At Mercedes, George Russell will have to make people forget « Mr. Saturday » and bear the pressure of Lewis Hamilton


« The next big thing », as the English say. George Russell is expected this year by the whole of the United Kingdom as the new phenomenon destined to eventually succeed Lewis Hamilton at the top of the Formula 1 podiums. As if this renewal was induced, was part of an inevitable process. Perpetual.

The excellence of British training is not a fantasy but a reality and the statistics are there to remind us: since 1953 and Mike Hawthorn’s victory in Reims, the United Kingdom has produced winners at an almost unerring pace in Formula 1. Only eight subsequent seasons (1974, 1978-80, 1984, 1988 and 2004-05) have seen no podium without the « God Save The Queen ». The 2022 season should be no exception to the rule, but nothing is necessarily guaranteed for the future. Lewis Hamilton turned 37 on January 7 and his years in Formula 1 are numbered. One or even two is what his contract with Mercedes stipulates.

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Until proven otherwise, the Englishman is the tree that hides the forest across the Channel because no Briton except him has won since Jenson Button in 2012, in Sao Paulo. Lando Norris has embodied the next generation since he landed in the paddock in 2019, at McLaren, a team which allowed him to come close to victory at Monza last year, but nothing indicates that his next car will be competitive.

With a Mercedes in his hands this year, George Russell has a better chance of climbing the last step to usher in a new era. But how good is it, that is the question. We just know that he replaces Valtteri Bottas, a subordinate too rarely at the level of Lewis Hamilton during his five years at Brackley, and whose reputation he had seriously damaged during his freelance at Mercedes at the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix. There is also doubt that he will be there to add to the points with a view to a ninth consecutive Constructors’ title and an eighth for Lewis Hamilton.

A spotless CV and Ocon’s place

George Russell, 24 on February 15, is the ideal son-in-law with the perfect CV. Open doors without forcing: he was champion of England (in BRDC) F4 in 2014, quickly being noticed by Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team manager. And after two new seasons in average teams, he exploded at ART, the team of Fred Vasseur, current boss of Alfa Romeo F1, in GP3 in 2017 and in F2 in 2018. Enough to deserve his place in F1 from 2019 , at Williams, with the support and cold hard cash of Toto Wolff, co-shareholder and boss of the Grove team’s engine manufacturer.

By gradually bringing the Williams out of its torpor for three seasons, George Russell above all dismissed a cumbersome rival behind the scenes because Esteban Ocon was originally the designated successor to Valtteri Bottas in the second seat of the Silver Arrow.

George Russell arrives alongside Lewis Hamilton inhabited by a feeling of mutual respect inspired by the seven world titles of his eldest. He said it again at the beginning of the year, when Mercedes started to communicate around him to set the scene: he considers him to be the « greatest driver of all time », the « GOAT » for the English. By raising a reservation: respect is mutual and exchanges will have to go in both directions during a season of rupture, marked by the return of single-seaters to ground effect. A real revolution. « We will have to help each other because in 2022 the cars will change profoundly as the season progresses., he recalls. I’m looking forward to being involved in the development of the car. »

At Williams, he learned to lose

Indeed, with only six days of testing before putting the cars in the crates for the first Grand Prix of the season, on March 18, 19 and 20 in Bahrain, each team will need sharp feedback – the famous « feedback  » – and the collaboration of the pilots will be a fundamental factor in the progression. « It will take working with the designers, in the simulator, working hard to improve because I’m sure it won’t necessarily be the fastest in the first race who will win (the title), warns George Russell. It will be the one that progresses the fastest. I’m sure we’ll see some interesting designs and some underdogs might come out in testing or in the early races. It will be up to whoever develops the fastest, the best, to build the foundations for the years to come. It’s that engineering side that really excites me. »

Apart from Haas, Williams or Alfa Romeo, teams in need of easy money, no ambitious team hires a driver other than to ask him for results and a significant technical contribution.

Toto Wolff is therefore counting on George Russell to provide this work in the continuity of Valtteri Bottas, regularly praised by Lewis Hamilton for the quality of his technical collaboration, but the Austrian manager must remove a doubt that has been in him for months. He indeed confided last year to have had feedback from the staff of Williams sometimes not very reassuring. Amid well-run weekends, George Russell was able to get lost in the settings for three days.

Losing is what he did the most for three years, and trying to learn every lesson from it. Sometimes cruelly, when he hit the wall under a safety car regime at Imola in 2020 with his Williams, or lost the victory at Sakhir with Mercedes at the end of that same season, because he had left – it is what his team explained – the channel of his radio opened while returning to the pit, which had created interference and prevented the mechanics from hearing well the type of tires to be fitted on his car. « You often feel like you’ve let everyone down when you make a mistake, and it’s vital not to get overwhelmed because, at the end of the day, to win a championship you have to perform over 23 races. », admits the number 63 of the stable at the Etoile.

Remove the tag from « Mister Saturday »

After three seasons in a stable at the bottom of the table, George Russell will have to give solid, regular guarantees. What will change him from Williams, where he could « to explore quite extreme » settings with his riding style. At Mercedes, this will no longer be possible: he will be asked to drive with a given set up and to adapt his driving. Clearly, he will no longer have the right to make mistakes. As a result, he will be particularly scrutinized this year in terms of consistency, his ability to have performance over a lap and a full stint. He knows it, we call him « Mister Saturday » in England because he has not often been able to confirm his good qualifications in points on Sunday.

And then, if Mercedes has put it forward on social networks since January 1, it’s not just to forget the silence of Lewis Hamilton and questions around his champion. It is simply because GR63 now has obligations of another level. « From Williams, where I was lucky not to have that much marketing activity due to our position, I go to Mercedes where we have tons of sponsors and a lot of commitments that the drivers have to attend », he explains. Without specifying that he will surely do more than the Englishman, who makes, from one contract to another, the reduction of his promotional appearances a point of negotiation.

« In the lead is where I wanted to be »

At Williams, he already admitted that at each of his faults, everyone was aware. But the pressure he will have to bear will be of a whole new dimension with Lewis Hamilton on the other side of the garage. As such, one even wonders if he should not give up his role as president of the association of Grand Prix drivers (GPDA), which he took over at the start of 2020 on the retirement of Romain Grosjean. None of that in his speech. He is ready to face everything, without fearing anything. With a podium to his name – thanks to a good qualification – last year at Spa in the conditions we know, the British hopeful is not even afraid to lead a race, because he has already done so. .

« I was in the lead (note: at Sakhir in 2020), and it was a race like any other, he assures. There was no additional pressure because that’s where I wanted to be. « . Except that it was Valtteri Bottas in his mirrors and not a boy of the caliber of Lewis Hamilton or Max Verstappen (Red Bull).

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