Since George Russell joined Formula 1 in 2019, he has been linked with a move to the Mercedes works team. Since joining Williams, George has consistently outperformed his car and his teammates in Qualifying, a feat that has earned him the distinguished title of Mr. Saturday.
The only teammate to ever qualify higher than George during an F1 Qualifying session was Valtteri Bottas, who was his teammate for a race last season when he replaced Hamilton, who was out with Covid-19 in Bahrain.
The call-up to Mercedes proved inspired as Russell qualified in second behind Valtteri and overtook him twice in the race for the lead. George would have gone on to win the race as well had it not been for a slow puncture, compounded by a mistake in the pits by the Mercedes pit crew.
However, given that Russell got the call-up just the day before the race weekend commenced and barely had enough time to get a seat fitting done, he left many impressed and sure that he would get a permanent seat at Mercedes sooner rather than later.
Despite that impressive outing in the Mercedes and the near-perfect showing every Saturday, Mercedes have not triggered the option to permanently call up George to the senior team. Everyone thought it would happen this season had Hamilton decided to retire, but he didn’t, so it didn’t.
And with Hamilton now signing a two-year contract that will keep him at Mercedes till 2023, the only option left for George is to unseat Valtteri Bottas in the other Mercedes.
However, while many fans think signing George Russell in Valtteri’s stead is the obvious choice for Mercedes, there are some crucial reasons why the team is reluctant to make the move.
The Rosberg effect
Both the Mercedes team and Lewis Hamilton are wary of a situation like the one Nico Rosberg and Hamilton were in during the early days of the hybrid era. Lewis and Nico were teammates at Mercedes from 2013 to 2016, and while the two were close friends at the beginning of that stint, they couldn’t stand each other by the end of it.
The relationship soured over the years to a point where it became unmanageable, by Toto’s own admission. All this led up to the 2016 season in which the two crashed into each other on track. Mind games, dirty tricks, and complaints of favoritism from both drivers plagued what would otherwise have been a great season of teammate rivalry for the sport.
All that ended when Nico retired as World Champion at the end of the 2016 season. Mercedes signed Valtteri Bottas and, with that, ushered in a new era of calm and teamwork between both sides of the garage. Toto Wolff has made it quite clear that that is the kind of team dynamic he wants, so he is unlikely to sign George Russell, a World Champion in waiting to battle it out with Lewis Hamilton.
While this is a fair reason not to sign George, it is not a great one. Especially not with an aggressive Red Bull breathing down your neck, which is the situation Mercedes finds itself in this season.
The Red Bull factor
Since the beginning of the Hybrid era in 2014, Red Bull has been making significant gains towards catching Mercedes (and Ferrari) at the front. They have aggressively developed and redesigned their car each season to catch Mercedes, who have been the undisputed champions of the era. This aggressive strategy at Red Bull manifested in the shape of a change in power unit supplier from Renault to Honda in the 2018 season.
With Honda announcing their sudden exit from Formula1, Red Bull doubled down further on their aggressive approach and opted to take the unthinkable strategy of manufacturing their own engines going forward and becoming a proper works team. Further evidence of Red Bull’s determination to reclaim F1’s major honors is shown by how often they change their driver lineup.
Since the departure of Red Bull’s World Championship-winning drivers Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, Red Bull has had six drivers in the car’s cockpit. While this might indicate a lack of stability for many, it just means an unwillingness to settle for mediocrity and a commitment to reiteration until they achieve their goal.
All this redesigning and risk-taking appears to have paid off for Red Bull as they currently lead both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ championships. Moreover, should everything go according to current form, Max Verstappen will be crowned World Champion at the end of the 2021 season.
However, make no mistake, the fact that this is even a possibility should scare everyone in the Mercedes Boardroom, given how dominant and untouchable the team has been.
Red Bull’s performance should serve as a wake-up call for Mercedes to improve their systems and introduce some new competition in the shape of George Russell. We all know that Valtteri is a good number two, but Mercedes might need more than that to beat Red Bull going forward.
They might need two drivers capable of challenging for the World Championship, not just one. They will need the services of both Lewis Hamilton and George Russell to beat this resurgent Red Bull outfit.