If the 2021 Formula One season pitted the old generation against the new — Lewis Hamilton vs. Max Verstappen — last year witnessed the rise of the young crop, with Charles Leclerc becoming one-time karting rival Verstappen’s closest challenger.
So what’s in store for 2023?
Mercedes dropped the ball with the new regulations last year, taking Hamilton out of the equation, but if it gets its act together, the possibilities are delicious. The storyline of Hamilton going for a record eighth title has obvious appeal, but there could also be a wild card in play.
For, while reigning double world champion Verstappen and Leclerc are the de facto team leaders at Red Bull and Ferrari respectively, things are not quite as straightforward at Mercedes.
Hamilton might command the team’s respect because of his stellar record, but won’t have it easy against George Russell’s prodigious talent. The young British driver has excelled at every level leading up to F1 — he is a former BRDC F4, GP3 and F2 champion. What’s more, he outscored his illustrious teammate last year.
While the standings don’t always tell the whole story, they show that, unlike Carlos Sainz at Ferrari or Sergio Perez at Red Bull, Russell is ideally placed to duel Hamilton as an equal.
Former F1 driver and TV pundit Karun Chandhok lauded the 25-year-old’s first season at Mercedes, highlighting his ability to extract the best from a car. “George was outstanding and probably the second-best driver behind Max,” Chandhok said. “He delivered strongly, especially when the car was not strong early in the year.”
Wringing a car’s neck
This skill in wringing a car’s neck to squeeze out its full potential isn’t new to Russell. Even during his time at Williams (2019-21), when he was involved in the back-of-the-grid shuffle, he often took his car places it did not belong, especially in qualifying.
While it was no surprise that he outshone teammates Robert Kubica and Nicholas Latifi, the margin of outperformance was spectacular — even accounting for Kubica not being the same after his rally accident and Latifi owing his place more to his dad’s chequebook than pace.
A true testament to a driver’s abilities is one-lap pace. Russell’s superiority over his teammates in the slowest machinery on the grid showcased his adaptability.
Breaking down Russell’s driving style, Chandhok said, “He has a very minimalist approach, a bit like Mika [Hakkinen] or Kimi [Raikkonen]. He makes a single decisive input to the car and is clear and confident about what he wants the car to do. He turns the steering wheel and uses the pedal in a minimalist fashion. There are no micro corrections that you see from some other drivers.”
Russell joined the Mercedes family in 2017 as part of its young driver programme and left no stone unturned to achieve his ambition. There is a famous story about how he turned up at the Mercedes HQ in a suit and tie to meet Toto Wolff and make a case, with a PowerPoint presentation, for the German marque to sign him.
“He has a strong work ethic and works well with engineers,” said Chandhok, who has tracked Russell from his junior days. “I heard he was at the factory a lot last year and always wanted to be in the simulator. He demands that everyone around him perform at a very high level because he performs at a very high level.”
Although he produced magical performances with Williams in his first two years without scoring a point, Mercedes opted to play it safe in 2021 and stick with the underperforming Valtteri Bottas.
A strong audition
However, just before the 2020 season ended, Mercedes had a chance to evaluate Russell when he subbed for Hamilton, who was diagnosed with Covid at the Sakhir Grand Prix (Bahrain). He immediately showed why he belonged in that seat.
He qualified second, less than a tenth of a second behind Bottas. In the race, he took the lead at the first corner and was on course for victory until a blunder by the team during a pit stop and a slow puncture meant he finished only ninth.
When he eventually got the drive last year, Russell dealt with the misbehaving Mercedes better than Hamilton in the first part of the year. Even though the seven-time champion got on top in the second half and was slightly faster overall, the gap was negligible.
“As the car improved, Lewis came back at him,” Chandhok said. “At one point, he was out-qualified nine times in a row by Lewis. But the most impressive part was, while it would have hurt the confidence of most drivers, he bounced back in the last three races and got that win in Brazil.”
Despite Hamilton looming in his mirrors at Brazil, Russell soaked up the pressure to give Mercedes its only win of the season. While he finished fourth in the standings, 35 points ahead of Hamilton, there are still areas he will feel he can address.
Room for improvement
A case in point was his performance in Singapore, where frustration got the better of him. He crashed in practice and then had a needless tangle with Mick Schumacher in the race, dropping out of the points.
Surprisingly, qualifying is another area he may feel he can improve. While the pace deficit was marginal, Hamilton had a 13-9 edge in qualifying.
If Mercedes is in the title picture, these narrow margins, especially in qualifying, could make a huge difference, particularly in areas like strategy preference.
Last year, Mercedes, the third-fastest car, was in no man’s land with no threat from behind. But the starting position can be crucial when battling one or more teams.
The biggest test of Russell’s calibre will come when he confronts Hamilton in a title fight. He has shown he is not afraid in wheel-to-wheel combat, but can he stay the same with a title on the line? It will also be a test of the team’s management in handling both drivers.
“The dynamic and battle between the two Merc drivers will be one of the season’s biggest stories. George arrived with a bang into the team and outscored Lewis, which few drivers can say they have done,” said Chandhok.
Unlike Sainz at Ferrari or Perez at Red Bull, Russell has not been hired as a safe No. 2 or an understudy who can take over when Hamilton moves on. Given F1’s fickle nature, there is no guarantee of success — so, with Russell entering his prime as a driver, having put in the hard yards, he is unlikely to yield.
A lot will depend on the pecking order of the teams. But if Red Bull, Ferrari, and Mercedes are on level footing, we might have more than a three-way fight for the driver’s title. F1 will only benefit from that.