George Russell’s ‘future of Mercedes’ promise is slipping through his fingers

Thomas Maher
George Russell and Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, battle. Japan, September 2023.

Tensions beginning to boil at Mercedes

Lewis Hamilton was having none of it as George Russell overtook him on track during the Japanese Grand Prix, but how will their partnership evolve?

Following on from the Ferrari drivers’ no-holds-barred fight at Monza, Mercedes have had to watch their drivers battle from between their fingers in both Singapore and Japan, with Hamilton and Russell proving difficult to separate.

In Singapore, Hamilton was there to pounce on Russell’s critical error on the final lap, while the team made a team order call in Hamilton’s favour towards the end of the Suzuka race.

George Russell is up against an unexpected dynamic at Mercedes

By and large, Hamilton and Russell’s partnership has worked quite well over the past two years. With Russell getting the big promotion he’d been angling for for years, signing him in place of the cooperative but unspectacular Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes clearly had one eye on the future as Hamilton knocked on the door of his record-breaking eighth World Championship – if Hamilton decided he’d had his fill, they needed to secure their future.

However, it hasn’t quite played out that way. Abu Dhabi ’21 happened, Hamilton didn’t get his record, and if he had harboured thoughts of retiring from F1 having achieved the seemingly impossible, Max Verstappen’s title win – and the nature of it – ensured Hamilton returned full of fire for 2022.

With Mercedes falling off the boil in ’22 as the team failed to nail the switch to the ground effect regulations, Russell and Hamilton had a fairly straightforward year. Russell had a great start, reeling off decent results in a consistent run of form while Hamilton took on the grunt work of evaluating strange setups and configurations in a desperate bid to help the team move forward.

Despite their struggles, it was a harmonious year – Russell settling into the role of the eager young padawan alongside the master, enjoying matching and occasionally beating Hamilton.

But that dynamic has shifted this year, particularly in recent months. Mercedes’ change of technical direction, including a concept change on the W14, has resulted in a more consistent performer. With Mercedes’ consistency and operational sharpness making up for some of their pace deficit, podiums aren’t out of reach – it just means hard fighting with the likes of Ferrari, McLaren, and (occasionally) Aston Martin.

Having adjusted to the fact they are no longer F1’s standard-setters, Mercedes are slowly but surely trying to chip away at the gap to the front, and it’s remarkable to see how the drivers are adjusting to it. Hamilton, the war veteran, has called upon his incredible energy reserves and is applying himself every bit as diligently as if the title he’s pursuing is still his first, rather than the elusive eighth.

Russell, alongside, is in the unenviable position of realising that the dynamic he had perhaps envisioned is no longer playing out. At the end of his second season with Mercedes, he is facing up against an adversary as mighty as anyone has ever been in Formula 1. Worse, rather than assuming the ‘future of Mercedes’ role that seemed certain when he signed up two years ago, he now has at least two more years alongside Hamilton – and Lewis shows no signs of being happy to switch to a mentor-type role.

Indeed, Suzuka proved quite the opposite: Hamilton is setting about trying to crush Russell, and Mercedes’ orders to Russell to stand aside suggest the Brackley-based team are still eager to keep their superstar driver happy. Would Toto Wolff have instructed Pete Bonnington to get on the radio to Hamilton and order him aside, when the slight chance of defending via DRS was a possibility?

Is George Russell capable of assuming command of the situation?

It’s completely in Russell’s hands from now on how he wants his F1 career to progress. For so long, he had to adopt the mindset of ‘my time will come’. With Hamilton choosing to continue for longer than might have been thought during the winter of 2021, Russell’s time is no longer in the future – it’s right now. If he wants to prove himself to Mercedes, and show that he is the right man to lead the team forward, he simply must start stamping his authority over Hamilton.

The issue for Russell is that is not going to be simple. 2023-vintage Russell has proven himself capable, occasionally, of being on Hamilton’s level, but not consistently enough to be considered the right man to assume the role Hamilton has shown he is still fully capable of commanding.

But – and this is not a joke – perhaps what needs to happen is not this tense-but-not-hostile environment that has been fostered by a Mercedes eager to maintain a conservative command of the situation, but a collision that allows the simmering tension to boil over.

Think back to 2019 when Ferrari cut ties with Kimi Raikkonen and tried to light a fire under Sebastian Vettel by bringing in Charles Leclerc. While the pair got along off track, Vettel was destabilised by Leclerc’s presence as the Monegasque proved his equal in pace and, bit by bit, managed to assert himself over the softening Vettel – a dynamic that accelerated as they collided in Brazil in 2019, a cataclysmic moment in Vettel’s downfall at the Scuderia.

Prior to that, there was the line-in-the-sand moment when Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen collided in Azerbaijan 2018, a moment that gave Ricciardo the clarity he needed to see that he had lost control of Red Bull to his young team-mate.

And, even more prior to that, Nico Rosberg and Hamilton’s willingness to collide may not have been the best for Toto Wolff’s heart health, but it gave Rosberg the mental fortitude he needed to dig deep enough to eventually defeat his teammate.

Does Russell have the cut-throat, selfish, antagonising, petulant streak within him that the very best F1 drivers seem to have?

Russell’s Singapore crash also couldn’t have come at a worse time as the reality of his situation has sunk in. Even if all the correct things were said by both him and the team afterwards. Clearly distraught after the mistake, the fact of the matter is that Russell choked under the extreme circumstances of the battle – feeling the moment to strike had slipped past, and knowing Hamilton was breathing down his neck from millimetres behind him, ready to pounce on the mistake that did come.

Realistically, there are only two outcomes for Russell at this point. After a season that he himself has dubbed a ‘disaster’ in terms of the Drivers’ Championship, he can brush himself down over the winter and come back in 2024 and prove to Mercedes he can be a Hamilton-esque figure once Lewis does finally hang up his helmet. The kind of driver who will think nothing of pushing his team-mate off into the escape area at Spoon Curve rather than let him get ahead.

Or, he can continue at the level he’s at right now, roughly keeping up with Hamilton, and prove that he is merely ample support for the driver that is the real future of Mercedes when they inevitably emerge.

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