What I am about to say may not be very popular but with most fans believing George Russell has already secured the 2022 drive at Mercedes alongside Lewis Hamilton, the natural questions that follow are:
Where will Valtteri Bottas go?
How will George do against Lewis Hamilton?
I’m not interested in addressing the first question as time will tell but there is a vacant seat at Alfa Romeo and, if George is moving to Merc, Williams.
I’m more interested in the conversation amongst fans with regards to question number two. How will George do against Lewis and is this a good move given the Nico Rosberg era at Merc and the internal drama it created?
Let’s cover a few ground rules here. Mercedes has had the best car from 2014 through 2020. In that car, Nico gave Lewis a handful and if you believe that all the consternation was coming from Nico’s side of the garage only, you’ve not been watching F1 closely enough.
It works two ways and Lewis isn’t anyone’s fool to be the perpetual recipient of Nico’s head games without playing a few head games of his own. In the end, Nico won the title and that means that he is a terrific driver, anyone who can run with Lewis is, and that he got in Lewis’s head and had some things go his way. He also created some friction in the team for doing so but that’s what I like about Nico, he wasn’t there to help Lewis, he was there to win.
Valtteri has been there to help Lewis. He was this era’s Rubens Barrichello. Sad, but true.
How will George do? Well, if you needed an endorsement, there are few worse than from Max Verstappen himself when he said George would create some difficulties for Lewis:
“He jumped into the car in Bahrain, and basically he was already from lap one making it very difficult for Valtteri,” Verstappen said.
“So you can only imagine the more experience you gain in that car, and the more you get accustomed within the team, naturally you’re going to be becoming faster.
“When you do your first race, you are guided by the team about set-up direction, because you just don’t know what to do really, initially, with the car. Even though of course F1 cars look pretty similar, the way of setting them up can be very different.
“So yeah, for sure, I’m very confident. Already what you could see, the performance he did in Spa was really good. Of course they set up the car a bit more for wet conditions, but nevertheless, to do that in a Williams was very impressive.
“I do expect him to do very well if he gets that seat.”
This prompted many to wonder what friction it may cause in the team should George be as fast as he was in Bahrain when he drove Lewis’s car last year. From my perspective, it would be great if George did.
All champions retire, as Kimi showed us this week, and Merc needs a person who can slot in to their car and be at the pace of Lewis when he does retire. Lewis, in my opinion, is at the top of his game and if George can hang with that, then Merc has a future champion in the wings.
From George’s perspective, he’s coming into a team where Lewis has his feet on the desk. He has to knock Lewis’s feet off the desk and make the team his own. That’s much easier said than done when it’s Lewis Hamilton’s feet on the desk and team are squarely behind him. Nico did it and that means it can be done.
It has been done before with Senna and when Prost joined Lauda or Leclerc joined Vettel. This is George’s big moment and he has to think long game and not let Lewis get in his head. Merc may have more tolerance for intra-team friction knowing that they are managing the waning years of Lewis’s career versus the burgeoning years of George.
I doubt anyone at the team would ever mention any of this but Toto Wolff is a shrewd operator and he knows he has to think about the future. He has to try to manage a soft landing for Lewis while lighting a fire under George. Constantly holding George back and keeping him under Lewis’s thumb does harm and one can look no further than Valtteri to see that.
This isn’t about finding a new Valtteri, it about finding a new Lewis.