In 2022, the all-conquering Mercedes Formula 1 team will look much different. The focal point, certainly in the public’s view, will very much be on the drivers that occupy the seats; both tasked with providing weekend entertainment for those sitting trackside and at home.
Next year, the team’s number one driver and seven-times (eight, if he pulls it off again this year) FIA World Drivers’ Champion, Lewis Hamilton, who some deem to be the greatest to ever compete in Formula 1, will be paired alongside George Russell – his sixth team-mate since he joined the sport in 2007.
The match-up is most certainly an engrossing one. Mercedes and Hamilton will arguably go down as the greatest team/driver pairing in Formula 1 history, with the Briton achieving six of his (so far) seven titles with the German manufacturer.
But the team’s decision to employ the highly rated George Russell, at long last promoting one of its junior academy drivers into the senior outfit, will likely create an interesting dynamic within the organisation. While Hamilton is very much Mercedes’ past and present, it seems that the Brackley squad is banking on Russell representing the future.
Russell, more than anyone else, understands the monstrous task that awaits him next year when he’s paired up alongside Hamilton, who will offer the 23-year-old a much more robust challenge than past Williams team-mates Robert Kubica and Nicholas Latifi. With a fair playing board and equal opportunities, we may see just how talented he really is.
“It’s not going to be easy at all,” Russell explained after the announcement for the seat. “I am under no illusions of how tough that’s going to be. I think we all know how strong Lewis is and in my opinion, he’s probably the greatest driver of all time. He’s a seven-time world champion for a reason. I think coming in, I am in an incredibly fortunate position where I can go in and learn from the best.”
But Russell has more than earned his spot at the grown-up’s table – after having displayed his talents in the junior ranks and winning championships along the way, the Briton managed to fashion a healthy public reputation and found himself being branded a world champion of the future, despite competing for a largely backmarker team.
Hamilton’s father once sent a fierce warning to other drivers, stating it could be a “career-ending move” to be paired with his son. While Russell is not expected outright best Hamilton (to begin with), he has more to lose, as the latter has already secured more than enough accolades and trophies that will forever enshrine him in motorsport lore.
George is being entrusted with a major seat, for a giant brand. He’s no stranger to the family of course, but with Hamilton likely in the final few years of his Formula 1 career, Russell’s deal is an extraordinary opportunity to showcase why he deserves to eventually replace Hamilton as their star man and, heir apparent, prince of the sport.
But aside from focusing on how they will compare, Russell can take huge value while positioned alongside the driver he once (and perhaps still does) idolised. Being seated beside the most successful driver in Formula 1 history will come with its benefits, as well as its challenges.
“He’s the future, he’s one of the members of the future of the sport,” Hamilton said recently, talking about his soon-to-be team-mate. “I think he’s already shown incredible driving so far and I’m sure he’s going to continue to grow. So where better to do it than in a great team like this?”
Where Mercedes will be in the 2022 pecking order is anyone’s guess, due to the arrival of the new technical regulations that may well shake up the order – but it would be bold to assume that they wouldn’t be near the front of the pack.
Wherever they end up on the grid next season and whatever positions they are fighting for, everyone’s attention will be drawn to how the Mercedes drivers treat each other (and indeed how the team treats the drivers). Russell will be keen to prove himself against the proven champion and Hamilton will want to not be bested by the ‘next best thing’.
It’s quite comforting that Mercedes has finally promoted a junior driver to the senior team. Having passed on both Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon in recent years, a similar scenario could well have befallen Russell. Having seen the success that Red Bull and Ferrari has had with their programmes, it really was time for the German automotive giant to prove that it could do the same.
Russell’s promotion came as little surprise to everyone when the news finally dropped – but what sort of expectations can you put on a driver that has so often tipped for future success when he’s being lumped alongside the most accomplished driver any of us have ever seen?
This opinion article originally appeared in issue 436 of our weekly digital motorsport magazine, Motorsport Monday. Completely free to read with no sign-up necessary, Motorsport Monday is published every Monday morning and is packed full of motorsport content. Check out the latest issue here.