responsibility. So that takes priority in everything in your life, not the drivers.”
Joan Villadelprat: Lewis Hamilton is now ‘less hungry’ than George Russell
Elaborating on the battle between the two British drivers, which is set to continue for at least another two years following Mercedes securing the signatures of both until the end of 2025, Villadelprat said both are intelligent enough to ensure that unnecessary situations don’t escalate.
He explained that, in his opinion, at this point in his career, Hamilton will have less overall hunger than Russell and will be aware of just how badly his younger teammate wants to beat him.
“Lewis is not slower, but maybe he’s less hungry than what George has got,” he said.
“When you are a seven-time world champion, when you, your friends, and family are rich and everyone’s rich, you lose that hunger that makes you win. George has got that, but Hamilton knows that as well.
“Even when Hamilton makes a mistake, he goes and apologises. For sure, he will make mistakes and they will touch on each other. They are both professionals and both have a lot of respect for each other. And they’ll both make excuses for each other.
“I don’t think it is a problem when you have two intelligent people. You can have a shunt with your teammate, you can have a chat with your teammate. If you’re intelligent, the shunt hasn’t been provoked, it has been a mistake, it’s been a failure, or has been your mistake or whatever – the only thing you need to do is to apologise and to move on.
“[After Qatar], he apologised and that’s it. They’re both clever enough and have respect enough to do that. George learned a lot from Hamilton and has a lot of respect for him, and Hamilton has a lot of respect for people who put pressure on him.”
Villadelprat explained that, if the situation gets out of hand, it can lead to a very damaging situation for a team.
“I think this question from time to time, is make sure the team is the important thing in the whole world because the families at the factory need that,” he said.
“If you make it bad, and you don’t get the sponsor, you don’t get your money or whatever, and maybe you’re gonna need to lose a few hundred people because you don’t have the money.
“That’s on your head, not on the head of the two drivers. These kinds of things are important to talk to the drivers to make sure they understand the responsibility that they have when they are part of the team.”
But as for how he sees the intra-team battle playing out, Villaldeprat suspects that time and youth are on Russell’s side and that, when he steps up to the plate against Hamilton as a potential team leader, Mercedes will have to let it happen.
“George Russell has already proved he can be number one,” he said.
“Hamilton has always got doubts on whether he stays or not stays there, he’s got a lot of things in life that give him a bit more satisfaction – the style, his friends and business, all these kinds of things.
“Russell is still with long teeth, he wants to win. He will do everything that’s necessary to win and he proved he can win and he proved he’s loyal to the team and this proof has been very good so far.
“I think, when the time comes if Russell is quicker than Hamilton, Mercedes is going to need to let him go and let him be. It will be a fight.”