Beating Lewis Hamilton in his first season as a Mercedes driver was an “unbelievable achievement” for George Russell, according to Nico Rosberg.
Russell stepped into the second Mercedes this season, the Mercedes junior promoted after three seasons running at the back of the field with Williams.
Despite the Brackley squad’s struggles with their porpoising W13, Russell went from Mr. Saturday to Mr. Sunday as he strung together a run of nine top-five results, clearly more comfortable with the bouncing car than Hamilton.
As the season progressed the seven-time World Champion found his feet and came to the fore, some would say unlucky not to win the United States or Mexican races with Red Bull team boss Christian Horner believing he could have got the better of Max Verstappen if Mercedes had gone with a different tyre strategy.
But as it was, it was Russell who clinched Mercedes’ first – and only – win of the season as he led Hamilton home in a 1-2 finish at the Sao Paulo Grand Prix.
The 24-year-old finished the season fourth in the Drivers’ standings, 35 points ahead of his team-mate.
Speaking on Sky Sports F1’s Any Driven Monday, Rosberg said: “I think George has just done an incredibly good season, so consistent, getting the maximum out of the car all the time, so it is hugely impressive for his first year there in Mercedes.
“Lewis is still at his very best so to beat Lewis is just an unbelievable achievement.
“We all know Lewis had a bit of an unlucky, scruffy season where the car was not going well and they were experimenting a lot so that kind of mixes things up a little bit.
“But that doesn’t take anything away from George who did an incredibly, incredibly good job.”
‘2023 could be a different kind of situation’
Next year, however, Rosberg reckons Russell may have a tougher time staying ahead of Hamilton in the standings.
Mercedes was arguably the most improved team in the latter part of the championship with pundits predicting they could be the ones to watch out for next season.
Rosberg says if the team-mates are going wheel-to-wheel for podiums and wins, Russell will find Hamilton a sterner test to overcome.
Predicting that it could be a “different kind of situation”, the 2016 World Champion added: “If next year they start right at the front, fighting for podiums and wins from the get go and being away from all the mess of the pack, that will then be a different situation with a better car as a platform where they’re not completely lost, and they don’t know what’s going on with the set-up and have to try everything.
“So then George has to prove it again and see if he can still stay ahead of Lewis, and it’s the ultimate challenge.
“Lewis is still at his best so to beat him over a season is so tough, but it will be so great to watch because those guys are so closely matched.
“George, certainly, is a future World Champion. I am also looking forward to watching how Toto [Wolff] will manage the two drivers.
“One thing is managing them when they are fighting for 10th place, or sixth place.
“That is a whole different story to when you are managing drivers fighting for race win after race win, or even a championship. That is a completely different ball game. That’s something I am certainly looking forward to.”
Sao Paulo is hopefully a precedent for future battles
Despite holding the 1-2 after the final pit stops at the Sao Paulo Grand Prix, Mercedes gave Russell and Hamilton the freedom to race for the win.
Leading the race, Russell asked his engineer “are we racing or are we protecting the one-two” to be told they are “allowed to race”.
What followed were 10 qualifying-esque laps from the Briton as he kept his compatriot at bay, Russell crossing the line 1.5s ahead of Hamilton to record his first-ever F1 win.
He was asked about that radio message after the race and whether or not he was surprised Mercedes said race.
“Yes and no”, he replied. “We’ve always said that we’re free to race.
“Toto and the team have put a lot of faith and trust in Lewis and I and we’ve obviously had a few side-by-side moments throughout this year and has always been respectful and I think we’ve got a huge amount of respect for one another.”
As long the respect remains and the two don’t tangle, Sao Paulo will hopefully be a precedent for what’s to come in 2023 and beyond.