Car development, not Hamilton rivalry, Russell’s priority at Mercedes

2022 F1 season

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Five years after joining Mercedes as a junior driver, George Russell is about to begin his first season as a full-time member of the reigning world champions’ team.

On the face of it, the leap from Williams, the team that finished last every season from 2018 to 2020, to the outfit which just won their eighth consecutive title, is enormous. But Russell’s long association with Mercedes has eased the transition, he explained last week.

“I’d say it’s been as I would expect from a world championship-winning outfit,” said Russell. “They are absolutely on top of every single detail and it’s so impressive to see.

“I guess I almost maybe took it for granted when I was a Formula 3 driver and a Mercedes F1 simulator driver, travelling around and seeing how they operate. But it’s so impressive from the simplest of things to the most technical things of the whole operation. I really do feel like I’m at home.”

He has the added benefit of having already driven for the team once, as a substitute for Lewis Hamilton at the Sakhir Grand Prix in 2020. Returning just over a year later as Hamilton’s full-time team, Russell said “it doesn’t even feel like a transition period” this time.

George Russell, Mercedes, Hungaroring, 2017
Russell first tested for Mercedes five years ago
“It just feels like I’m with a team who I’ve been with over the past years. It was only recently I realise I’ve actually driven a Mercedes F1 car every single year since 2017, so I do really feel immersed with these guys.”

Russell signalled his readiness for a move up to the top flight with a series of impressive results in his third season for Williams. Besides the headline-grabbing front-row spot at Spa, which yielded second place in the one-lap ‘race’ which followed and third on the grid in Russia, Russell was regularly in contention for other points finishes.

He believes he still has a lot of potential to improve, however. “As a driver, compared to the one that Williams took three years ago, I’m far more complete,” he said. “But I’m far from the end product.

“I’d say raw speed never changes but you learn how to get more out of your equipment and the team around you. That’s where I’ve learnt a lot and how I’ve progressed.

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“It’s not because I’ve learned to be faster, it’s because I’ve learned how to deal with more scenarios. This just comes with experience, really.”

George Russell, Lewis Hamilton, Yas Marina, 2018
Mercedes junior driver programme gave Russell chance to learn from Hamilton
Nonetheless, heading into his first full season as a Mercedes driver, Russell plans to stick to the approach which has served him well so far.

“The process and the routine I’ve had up until this point is what has led me to get to this drive in the first place. So I’m going to sleep the same, I’m going to eat the same, I’m going to train the same.

“Because I feel like I was doing my absolute maximum, my best to give me the best possible shot at the Mercedes seat in the first place. If I feel like I could be doing more this year, I would have been doing it anyway.

“So I think it’s important not to over-analyse and not to change too much when I feel like I’ve got a system that’s been working for me. It may be very different to someone else, but for me, I feel like it is working and I want to continue what I have built on over the past four or five years.”

However he’s well aware that he’s been handed a significant opportunity. Not merely in terms of joining one of F1’s top teams, but in the opportunity to learn from arguably the greatest, and certainly the most successful, driver of all time.

He and Hamilton already know each other well from earlier in their careers. Following Russell’s time at Williams, the pair are getting reacquainted.

One-off outing for Mercedes in 2020 went very well
“My working relationship with Lewis over the past three years hasn’t been as close as it probably was four or five years ago when I was the junior driver and seeing him work week-in, week-out,” said Russell. “But it always amazes me how somebody so talented and successful as Lewis continues to strive for more.

“That is incredibly inspiring and motivational for me as a young driver to try and reach the heights that Lewis has achieved. And what an opportunity for me to be his team mate, to learn from him and see how he goes about his business. I think we can have a really good relationship between the two of us and we can really work well together to push the team forward.”

Hamilton’s future was a subject of considerable speculation over the winter following the controversial end to last season. Russell makes it clear he believes the handling of the season finale in Abu Dhabi was “incorrect”. But he doesn’t believe Hamilton’s appetite to fight for another title has been diminished by the blow he suffered at the end of 2021.

“I think Lewis is a fighter,” says Russell. “He’s a racer. His absolute main priority is to be the best version of himself when he hits the track in Bahrain for race one.”

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When Hamilton made his debut 15 years ago, he made an immediate impression by holding his own against reigning, two-times world champion Fernando Alonso. It must have crossed Russell’s mind that he could do the same.

George Russell, Mercedes, Silverstone, 2022
W13 has huge development potential, says Russell
But he insists he hasn’t considered the possibility of how he’ll measure up against Hamilton. “It’s something I have not even thought about, to be honest.”

The drivers’ focus must be on responding to the challenge presented by the new technical regulations. “My main goal is to make sure that I have the team and the car around me and developing the car in the correct direction to give us the best opportunity over the course of the next two, three, four years,” he says.

“Because we’ve seen the development rate, we hear rumours from all the other teams of how much they’re developing. We’ve got to remember that Formula 1 developed this rules set with the idea that they were going to be around four seconds slower and we’re already hearing from every single team that they’re far, far faster than that.

“So Lewis and I need to work together. We can’t focus too much on each other because things are constantly changing and that’s what we need to take a step back. We hope Mercedes will still be the fastest team, the fastest car on the grid. But there’s no guarantees and we need to not be naive to work together to ensure that we are.”

The 2022 regulations has handed Mercedes’ rivals such as Ferrari, McLaren and Alpine the opportunity to drastically close the gap to the front-runners. “We need to prioritise the pace of the car before prioritising each other,” Russell emphasises.

“Things aren’t going to be quite as clear-cut as they were in the past three years when the regulations have been stable, things have tailed off and there’s only small improvements coming here that. The rate of improvement is going to be massive this year and we need to make sure we’re sharing as much data as possible between each other work and as well as possible with each other because it’s in our own interest to make sure we have the fastest car.

“If that time comes, then we can potentially worry about each other. But until then it’s full focus on making the fastest car possible for each of other.”

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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30 comments on “Car development, not Hamilton rivalry, Russell’s priority at Mercedes”

  1. Lets see how Russel stacks up against the likes of Leclerc, Verstappen and Norris now he has a better car. It will be nice if Toto lets Russel race, and doesn’t make him a Bottas 2.0.

    1. George is British so he only has to focus in being quicker and handling the pirelli expertly.

    2. Bottas to was all down to Bottas himself

  2. . “My main goal is to make sure that I have the team and the car around me and developing the car in the correct direction to give us the best opportunity over the course of the next two, three, four years,” he says.

    Before reading this article I had a feeling that merc would clip Russell in the no.2 zone. And temper him with something along the line of “Hamilton is retiring in a year or two and you’ll be the no.1 driver then”.
    Seems like it with that statement from him

    1. Assuming he’s on the pace though..

  3. someone or something
    22nd February 2022, 15:02

    Pre-pre-season testing hasn’t even begun, and they’re already lowering the bar. Sigh.

    But he insists he hasn’t considered the possibility of how he’ll measure up against Hamilton. “It’s something I have not even thought about, to be honest.”

    Coming from a racing driver, that is egregious nonsense. Of course he has, that’s the whole point of him being in F1 and going to Mercedes. But yeah, nothing new here, just an obvious lie to disguise another one.

    1. I had a similar thought in the ‘of course he has’ sense as well. But I just don’t consider it a ‘lie’ but rather being diplomatic and politically correct. Of course at the moment these are the kinds of things GR has to say. But of course as we know much is going to depend on what happens in the first number of races. All the teams will be learning and discovering and growing. But there are different scenarios that are going to affect differently how things go for example at Mercedes since this is the topic of this article.

      If Mercedes comes out dominant right off the start then it might immediately become a rivalry there if they’re both on similar pace. If it quickly becomes that either GR or LH are fighting for wins with Max, then depending on the driver it might not take long before they can’t afford to split points and let Max run away with the bulk of them at RBR. That’s of course just two scenarios that might quickly end this diplomatic approach that of course GR can take at this point when everything is yet to be revealed.

  4. I read it as it is written, both drivers will have to concentrate on making the car work first and then worry about racing one another or anyone else come to that. They are all in the dark on performance, their own or other teams, and so the priority must be making it all work and be as fast as possible. A few days testing will help, but that first race, as we have seen in the past, is likely to throw up surprises and problems. To win either championship they will have to get over that phase by working as a team.

  5. Sounds reasonable. I’m a bit skeptical that he hasn’t considered whether he’s faster than Hamilton– but I suspect he genuinely doesn’t know, and isn’t ready to brag. Yet. :)

    First priority should be getting the car up to speed, and hopefully, he can adapt to Hamilton’s driving style– because the team is going to have to focus on making this Hamilton’s car, at least this year. I’ve said before that Rosberg was the most competitive teammate for Hamilton because they both had very similar driving styles.

    After that, his focus needs to be on being fast on both Saturday, and Sunday. Right now, he may be able to beat Hamilton on Saturday, or sometimes even on Sunday– but as Bottas pointed out recently, the problem with Hamilton is the unrelenting consistency. Even a “bad” day for Hamilton is usually better than a “good” day for most drivers, and that’s hard to beat.

  6. Barry Bens (@barryfromdownunder)
    22nd February 2022, 15:28

    How naive of him

    1. @barryfromdownunder I highly doubt he is naive. I think he is just saying the only types of things he can and should be saying at this particular point in time.

    2. Not naive, just housetrained very early and easily

    3. He’s a young man. A long way to go yet before he becomes a man as such. A long way. He’ll get there.

  7. Fighting against Hamilton this year probably won’t do him any favours. Being a number 2, studying how Hamilton gets the most out of the car, embedding himself in the team and ensuring the car is quick at the point when he takes over as number 1 is a good plan.

    It also takes a bunch of pressure off of him. Instead of being expected to match Lewis, he’ll be expected to be better than Bottas. Much more manageable!

    1. @petebaldwin I have pondered over the past season particularly, if GR would either be asked to, or if he would instinctively on his own not rock the boat and just take on a student-to-master role. At the same time, what if he is just naturally fast right off the start? I don’t think any driver should simply run at 90% for example, just to manufacture himself a lesser role on a team, and that includes with GR. On the one hand sure it would make life easier for LH and TW if LH had yet again another natural number 2 ala VB, but on the other hand I think we knew that VB was for the most part starting every season with the promised VB 2.0 version that was finally going to take it to LH, but of course it never happened. This just to say, I do get what you are saying and have wondered myself if this is how it will play out at Mercedes, but at the same time if GR has the pace he has the pace (and presumably more race craft than VB), and he shouldn’t artificially take something off that, as that would be an insult to LH and to the team as well, imho.

      It’s an interesting aspect to F1. At Mercedes they had Nico and LH in a vicious rivalry, and when Nico retired and they took on VB it was all about the wonderful peaceful harmony on the team. Yet TW and Nico had re-signed mid-2016 for two more years of the vicious rivalry and Nico would have been there through 2018 at least, had he not retired. ie. Mercedes and TW are not afraid of a rivalry on the team and know that it can come down to the gloves having to come off between the two drivers. The benefit of that is they are pushing each other as hard as possible. I think in the current case, even if the gloves come off between GR and LH, GR is not Nico with the history he had with LH, so it can be a rivalry but doesn’t have to be vicious. So much is just going to depend on where they are with/against each other, and where the other drivers and their cars are in the pecking order after half a dozen races or so.

    2. He should be trying to do to Hamilton what Hamilton himself did to Alonso when he entered F1 – go in there with all guns blazing.

      Only a loser will happily accept the doormat role, even for one season.

      Of course if he can’t match Hamiltons pace then that’s a different matter.

      1. Craig yeah that’s a really good point about LH v. FA. Perhaps different now in the sense that LH is now where he is at with his age and his records and his level of engraining at Mercedes, but still…good point. I’d like to think LH and TW would accept nothing less than a full-on GR, but I could also understand them hoping he doesn’t make life too difficult for LH as a driver who only has so much time left to break the WDC record, and too difficult for TW as the manager of a potential rivalry that could cause LH some stress. But yeah for me, it is what it is. And it will be so fascinating to see. And of course it is an ever evolving thing especially this year with these hugely new and different cars, so as we are being told it will be a season of teams learning and progressing. My goodness, where will the all be half way through the season lol.

  8. Bottas 1.0 is back…

  9. To much-unfounded criticism of Russell because he refuses to do the WWE response and trash talk others before the event as some fans want.
    I think because hamilton failed to secure his 8th WDC he will be proritised over Russell to have another go at it this year. I would think Russell would be well aware and accepting of that as long as he does not find himself in the position of being consistently faster than Hamilton. Next year all bets will be off no matter the outcome.
    And of course, the team priority will be another WCC.

  10. That’s right. Mercedes and their fans like me want both championships this year, regardless of who wins the drivers championship. Make the car better until a clear advantage and then we can have another SILVER CIVIL WAR.

  11. I think that GR and LH along with TW know what ME expects regarding R&D of W13. Of course HT in HPP seems very confident regarding PU. As JA said, ‘it’s very easy to get it wrong this year’, so let’s wait ’till tomorrow morning. We’ll be a bit smarter then – 08:45

  12. Amazing to see so many expert opinions on Russell’s prospects before testing has even started, based on something or other he said in an interview. Genius.

    1. @david-br Lol, razor blades for breakfast this morning? I’m not sure any of us are claiming to be experts, but it is fun to consider GR’s prospects given he’s predicted to be a much better challenge for LH than VB was, at least on paper anyway. As to his prospects, I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to suggest he’ll either be a designated student-to-master, or he’ll be free to race LH initially until they see how the math is working out based on the rest of the grid. Then if he’s free to race he’s either going to be faster, slower, or a match, and it’s going to be potentially very exciting to see post-VB how things shake out. I expect LH to not want to beat GR just because he was hobbled by the team, but then he did say he liked having VB as a teammate and it just happens that teammate was never once a challenge for him.

      1. @robbie Actually some strong Brazilian coffee, a potato bread roll and some Canadian ham (coincidentally!).
        We have absolutely NO idea how Russell will approach this season and facing up to Hamilton. In fact, I’m sure he has no idea either. His back history actually suggests a maybe surprisingly rebellious streak. His clash with Bottas leading to them both DNFing was no coincidence. He can say whatever he or the team or PR want in interviews, but it will only be on track, under qualifying and race conditions, that he and we will see what he actually do. If you want speculation, I’d say all the PR pleasantries and competing as a team mean absolutely nothing when it comes down to fighting on track, he’ll be just as competitive as Lewis (always is). Whether that’s enough to win regularly against him is another question.

        1. @david-br Sounds yummy:)

          I don’t disagree with what you are saying, and at the same time it is fun to speculate, which you have also done, which makes your first sarcastic two-liner redundant. I think we are on the same page in that I offered up that it is all going to depend on several circumstances and to what GR is going to do once they are all racing in anger.

          As to his clash with VB being no coincidence, yeah I agree and that was when he was perhaps trying to ensure his replacing of VB at Mercedes by showing the likes of TW what he is made of. I’m not thinking he will take the same aggressive tack with LH now that he has the seat. But I hope so. I hope you are right and that he isn’t asked to nor takes upon himself to be the student for now, but I won’t be surprised if that happens and as I have said it will likely just depend on where they sit in the Constructors and how the teams have to ‘assess’ points to their drivers. Both Mercedes out front on a regular basis is going to present a far different season to both drivers than if they are the third best in the Constructors of course.

          1. @robbie I’m not against speculation per se! There’s no fun in anticipating a season without it. I was responding more to the posts about GR being another Bottas, already tamed, not up for the fight, ready to be LH’s wing man etc., based on a completely non-racing context of a casual PR-heavy interview, which is basically meaningless.
            I think we’re in agreement, I expect GR to be cautious but if there’s a chance to pass Hamilton and/or take wins, he’ll take it eagerly, just like Leclerc or Verstappen when they switched to a big team. Russell’s outing at Sakhir for Mercedes where he breezed past VB tells us all we need to know, I think.

  13. So much speculation.

    I think people tend to underestimate just how competitive Bottas was at times and the fact that he pushed Hamilton to improve even more during his first couple of seasons with Merc. He may not have been the best in a lot of races, but he certainly pushed him hard during qualifying, something that Russell is also very good at.

    Let’s just wait and see how the season pans out. New cars, new drivers, and the possibility that the new cars might suit some people more than others – what’s not to get excited about.

    Bring on testing…. I can’t wait.

    1. @dbradock I agree about Bottas in qualifying but in almost all races he was nowhere near Hamilton due to slower pace, worse tyre management and terrible (as in ‘really terrible’) racing skills, defensive or aggressive. I’m sure that’s where Russell is expected to deliver by comparison – or else why swap Bottas for him?
      On the minus side (for him) Hamilton looks like he has ‘rebooted’ for this season and we know how well he adapts to a different car, racing style tweaks etc. Russell will have his work cut out. Then again, he’s battling with that Williams for a few years so maybe he’ll find the whole thing a breeze by comparison. As you say, bring it on!

      1. @dbradock @david-br Yeah agreed and well said both. I guess VB pushed LH in qualifying, but at the same time if LH always knew that would not amount to much for him on Sundays, then I don’t know that he felt much pressure at all from VB. As to “or else why swap Bottas for him?” I think the answer is that they, not to mention all of us, know that VB was not the team’s future given that LH is in the sunset of his career, even if GR is asked (positioned) for now to not take points away from LH. All going to depend on how things shake out starting in the first real comparison opportunity on the first race weekend, naturally.

        Yeah GR has his work cut out for him, and at the same time I’m not sure I can picture him initially really taking it to LH is some aggressive way, as his initial actions on the team. Might not set the greatest tone for the team that has become accustomed to all the kittens and roses, love-in they had while VB was there and not rocking the boat like Nico did. Then again, they had re-signed Nico through 2018, so they didn’t mind the rivalry all that much. I digress.

        1. Thanks @robbie @david-br – nice to see that at times there can be sensible and sane comments on this site.
          I’ve been beginning to despair a bit with the amount of trolling that’s been happening lately, particularly if either LH or MV is mentioned.

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