Russell’s turn to show Mercedes boss what he can do in F1

Mercedes driver George Russell of Britain steers his car during a Formula One pre-season testing session at the Catalunya racetrack in Montmelo, just outside of Barcelona, ​​Spain, Friday, Feb.  25, 2022. (AP Photo/Joan Monfort)

Mercedes driver George Russell of Britain steers his car during a Formula One pre-season testing session at the Catalunya racetrack in Montmelo, just outside of Barcelona, ​​Spain, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Joan Monfort)

AP

Eight years after emailing Toto Wolff as an audacious teen keen to showcase his driving talent, George Russell has a chance to show the head of the Mercedes F1 team exactly what he can do on the track.

His opportunity comes next Sunday when the Formula One season begins in Bahrain. Coincidentally, that is where Russell drove brilliantly as a one-off replacement for Lewis Hamilton in late 2020.

They are now teammates after Russell replaced Valtteri Bottas at Mercedes and it’s his turn to learn from a multiple world champion.

“That’s incredibly inspiring and motivating for me to try and reach the heights that Lewis has achieved,” the 24-year-old Russell said.

Bottas never won the world title and only rarely pushed Hamilton. Russell might do better but circumstances could play a part.

For while Mercedes say their drivers are free to compete against each other, it seems logical that Russell’s task will also be helping Hamilton to wrestle back the title he narrowly lost to Max Verstappen on the last lap of 2021.

“Lewis is a fighter and his absolute priority is to be the best version of himself when he hits the track in Bahrain,” Russell said. “He knows what it takes.”

Although Hamilton missed out on a record eighth title, which would have moved him ahead of Michael Schumacher, he has long been an inspiration to Russell for his endless work ethic.

“It always amazes me how someone so talented and successful as Lewis continues to strive for more,” Russell said. “I think we can really work well together to push the team forward.”

Presumably not against each other, like when Hamilton and former teammate Nico Rosberg fell out so badly in 2015 and ’16 — the last year Hamilton was beaten to the title until Verstappen ended his run last season.

Hamilton and Russell might have more work than envisaged, given how pre-season testing went this week. Red Bull and Ferrari appeared quicker and Mercedes struggled with “porpoising” — a new F1 term describing how cars bounce around on the track.

Mercedes have won eight constructors’ titles in a row, so it seems absurd to consider them panicking.

But there is genuine concern.

“We do seem a step behind our rivals and we do have a lot of work to do,” Russell said. “Red Bull are looking incredibly strong, Ferrari looking really solid.”

That’s precisely the kind of honesty Hamilton appreciates in Russell.

“He seems very genuine and he’s just focused on being the best team player he can,” Hamilton said. “It’s been seamless and we’re communicating a lot.”

Mercedes is a different world for Russell compared with his previous team, the modest Williams. But the meticulous-minded Englishman is in sponge-mode and absorbing all he can.

“They’re absolutely on top of every single detail,” he said. “It’s so impressive, from the simplest of things to the most technical. I really do feel like I’m at home.”

Russell joined the Mercedes junior program in 2017 before starting out in F1 with Williams, which uses Mercedes engines, in 2019.

He produced some impressive performances in a much slower car, particularly at the Belgian Grand Prix last year when he qualified second with outstanding driving in the wet.

Russell’s talent is no secret.

When Hamilton was ruled out of the Sakhir Grand Prix late in 2020, after contracting the coronavirus, it was Wolff contacting Russell this time.

“I got a phone call from Toto at 2 am,” Russell said. “I was in the bathroom, which was slightly awkward.”

Russell stunned many observers with the level of his driving. He outshone the vastly more experienced Bottas, set the fastest lap, and could even have won if not for poor team decisions.

That driving was even more exceptional because, not only had he never raced in Hamilton’s car, he also has bigger feet and to fit in the car he had to go down a size and squeeze into size 10 racing boots.

Over two seasons in 2019 and ’20, Russell beat his teammates in every qualifying.

It seems impossible he’ll blank Hamilton, the F1 record-holder with 103 pole positions.

But Hamilton rates Russel as “incredibly talented” and sees in him a similar drive to succeed.

“You see that picture of him when he was a kid, when I was at McLaren,” Hamilton said. “Of course he’s had an amazing run getting into Formula One. I have no doubt he’s going to be a strong competitor.”

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