Lewis Hamilton will ‘irritate’ George Russell in Mercedes ‘top dog’ battle

Jamie Woodhouse
Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and George Russell pose for a selfie at the 2023 Japanese Grand Prix.

Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and George Russell pose for a selfie.

Formula 1 correspondent Lawrence Barretto says George Russell failed to “execute” his Japanese GP one-stop strategy after being unable to resist the temptation of the “top dog” battle with Lewis Hamilton.

The Mercedes pair engaged in battle at several stages of the Suzuka race, one exchange where both went off at the second of the Degner corners proving particularly hair-raising, with Russell then pitting on Lap 25 of the race, that proving to be his only pit stop as he committed to the one-stop strategy.

It is safe to say that approach did not work out though for Russell.

George Russell needed to beat Lewis Hamilton by not fighting him

From there Russell fell back through the pack, to the point where Hamilton and the charging Ferrari of Carlos Sainz, irked to have been undercut by Mercedes with Hamilton, were now all over Russell’s rear wing.

Sainz ultimately cleared Russell, condemning him to a P7 finish, though Barretto felt Russell set himself up for that decline by going in hard on those battles with Hamilton, rather than resisting the temptation and playing the long game to maximise the effectiveness of his one-stop strategy.

“I think execution is to blame massively,” Barretto said of Russell’s failed one-stopper on The F1 Strategy Report.

“I think George Russell is in an interesting spot at the minute. He’s obviously come off the Singapore Grand Prix and he had that mistake that cost him a podium. He’s obviously not performed as strongly relative to Lewis Hamilton this year and that will irritate him, frankly.

“And I think then you go into races like this, where Mercedes are kind of in that weird realm of probably the fourth-best team, just behind Ferrari and McLaren and therefore, if you want to have a bit of excitement, you probably have to try something different.

“So I can see why George would have probably been very pro on the one-stop, but the thing is, as I mentioned, with his fight with Lewis, I think it’s just a racing driver mentality that you’re with Lewis and you’re battling him, and the sensible thing to actually beat him is not to fight him.

“I know that sounds really silly, but execution, that was the thing to do and he just couldn’t resist it. Because I think there was also that internal battle between who is top dog in that team.

“And so I suppose George has to prove two things, he has to prove that he is the future for that team, he is the driver that they should be backing already now, even though they’ve got a seven-time World Champion in the other car, but also, he has to get the best result.

“And I think often, particularly in this scenario, you can’t prove both those things in one go. Or you prove it by executing the strategy that you said you were going to do and that is how the team view it, you know, you’ve thought about this race.

“But at the moment, because George has had such a difficult season and a frustrating season, I’m kind of not surprised that he just couldn’t resist fighting Lewis.

“And because of that, I don’t know exactly how hard he would have pushed the tyres, but he almost certainly would have pushed it to the point where, I don’t think he would have run out of them effectively as quickly as he did in this Grand Prix, if he hadn’t fought Lewis, and then he might have been in a better spot.

“I mean, it’s all ifs, what’s, maybes, but I think that he didn’t execute that race. And I think when he goes back and he looks at it, that will be the greatest frustration I think from that Grand Prix.”

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Mercedes tried to play the team game in the closing stages at Suzuka, asking Hamilton, after Russell had let him through, to drop back and keep Russell in DRS range to help him defend against Sainz.

But, with Russell’s tyres in a sorry state, that plan as expected did not pay off, one which Barretto is surprised Mercedes even tried.

“I didn’t really understand the whole DRS thing,” Barretto stated. “Because George’s tyres, even with DRS, he was always going to be at risk, even if Lewis was helping him.

“So all you’re really doing is risking Lewis, who would have been comfortable if they just let them race anyway, because he had I think a two-second gap before he had to drop back into George’s DRS. So you’re actually putting the wider team at risk by doing that, for what could potentially be obviously a bigger gain if you do keep both cars behind.

“The Ferrari was fundamentally a very fast race car anyway, so it was already going to be a difficult feat to achieve.

“So yeah, it wasn’t desperation, but it did feel like they just rolled the dice a little bit in a scenario where they just ultimately didn’t really need to.”

With Charles Leclerc crossing the line P4 and Sainz P6, Ferrari were able to slightly loosen Mercedes’ grip on P2 in the Constructors’ Championship, reducing their buffer to 20 points.

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