Mercedes didn’t shock anybody when they announced that they had signed Williams’ driver George Russell on a long-term contract to replace Valtteri Bottas and partner the seven-time World Champion Sir Lewis Hamilton in the other Mercedes from 2022 onwards. This move has been anticipated by many in F1 for at least 2 seasons now, so for many, it was a case of an overdue transfer finally being made.
Also famously known as “Mr. Saturday,” George has more than earned the right to drive a championship-winning car with his qualifying pace on Saturdays and his feisty race craft come Sunday. But whether it was down to his qualifying lap in Belgium that saw him qualify ahead of Mercedes leading man Lewis Hamilton in P2 or the pressure mounted by Red Bull for this season’s Championship, Mercedes have triggered the call-up that they have been reluctant to for several seasons now.
Why Mercedes took so long to sign Russell
It is no secret in Formula1 that the Mercedes F1 Team prioritizes driver consistency over the regular and almost routine reshuffle of the lineup championed by their rivals at Red Bull, and Ferrari albeit with less frequency than the former. So it did not surprise anyone that Mercedes opted to remain with Valtteri for a couple of years longer than the paddock felt necessary.
The cause of Mercedes’ reluctance to promote Russell was clear for anyone that watched F1 through the Hamilton Rosberg battles that characterized the early hybrid era. Having two drivers that both rightfully had the ambition and the pace to be world champions made for an uneasy garage and a toxic work environment that Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff has confessed not wanting to get back to.
While that rivalry gave us races like the Duel in the Desert (Bahrain 2014), it also gave us races to forget, like Barcelona in 2016 when Hamilton and Rosberg took each other out at the start of the Grand Prix. We also can’t forget the shady stunt pulled by Nico during Qualifying in Monaco when he took to the runoff and caused yellow flags. That meant Hamilton, who was setting purple sectors behind Nico, had to abandon his lap and surrender pole position to the German.
This drama culminated with Nico retiring from F1 entirely at the end of the 2016 season despite winning the World Championship. With that, Mercedes vowed to not allow infighting again and pick their driver line up better. That is why Valtteri remained at Mercedes despite clearly not being World Championship material. He got on well with Lewis Hamilton, had good qualifying pace and followed team orders whenever they were issued.
Valtteri’s demeanor made it easy for Toto to play puppet master at the top and usher Lewis and the Mercedes team to seven dominant world championships with harmony in the team and teamwork between drivers, where there would typically be rivalry. However, all this only serves to make one wonder why now? If Valtteri has been doing what the team wants, why have they pulled the plug on him now?
Why did the call up to George Russell now?
There have been suggestions by some pundits that Mercedes were simply reacting to pressure from Russell and the F1 community. They argue that if he wasn’t given a seat this year, he would have been liable to be picked up by a rival team like Red Bull, Ferrari or even McLaren. However, you have to look at the current driver market to realize that isn’t true.
Both McLaren and Ferrari have great lineups with young drivers who have several years left on their contracts. The only team with a shaky lineup is Red Bull, which has still failed to find a match for Max Verstappen since the departure of Daniel Ricciardo. However, even Red Bull have already confirmed their lineup for next season, having given Sergio Perez an extension to his contract.
Pressure from Red Bull
There are two plausible reasons why Mercedes would make the move now. The first is that Mercedes doesn’t want to lose George Russell to a rival like Red Bull and risked doing so if they didn’t promote him to the senior team soon. The second reason is the pressure that Red Bull has mounted for the title this season.
Red Bull has mounted a title challenge this season unseen since their glory days in the blown diffuser era, which got them four constructors’ championships and four drivers’ championships with Sebastian Vettel. Max has dominated in most of the Grands Prix this season, and had it not been for some bad luck and incidents with both Mercedes cars on track, he would be well ahead in the drivers’ championship, and by default, so would Red Bull.
This sustained pressure which Mercedes’ main driver Lewis Hamilton has failed to respond to the way he did to pressure from Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel in 2017 and 2018, has left Mercedes weary and hungry for new blood. And while the team is adamant that they are still entirely behind Lewis Hamilton, one wonders how long they will keep using that line next season and the one after.
Obviously, the curtain is closing on Lewis’ F1 career, and Mercedes probably wants him to mentor their next world champion before his looming exit. Will Hamilton want to play the mentor role?