Why Russell and Hamilton could make an F1 dream team
At last. Now we know, and in many respects, it was hardly a great surprise. George Russell will be a Mercedes F1 driver in 2022.
A month ago, this column mused over the dilemma facing Toto Wolff as he headed off into Formula 1's summer break, with the Mercedes team principal pondering whether to continue with a safe, steady pair of hands in Valtteri Bottas or to promote youth in the form of rising young star George Russell.
As Wolff remarked in an interview at the time regarding such a decision, "From a human aspect, it is probably amongst the most difficult ones."
There was a valid argument for Bottas to remain as he has proven an able wingman over the years, but rarely at Hamilton's level, one reason why the seven-time F1 champion supported the retention of the Finn.
As F1 prepared to return, Bottas revealed in a television interview that, "Lewis has told me quite directly that he would like me to be his team-mate. Together we can do very well."
Hamilton even spoke of his "loyalty" to Bottas, although was mindful of the fact that despite revealing he had spoken to Wolff about the choice to be made, that he would support him and the Daimler board "whichever way they go".
On the eve of the Belgian Grand Prix, Wolff confirmed his mind was made up, a decision taken prior to Russell's stellar qualifying lap at Spa-Francorchamps that will have dispelled any lingering doubts as to whether he had made the right call.
Russell delivered two minutes' worth of racecraft in miserable wet conditions that underlined why he is regarded as a future world champion and the man who will take Mercedes into its next era when Hamilton eventually retires.
There was natural bravery allied to the precision of car placement and a feel for the track in such circumstances that mark out the exceptional drivers from the good, and, in a Williams that this season has been, on average, the ninth quickest on the grid.
Russell even beat Hamilton, widely regarded as F1's best wet-weather driver, by 0.013 seconds. A portent of things to come perhaps, and the earliest sign yet of a potential changing of the guard at Mercedes.
Hamilton has since said all the right things in welcoming Russell to Mercedes, "that through hard work he has rightly earned his spot on our team", and that together they can "raise Mercedes higher".
For the first time in five years, however, Hamilton faces the greatest threat to his leadership at Mercedes since the acrimony that existed between himself and former friend Nico Rosberg came to an end when the latter chose to retire after winning his title in 2016.
There will be a natural bedding-in period for Russell, in particular, as team work and team harmony will be vital for Mercedes in the early stages of development of next year's cars that feature a radically different aerodynamic concept.
But if last year's Sakhir Grand Prix is anything to go by, do not expect any teething problems for Russell to last too long given how close he came to pole position and race victory in a car in which he struggled to fit as he stepped into Covid-19-hit Hamilton's Mercedes for what proved a one-off appearance.
It is when you hear comments from Russell's current rivals on track that you know he is something special, the real deal, if you will. Two-time champion Fernando Alonso is one of those who has nothing but respect for Russell, even going so far as to swap helmets with the British driver earlier this season.
During his two-year sabbatical, Russell is one who caught Alonso's eye as he said: "We know that it [this year's car] is not a competitive package.
"It is better this year but not in the last two. He was putting in something special every weekend and that was nice to watch at home. That is something you always get impressed by.”
In a later interview, Alonso added: "George Russell is the one that surprises me every weekend, how he's driving the Williams. Zero mistakes. I'm really surprised about his natural speed."
Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc, who has known Russell from their karting days, recently said of his fellow 23-year-old that it is "his talent that makes him special".
“From what I have seen of him since that time [in karting], he is just extremely talented and every time he gets into the car now – as with karting then – he is just quick straightaway."
In fairness to Hamilton, he has known for a long time the talent Russell possesses and just who he will now be going up against next season. In November last year, Hamilton earmarked Russell as a driver who will one day follow in his footsteps.
"I'm really impressed with his racecraft and how he's growing," said Hamilton. "He really is the future – as several drivers are the future of this sport - but he's one of them I'm really excited to see his progression, and I've no doubt he has the potential to be a future champion."
Hamilton will now have the opportunity to witness first-hand whether his prophecy will come true.
And if Mercedes continue to have a car next season to challenge for the title, will Russell's ascension to the F1 throne be while Hamilton is still at Mercedes or after he has gone?
Either way, it promises to be a fascinating watch over the next two years.