Valtteri Bottas earning his fifth one-year appointment to be Lewis Hamilton’s Formula 1 team-mate means the annual speculation about who will occupy one of the Mercedes seats moves on to 2022 – with George Russell at the front of the queue. But he still has work to do to make his case emphatic.
Mercedes-contracted Russell had already confirmed he would be heading into the third year of his Williams loan deal in 2021, but still has to ensure that when Mercedes does make a change he will be the one promoted.
Russell has certainly ticked a large number of the boxes needed to be a strong contender for promotion, but both his own performances and the external circumstances mean that the time was not right for a move upwards in 2021.
His Saturday performances have been superb and he’s yet to be outqualified by his team-mate in 25 attempts in F1. While his team-mates have been the returning Robert Kubica and newcomer Nicholas Latifi, rather than an established current F1 frontrunner, that still shows admirable consistency as he has been crushingly dominant.
Russell is fast, no question, as he also showed in his junior career during which he was a serial winner.
His professionalism, with an intelligent and analytical approach, ensures he’s well-liked and highly-regarded by the engineering staff at Williams, showing he should fit in well if given a chance to become a very large cog in the system at Mercedes.
But given he will be measured against an all-time great in Lewis Hamilton, the bar is set high for Russell. Doubly so given that, at 22, he would be promoted partly with a view to him becoming a long-term replacement for Hamilton.
If being Hamilton’s team-mate is one of the toughest jobs in F1 – and one Bottas does well – then being his successor is even more challenging.
“Just going out there, doing my thing, performing to my maximum as I’ve always tried to do in my whole career,” said Russell when asked by The Race what he felt he needed to do to state his case for 2022.
“I’ve still got the full support of everybody at Mercedes, everything is still as planned back in 2017 when we signed and the goal was to reach Formula 1. Ultimately, they haven’t invested time and effort into me for nothing.
“I just need to pay that back by doing my job on track and hopefully continuing to improve myself from a relatively good level I think we’re at with Williams and see what that brings us over the next 18 months.”
Here are the key reasons why the time was not yet considered to be right for Russell, covering both the remaining boxes he needs to tick in his own performances and also the external factors that went against him.
If the next 12 months go as expected and he continues along his current trajectory of improvement, the name George Russell has every chance of being on a Silver Arrows come 2022.
He needs to improve on first laps
Russell himself targeted this as an area of improvement for 2020 and the results are, so far, inconclusive.
Last season, this was the one area where Kubica was generally more effective and he was able to get ahead of Russell around half of the time.
While there were extenuating circumstances such as the need to be cautious given occasional parts shortages – the futility of taking risks to get ahead of cars that had an overwhelming pace advantage and his inexperience of racing at the back means both Russell and Mercedes want to see more.
So far this year, with the caveat that he has started from strong grid positions for the machinery, he has lost places on the first lap in three out of four races.
The exception is Silverstone last weekend, where he got ahead of his team-mate when Latifi went off at Copse on the opening lap.
But this is a small sample set and an area he knows very well he needs to show he has improved in.
He needs to minimise mistakes
Drivers are brutally exposed at the front in Formula 1. Russell will not only be benchmarked against Hamilton, but also against proven stars such as Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc, meaning he needs to show he can eliminate errors in the lower-pressure Williams environment.
That’s not to say Russell is an error-prone driver, but avoiding setbacks such as the five-place grid penalty for not respecting yellow flags in qualifying during the British Grand Prix weekend and the trip through the gravel while trying to repass Kevin Magnussen around the outside in the Styrian Grand Prix are important.
He also made contact with Kubica in last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the first chicane having dropped behind him at the start – striking him a glancing blow as he flew off the track.
While hardly a string of cataclysms, given the sky-high standards he is being measured against, Russell will want to ensure it’s smoother sailing for the rest of the season.
He needs to get the results
That Russell has not scored a point in 25 grands prix is an unfair criticism given he hasn’t had the machinery to do so. He was unfortunate that when Williams did score last year, it was one of only two races when Kubica was ahead and therefore able to inherit 10th place at Hockenheim after both Alfa Romeo drivers were given time penalties.
Even this season, Russell has had limited opportunities to capitalise on that given the Williams was by some margin the slowest car on race pace for the first three races.
But things did look up at Silverstone last weekend, where he was able to overtake Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo on merit, which he said after the race was the first time he’d passed another team’s car in a normal racing situation during his F1 career.
“I just want that opportunity to show what I can do in those circumstances,” said Russell when asked by The Race about the need to prove himself in the competitive midfield.
“I know [I can do it] from my experience racing in the junior formulas, but doing it in F1 is a different ball game.
“I do think last week we really did do it on merit. We made some set-up changes to focus more towards the race and that proved beneficial. If we can follow up and have a similar performance as we saw last weekend, hopefully, this will be where we are for the rest of the year, actually competing on merit not just on Saturday but on Sundays.”
He needs Hamilton to be closer to the exit door
Lewis Hamilton recently said he saw himself racing on in Formula 1 for another three years, and it could even be longer than that.
Russell is not being groomed by Mercedes purely as a wingman for Hamilton, but as a potential successor. Although Hamilton is not yet signed and sealed for 2021, he is expected to continue with the team for the foreseeable future, meaning there’s no rush for Mercedes in promoting Russell.
While moving Russell in alongside Hamilton will allow him to learn about the team, the vast array of settings and tools available to the driver – something that Bottas was surprised at the range of compared to when he was at Williams – it also creates a potential flashpoint.
And with rule changes in 2022, there is no need to consider a move for next season, which all played against Russell’s chances of immediate promotion.
He needs a ‘normal’ year
Impacting the prospect of one young Formula 1 driver is low down the list of the global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are two reasons why it eliminated any realistic chance of Russell earning the Mercedes drive in 2021.
Firstly, he has had less time. Before this season even got going, Mercedes had pretty much decided on its favoured driver line-up, and at the point when Russell confirmed he was definitely staying at Williams ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix only two 2020 races had been held rather than the originally scheduled 10.
Secondly, the financial impact of the pandemic led to the decision to carry over the 2020 cars into next season. Given the complexity of the machinery and the value of continuity, this incentivised stability for Mercedes.
Russell has the speed and the right attitude and approach, he has shown that. By ticking the final few boxes over the next 12-18 months, he might yet be facing a whole new set of challenges in 2022.