George Russell has downplayed his teasing comment about a possible Mercedes Formula 1 opportunity in 2021 as a “throwaway remark”, but the motivation would have been entirely serious.
Russell had a surprise call-up to the Mercedes works team in the Sakhir Grand Prix in Lewis Hamilton’s absence and almost beat regular driver Valtteri Bottas to pole position, before leading the majority of the race.
He was only denied victory by a botched pitstop and a puncture, and said of his starring performance later the same evening: “I guess from Toto [Wolff]’s perspective, hopefully I have given him a headache. Not just for 2022, maybe sooner.”
On Thursday in Abu Dhabi, where Russell may get a second chance to race for Mercedes unless Hamilton can make a last-gasp return, Russell was asked whether there was anything in that answer or if it was just a throwaway comment.
“Yeah, that was just a throwaway remark in the heat of the moment,” he said. “Obviously emotions were high and what have you.
“But yeah, I have a contract and I’m a Williams driver for 2021.”
In addition to Russell’s own commitment to Williams for next year, Mercedes team boss Wolff had said on Sunday post-race that giving Russell a race seat in 2021 was not “realistic”.
If there was anything emotional about Russell’s remark then that means it was honest. It came from a place of hunger
However, he admitted that pairing Russell with Hamilton could be a “wild ride”.
While Russell sensibly moved to pour cold water on his intriguing Sunday answer, he is not someone who speaks without thinking carefully. Especially when it comes to important topics, for which he is rarely anything other than switched on and entirely serious.
If there was anything emotional about Russell’s remark then that means it was honest. It came from a place of hunger.
He had a taste of life at the front in F1 much sooner than he expected and he does not want to go back to feeding off scraps.
Russell has been a loyal and dedicated driver to Williams and will stick with the team in 2021 without bearing a grudge if that is what comes to pass.
“I am committed to Mercedes. I’m happy and confident with my position under their guidance” :: George Russell
But there can be little doubting how much Russell will hope his Bahrain showing makes Wolff think twice about orchestrating the most unlikely of driver swaps.
“My management is Mercedes, I signed a deal with Mercedes back in 2016, and they are my managers,” Russell said when asked who looks after his F1 career.
“They invested in me, put their faith in me, and that means a huge amount.
“I am committed to Mercedes. I’m happy and confident with my position under their guidance.”
So Russell’s prospective 2021 team and his management are one and the same, which means getting two for the price of one when he issues a hint of a ‘come and get me’ please to Mercedes.
Teasing a Wolff 2021 headache was therefore a comment that made it abundantly clear Russell wants to be seriously considered for next year.
He is not willing to sit there and say ‘thank you for the opportunity, call me again next summer when you’re ready to discuss 2022’. Instead, quite rightly, Russell is keen to not just be swiftly thrown into storage whenever his time in the shop window ends.
It was such an unexpected and rare opportunity that only a foolish driver would not try to maximise it in every way possible.
Russell did that on-track and his comment reinforced his bigger-picture desire off-track as well.
It was undoubtedly cheeky and opportunistic. But throwaway? That’s not really how a driver of Russell’s intelligence and ability operates, especially over such an important matter.