until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula 1

Russell can't fluff his unexpected golden opportunity

by Edd Straw
5 min read

George Russell is the one person inside the Mercedes Formula 1 team who will be delighted with the shock news of Lewis Hamilton’s defection to Ferrari, as it gives him the opportunity he craves.

The 25-year-old joined Mercedes with aspirations of it making it his domain when Hamilton headed off into the retirement sunset, if not before. There was a realistic chance of 2024 being that year, only for Hamilton to then agree a new Mercedes deal.

Now, Russell can stamp his authority while racing against Hamilton and set himself up as the team’s focal point in 2025 when Hamilton departs for Ferrari.

Russell is a driver teetering on the brink of greatness, but with a big question mark hanging over whether he will reach those heights or fall just short.

Falling short would put him in the group of drivers who have decent success with race wins and, perhaps with a fair wind, are capable of a title win. But the rare serial winners are a class apart.

Last year was, taking into account the experience, expectations and opportunity, arguably his least impressive season since making his F1 debut in 2019. As Russell himself put it: “the pace has been really great, but the results have been dreadful”.

There was misfortune along the way, the most obvious being in Australia where he pitted just before a safety car deployed to clear up after Alex Albon’s accident was unexpectedly upgraded to a red flag. After losing track position, he later retired with a power unit problem. But there were also worrying errors, notably offs in Monaco, Canada, and Singapore. That added up to a 59-point deficit to Hamilton.

Russell’s claim that his pace was good stands up. There was little to choose between the two Mercedes drivers in qualifying, with Russell 0.018s faster on average in 2023, having been 0.012s behind the season before. Nonetheless, Hamilton was the stronger Mercedes driver last year in terms of all-round performance.

In The Race’s ranking of the drivers in the 2023 season, Hamilton was ranked fifth and Russell ninth.

In their two years as team-mates, there was no conclusive winner. Hamilton has been marginally the stronger, but a long way short of anything you could characterise as a decisive victory in the team-mate battle. That in itself reflects well on Russell as most F1 drivers would have been decisively seen off by Hamilton.

You could also make the case that a true megastar could have asserted themselves over an ageing legend, even one as brilliant as Hamilton. That’s a reductive argument both because a team-mate battle isn't a zero-sum game and the confounding factor of Mercedes battling a capricious car since the start of 2022.

The constant performance and behavioural swings of the Mercedes means there’s more misleading noise in the data than there would be in the average team-mate comparison, which means the jury is still out – perhaps to be swayed by how their third and final campaign together at Mercedes plays out this year.

Russell could yet fall either side of the line demarking the border of greatness, but Hamilton’s impending departure nudges up the percentage chance that this could be the season he proves he can be ‘the new Hamilton’ for Mercedes.

The notion that Toto Wolff will flick a switch and make Russell’s dreams come true and ruin Hamilton’s is overly simplistic, but there will be an impact on the dynamic within the team that presents Russell with an opportunity.

“George has the potential to be the next lead driver in the team,” Wolff said a day after Hamilton's bombshell. “He’s of the generation of Lando [Norris] and [Charles] Leclerc and some of the others. I couldn’t wish for a [better] new team leader when Lewis leaves, no doubt about that.”

It could just be that Wolff was using the word 'potential' imprecisely given he gave Russell his full backing a sentence later. But it does reflect that slight uncertainty, of the work Russell must still do to fulfil what he will see as his destiny.

Mercedes is delighted to have him because at worst he’s an outstanding second driver. As Wolff says, that helps when it comes to making a decision on the second driver.

“Having George in that seat is great for the team,” says Wolff. “He’s been going toe-to-toe with Lewis for the last two seasons. There was nothing between them and knowing that we have a driver at that level makes the decision for the second seat much more comfortable.

“I haven’t really properly reflected with the team on where we want to go, from rookie to very experienced, because I don’t know yet what is the best for any potential driver that’s coming in or for the team going forward. And, if you told me two days ago [the day before Hamilton's shock switch] that Lewis would be going to Ferrari, I didn’t think it was possible, so situations can change quickly.

“Who knows what’s happening in the driver markets that could be unexpected and opportunities for us.”

What’s not stated explicitly is Russell’s performances will feed into the thinking of Wolff and his fellow Mercedes decision-makers when it comes to Hamilton's replacement.

It now seems unlikely that an Alex Albon or Carlos Sainz would be slotted in alongside Russell and implicitly underline that Mercedes still sees Russell as its main long-term hope.

The Race understands Mercedes favours its protege Andrea Kimi Antonelli for a swift graduation if his Formula 2 rookie season proceeds as hoped, which would immediately install a long-term challenger to Russell’s hoped-for primacy in the team. The possible 'plan B' of Fernando Alonso and the proven performance he offers is also not a prospect anyone would want to take on off the back of an unconvincing season.

So now Russell needs to get everything together and coalesce into the great driver he has always had the potential to become. Mistakes are forgivable as drivers are only human and will make errors, but Russell needs to reduce them.

He must also prove he can match Hamilton’s brilliance at tyre management as there has been a trend of him going a little harder, and faster, on the tyres at the start of a stint before then dropping off.

But realistically, it’s about taking what is an accomplished all-round game and finding tiny improvements in every area. Hamilton’s departure changes the game for Russell and now is the time for him to make it happen.

Regardless of the rhetoric about whether the team then favours him more, it will all come down to what always makes the difference - and that's Russell in this case.

Get it right, and Russell will have the complete confidence of the team that, if the car is good enough, he’ll be able to win the world championship with all the advantages of continuity and incumbency in what is still one of F1’s biggest teams.

That’s an opportunity every driver wants. Now it's all down to Russell to finish the job and prove he can be great, rather than 'only' very good.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Email
  • More Networks