George Russell is yet to score a point for Williams Racing in his first two seasons in F1. Nonetheless the 23-year-old has long been linked to a seat with current champions Mercedes. With his three-year contract concluding this year, will we see him driving for Mercedes as soon as 2022?
I spoke with Claire Williams, who developed a close relationship with Russell during her time as deputy team principal for Williams Racing, until her family’s departure from the team last September.
“I loved working with George. He is just one of those people, those once in a lifetime people that you meet, that you feel privileged knowing.”
The young Williams driver won the final F1 Virtual Grand Prix on Valentine’s Day to claim his sixth victory from six in the series. Having started from 14th place on the grid, Russell certainly got my heart racing with that win.
His Virtual F1 success is testament to his quality as both a driver and as a person. The triumph he has enjoyed in an esports series created purely for fun during lockdown reflects his professionalism, while his willingness to commit as fully as he has done speaks volumes for his ambition.
Russell’s Sakhir Success
Christmas came early for Russell last year when Williams Racing allowed him to stand in for Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton at the Sakhir Grand Prix in December. Getting a glimpse of his brilliance that weekend must have made many feel like they had made the nice list.
“He is hugely talented; we all know that,” said Claire. “We knew that before he got to drive for Mercedes last year. It was great to see him in that car.
“But I was very grateful that I wasn’t still running the team at the time because I don’t know how I would have made that decision and I don’t know what my decision would have been.”
Considering his lack of experience in the Mercedes, Russell’s performance showcased his incredible adaptability. Despite receiving Valtteri Bottas’ tyres in a botched pitstop – likely prompting parents everywhere to start lecturing on the importance of putting your name on your school things – Russell recovered and managed to get past Bottas once again with a thrilling overtake.
A puncture denied him a potential podium, but a composed Russell finished 9th with an extra point for fastest lap. The young Brit showed a mental strength in Bahrain that Claire believes he has developed from driving for Williams.
“It’s not easy to sit at the back of the grid watching all of your mates that you’ve beaten in the junior Formula do a whole lot better than you,” reflected Claire. “I think he has dealt with it with such grace and humility, even though at times he has been enormously frustrated.
“I think that shows his strength of character. But I also believe that it will stand him in really good stead for years down the line when he is going to need to draw on that resilience.”
Even in the Mercedes, the fastest car on the grid, a driver’s input is crucial. It is down to a driver’s skill to extract the most out of the car. It is also down to a driver’s composure to read the race and perform in high pressure moments. The Sakhir Grand Prix should highlight Russell’s resilience more than it shows how easy Hamilton has had it.
Hamilton’s One-Year Contract
Hamilton is indisputably Mercedes’ star driver, having won six World Championships with the team. However, despite being at the peak of his dominance, Hamilton has only signed on for one more season.
There is every chance that Hamilton will retire after this year, especially if he achieves his record-breaking eighth title. This possibility is made even more likely by new regulations coming in 2022, which are aimed at creating a more level playing field for a healthier, cheaper, and more entertaining F1.
Both Hamilton and Bottas are heading into their 2021 campaign on one-year contracts. This potentially leaves the door open, or rather a seat open, for Russell. Claire expressed mixed emotions about the possibility of seeing Russell with the Silver Arrows as soon as next year.
“If I’m an innocent bystander, for George to have his career ambition put in front of him, put on the table, and given the contract to drive for Mercedes, as a friend of course I would want that for him. A hundred percent.”
“But as a Williams, and if I was still running the team, I would in no way want to hand George Russell over because he is so competitive. If there is an opportunity to score and get into the points, then you know you want the best driver in your car to be able to do that. So that would have been really tough for me.”
Verstappen on the Verge?
Throughout 2020, Mercedes hinted that Russell was first in line for whichever seat opens up at the team. Following his Sakhir success it certainly seems to be a matter of when, not if, he will get his shot.
However, it is likely that Max Verstappen is at the top of Mercedes’ shopping list, as Red Bull team boss Christian Horner has admitted. Verstappen’s contract with Red Bull runs until 2023, but this might rely on his team providing a title-winning car.
It is unlikely that Mercedes would risk introducing two new drivers the same year as the implementation of new regulations. By retaining one of their current drivers the team could ensure a sense of continuity. As arguably the next best performer on the grid behind Hamilton, Verstappen is the logical choice, and Russell could potentially lose out.
Yet, if Mercedes does sign Russell next season, he has proved himself more than equal to every challenge so far. An exciting prospect like George Russell driving for Mercedes in 2022. My heart might just skip a beat.