George Russell is a very fast, highly intelligent and extremely ambitious young driver.
But for a Mercedes pitlane communication mix-up, he’d have won the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix on his only appearance for Mercedes to date – as the unwell Lewis Hamilton’s stand-in.
Despite not fitting the car or having driven it before, he outperformed Valtteri Bottas in the sister car. Something of which Bottas was all too aware. “It makes me look like a ****,” as he summarised afterwards.
So, what happens when you put Russell alongside Hamilton? It’s actually a thrilling prospect, which will come to life in 2022 now that Bottas is heading to Alfa Romeo.
During the five years Bottas has driven for Mercedes, it has become much more ‘Hamilton’s team’ than in the four years of the Hamilton/Nico Rosberg line-up.
Just through the sheer power of his performances, Hamilton has become more the focal point of the team than was feasible in the Rosberg days. He’s now had five years of it.
How the dynamic with Russell will work will depend very much upon how Russell measures up in performance. Just as with Bottas, he has not been signed as a support driver, but as someone who will be given equal opportunity.
Toto Wolff made no secret of how team harmony played a very important part in the selection of Bottas as the retiring Rosberg’s replacement alongside Hamilton in 2017.
The ambitious Rosberg, after coming off second-best in several clashes with Hamilton in 2014 and ’15, had resolved at the start of 2016 that he was not going to back down. He was stepping up the aggression as a deliberate policy.
Barcelona lap one was the outcome, two Mercedes in the gravel trap within a few seconds of the start of the race.
But even before that, Rosberg’s combative stance against his team-mate had given Wolff some headaches.
Matched against Hamilton, Bottas has been comparably fast to Rosberg over a single lap of qualifying during his time there (see chart below), but has been nothing like as combative.
He simply isn’t wired up in a way that would allow him to be deliberately obstructive or belligerent in the way that Rosberg was prepared to be.
Hamilton said towards the end of his first season alongside Bottas that he felt he was reaching a higher level of performance than ever before. Could he have reached that level, he was asked, if Rosberg had still been there. “No,” came the unequivocal reply.
Average qualifying deficits to Hamilton
2013 Rosberg 0.036s
2014 Rosberg 0.075s
2015 Rosberg 0.147s
2016 Rosberg 0.182s
2017 Bottas 0.243s
2018 Bottas 0.148s
2019 Bottas 0.151s
2020 Bottas 0.114s
Rosberg’s qualifying pace deficit to Hamilton grew larger each year. Bottas’s has generally become smaller year-on-year.
Is Russell a more combative character than Bottas? Yes, I think we can say that he probably is.
Everything is internalised with Bottas; he looks for the answers from within himself and the idea of taking the competition with his team-mate into any other dimension of rivalry does not come naturally.
But with Russell, the mask of cool equanimity occasionally slips to reveal the fierce competitor. He makes no secret of his ambition to become world champion, not as some idealised desire but as a logical outcome of his striving. The next step towards that goal is obviously his place in a top team. Beating his team-mate would then be the following step.
Is Russell fast enough to take on Hamilton? Obviously, that’s an unknown. But on the admittedly small sample of one race, he’s at least as quick as Bottas and probably quicker. Which would suggest that, yes, he should be close enough to make a fight of it on raw speed.
But the equation is so much more complex than speed alone and it cannot be emphasised enough that this would be Lewis Hamilton he is taking on, a driver of incredible resolve, deep ability and vast experience.
One element of the dynamic is that Russell is potentially the Mercedes succession plan to Hamilton eventually retiring. It’s difficult to see this developing into a master/pupil relationship such as that which arose between Jackie Stewart and Francois Cevert in 1973, but stranger things have happened. Hamilton’s perspective might allow him to encompass such a role if he ever resolves in his own mind in advance when he will call time on his career.
They are both intelligent and composed and will find a way to work productively together. But it’s almost certain to be a more sparky relationship than that of Hamilton-Bottas.