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Formula 1

Is Russell too limited to become Mercedes' F1 team leader?

by Ben Anderson
5 min read

When Mercedes decided to replace Valtteri Bottas with George Russell for the 2022 Formula 1 season, there was clear intent that Russell would effectively serve an apprenticeship alongside Lewis Hamilton before eventually replacing him as the team’s spearhead.

Hamilton’s decision to exit his current Mercedes contract a year early and switch to Ferrari for 2025 accelerates the timeline on which Russell needs to be fully ready to assume that responsibility - and it’s legitimate to ask, as we discussed recently on The Race F1 Podcast, if Russell has yet done enough to convince.

Some familiar questions surfaced after the 2024 Canadian Grand Prix, a race for which Russell took pole position and led, but in which he also made errors and didn’t maximise the result on offer. 

Subscribers to The Race Members’ Club (now also available on Patreon) were asking us whether Russell still has a tendency to fumble under pressure, and whether he still exhibits a lack of sharpness in his racecraft?

Apparent imprecision or clumsiness in the heat of battle is most definitely still a thing with Russell. We know Russell is capable of pulling off great overtaking moves - as he did on Hamilton in Canada - but he is also capable of too-frequent howlers. 

Whether it’s bouncing off Max Verstappen in Las Vegas last season, or Mick Schumacher’s Haas in Singapore in 2022; not managing to overtake Oscar Piastri’s McLaren cleanly in Canada, bouncing off the walls in Singapore and Canada in 2023, and almost repeating the mistake in Canada in 2024 - allowing Lando Norris back through - Russell’s races are too frequently a bit too messy for someone who needs to be pushing himself into the absolute elite tier of F1 drivers to be considered worthy of leading a team like Mercedes into the future.

The Singapore shunt, which happened when Russell had a podium in the bag but also a sniff of victory, begged the question of whether he is prone to still over-reaching because so far his opportunities to be truly successful (with a team that should be automatically associated with success) are still so few and far between.

The execution he exhibited in winning the 2022 Brazilian Grand Prix, and in almost winning on his Mercedes debut subbing for Hamilton at the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix, suggests Russell is absolutely capable of delivering under pressure when the occasion demands. And the raw pace, as we’ve seen in his qualifying record against Hamilton, particularly so in 2024, is unquestionably there.

So perhaps what we’ve seen at other times with Russell is less about pressure and more about how he (mis)calculates risk versus reward, and how that intersects with his particular skillset. 

Some drivers, as was often said of Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel, are better at delivering over one lap and controlling races from the front. Schumacher was often not at his best when he had to climb through the order.

Maybe Russell is still driving too close to his personal limit and just not leaving enough margin for error. This is something Charles Leclerc can be accused of from time to time - using up just a bit too much mental bandwidth extracting (admittedly extraordinary) pace from the car and so not leaving quite enough space for broader thinking and strategical considerations.

It does also seem that Russell still lacks Hamilton’s (admittedly exceptional) ability to manage the Pirelli tyres properly through a race. That Singapore 2023 accident was considered to be partly a function of Russell being too gung-ho at the start of his chase of the leaders, leaving him vulnerable, while Hamilton drove in a more considered fashion. 

In Canada 2024 it too appeared Russell abused his intermediate tyres at the start, leaving him exposed to the more considered approach of Norris.

Some of it might also be born of simple frustration at Mercedes not operating to the level expected.

Verstappen now readily admits that he tried too hard to overcompensate for the deficiencies of underpowered Red Bull-Renaults in 2017 and 2018 and took a while (helped by throwing away a few race victories) to realise he needed to tone it down and drive more within himself. 

The Verstappen of 2019 and 2020 was much more restrained, and by 2021 he was absolutely ready to become F1 world champion (and did).

Their respective situations are not completely analogous, but Russell is now in his sixth F1 season - equivalent to Verstappen’s 2020 - so Mercedes should absolutely expect that come 2025 Russell is the finished article and ready to replace Hamilton as the focal point of a frontrunning F1 team, while also perhaps being prepared to still forgive a few errors right now given the car has for so long been letting its drivers down.

Canada 2024 might have finally represented the turning point for Mercedes under these ground-effect regulations. Spain this weekend will give us a clearer indication on that score. If so, focus will inevitable shift from the deficiencies of the W15 to whether the drivers are getting the most from it. 

In Canada that absolutely wasn’t the case - you probably needed a combination of Russell’s qualifying speed and Hamilton’s race management (even though he himself wasn’t happy with it) for Mercedes to have achieved the optimum result.

The next 18 months are absolutely pivotal for Russell’s F1 career. Hamilton is leaving, Mercedes’ ‘next big thing’ in Kimi Antonelli is almost certainly arriving for 2025, and so Russell needs to be absolutely at the top of his game to avoid being upstaged by the new kid and potentially being replaced if Verstappen decides to leave Red Bull and put himself on the market for 2026.

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