Amid the speculation about the possibility of Williams signing Sergio Perez for 2021, potentially putting George Russell out of a drive, one thing has been made clear. If he is without a race seat, Toto Wolff has promised him a role with the Mercedes Formula 1 team.
But after two impressive seasons racing limited Williams machinery, could 22-year-old Russell really afford to be on the sidelines?
While Wolff has said he’s confident that Williams will not be ousting Russell – and we can’t rule out the possibility team-mate Nicholas Latifi could also be at risk – he has confirmed this fallback option exists so it would ensure Russell is not out in the cold. That’s a positive situation for him to be in but with career momentum so essential, it’s never good to be out of a race seat.
History is full of drivers who missed seasons early in their careers and came back all the stronger for it. The most famous examples do have something in common with what Russell would face if he’s not in a Williams.
Fernando Alonso, who tested for Renault in 2002 after his impressive maiden F1 season with Minardi before emerging as a race winner after promotion for 2003, and Felipe Massa, who tested for Ferrari after an erratic first campaign with Sauber in 2002, are the two standout examples of the 21st century.
Before that, Mika Hakkinen’s 1993 season (above), when he was initially signed after two years with Lotus with a view to a race seat, only for Ayrton Senna to continue with the team, then made a big impact with his three late-season outings, is the most celebrated.
All three of those drivers went on to great success, but there are differences. Today, testing is strictly restricted so even in that test role Russell’s opportunities in the 2021-specification Mercedes would be limited. If Wolff were to make good on his promise for a “mega testing programme” then it would mostly be in machinery at least two years old – useful but not as relevant.
In 2002, Alonso (below) had a total of 40 days of testing as part of Renault’s programme, while a year later Massa had 46 for Ferrari – as well as other chances to get behind the wheel outside of what might be called ‘official’ testing. Even if Russell drove the 2021 Mercedes at every possible opportunity, including in Friday practice at every race – which would not happen – he wouldn’t hit 40 days.
But there’s no doubt that the connection to Mercedes remains a significant benefit. He is still seen as a potential future Mercedes driver and even if he can’t continue to sharpen his skills in a race seat with Williams – not to mention prove to Mercedes what he can do – he retains a foot in the door.
And he will also be an appealing prospect for any team that doesn’t need a driver with financial backing and wants someone with experience and potential. That’s exactly what happened to Esteban Ocon with Renault.
Ocon, who retains ties to Mercedes and Toto Wolff alongside his current Renault deal, has some sympathy for Russell’s situation. While he doesn’t claim any specialist insight into the situation and how likely Russell is to lose out, he has been in the position of speculation surrounding his future and then eventually being dropped by a team.
In his case, it was to allow Racing Point to field Lance Stroll, son of Lawrence Stroll – who led the consortium that bought the team during 2018. This forced Ocon to spend the following year on the sidelines as Mercedes’ reserve driver.
“It is definitely a difficult thing – I’m just reading the press, so I’m not really aware of what’s happening but I really hope George can stay in Formula 1,” said Ocon.
“Performance-wise, he’s doing an excellent job in that Williams, he’s doing the best he can. There is nothing to say bad about what he’s doing. So it would be not justified for him to not be on the grid basically next year.
“But that’s how Formula 1 is, it can be cruel sometimes. I’ve paid the price at the end of 2018 for 2019. I hope this won’t be the case for him.”
But Ocon, like Russell, did have the advantage of knowing he had a burgeoning reputation and the support of Mercedes, which has been essential to him getting this far in his career given he doesn’t come from a background that could pour money into his racing.
“Without the support of Mercedes, I would not be where I am today, you know,” said Ocon.
“It’s been the support since my junior career and I would not be here today [without Mercedes].
“Let’s not say that he [Russell] will be out. I don’t know what’s going to happen but, on the normal performance judgement, which is always the sport that we want to judge, he should be on the grid next year.”
For both Ocon’s 2019 and Russell possible 2021, the situation isn’t as encouraging as it was for Alonso and Massa earlier this century, but while missing a year of racing is a negative it’s at least mitigated by the fact they will remain involved. There are also things to learn from a season embedded with Mercedes in a support driver role, although it’s easy to exaggerate just how beneficial that really is.
With Williams last year, Russell proved his pace in a terribly uncompetitive car but this year it’s been about proving his racecraft, sharpening his first laps, showing he can nail it every Sunday. That’s an ongoing process and while he can show his value to Mercedes in other ways in a test role, that won’t carry as much weight as producing more strong weekends such as the one he produced in Portugal.
What’s very different is the situation drivers who are dropped with no ongoing connection to F1. Firstly, Russell will avoid the stigma of being deemed not good enough if he were dropped by Williams because the situation will be well understood by rival teams. Secondly, he won’t vanish from view so his stock remains high even if the career momentum is dented.
Russell himself is publicly positive about the prospects of being on the grid with Williams next year so this is all potentially moot if, as he says, he stays in his seat.
But he won’t join the ranks of the forgotten drivers who are left scrambling around to find a way to prise the door back open or to raise the cash to buy a seat with a team that needs the money.
It’s not ideal, but drivers of Russell’s potential are few and far between. If the situation goes against him, it’ll be a blow but with the support of Mercedes and a good reputation in the paddock and also an intelligent, rigorous approach that will enable him to make the best of a difficult situation, he has every chance of coming again as a grand prix driver.
If Williams were to make a change but it were Latifi who was dropped, it might be more difficult even though he is well-backed as he will have to secure another F1 team role. Russell is better-placed to make the best of a bad job.
But ideally, he won’t have to.