Why George Russell can retire his idol Lewis Hamilton
British starlet has proven his worth; now he will get his shot at title glory
When George Russell pulled into the Williams garage to retire on lap 26 of last year’s controversial Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, he knew the next time he lined up to race, he would do so in Formula 1’s most coveted machine. Confirmed for a drive with eight-time Constructors Champions Mercedes, the 23-year-old Brit has been forced to wait his turn for a shot at the big time, but has shone in a Williams team bereft of money, ambition, and crucially, speed. Across the garage from seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton, Russell’s natural talent and adaptability presents the young lion with the chance to tame his legendary master.
Throughout last season, Russell’s performances amounted to an audition for a seat with F1’s leading team, and an outfit he has been under contract with for eight years. The King’s Lynn native has proven time after time that he is capable of extraordinary performances in less than ordinary machinery, established by his staggering tenacity negotiating variable weather and a multi-car first lap crash to secure his first Williams points, fending off eventual world champion Max Verstappen to cross the line 8th at the Hungaroring. Crying tears of joy in his post-race interview he said the points “mean more than I can put into words”.
The ultimate demonstration of Russell’s skill behind the wheel came in qualifying for a rain-soaked Belgian Grand Prix. Having hauled his car into the pole position shootout, a lofty feat that became impressively naturalised, he showed his commitment, persistence and adaptability, navigating monsoon-like rain that saw compatriot Lando Norris crash heavily at the fearsome Eau Rouge corner.
As the patented blue, white and yellow livery emerged from a cloud of spray, swung through the ‘bus stop’ chicane and across the line, Russell’s time of 2:00.086 placed him on provisional pole position; 0.13 seconds faster than Lewis Hamilton’s much superior Mercedes. Whilst Max Verstappen would eventually oust Russell from top spot, his effort put the Williams team on the front row of the grid for the first time in seven years.
The next day, a farcical race run entirely behind the safety car gifted Russell his first Formula 1 podium, and the first for the Williams team since 2017. Notably, it was the final podium achieved by Williams before the death of team founder Sir Frank Williams three months later in November.
He would repeat his heroics in Russia, bagging third on the grid and beating Hamilton once again in turbulent conditions on a drying track. His ability over single qualifying laps earned him the nickname “Mr Saturday,” something he has played down, instead wishing to be “more Mr Sunday” at the wheel of his next employer’s car. Williams CEO Jost Capito agrees, telling Channel 4 that he did not want to hold Russell back from leaving the team “because he deserves to be in a car that can win the championship.”
Russell’s ascent to the status of F1’s ‘golden boy’ began in King’s Lynn, as one of three children. First entering the world of karting at the age of seven, by 2012 the youngest Russell was a European champion, and just three years later tested his first F1 car as a prize for scooping the Autosport Young Driver award.
At the age of 15, visiting Mercedes’ Brackley HQ to seek advice, Russell outlined his career vision to Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff. The Austrian businessman recalled to PlanetF1 the teenager “[coming] to my office, all alone in a black suit with a black tie and a PowerPoint presentation. In this presentation, he listed every reason why he could be a successful Mercedes driver in the future. He has been under contract with Mercedes ever since.”
Starting out in karting, Russell was a European champion by the age of 12 and graduated to cars by the age of 16. Just three years later, he was on tour with the Formula 1 circus, winning development series GP3 and, the next year, Formula 2, a series notably won by Lewis Hamilton in 2006. At the age of 21, Russell made his F1 debut with Williams, where he remained for the first three years of his career.
His debut campaign in F1 was largely uneventful, finishing with zero points in a car left significantly undeveloped following financial struggles, as detailed in the Netflix show Drive to Survive. 2020’s truncated season brought Russell a better car and a new teammate in former rival Nicholas Latifi. Whilst Russell made light work of outperforming his Canadian partner, the Covid-19 pandemic gifted him an opportunity to drive for the Mercedes juggernaut, as had temporarily Lewis Hamilton for the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix after the then world champion contracted Covid-19.
On his one-off appearance Russell qualified second, just 0.023 of a second behind his vastly experienced teammate Valtteri Bottas. Swiping the lead at the first corner, the front-running rookie led 59 of the 87 laps, with the race under total control before an uncharacteristic Mercedes pit-stop error and subsequent puncture denied him a fairytale win. Following the heartbreaking result, Wolff, who had taken a chance on a boy in a suit six years prior, told a press conference “a new star is born.”
The Wolverhampton Wanderers fan joins Mercedes in place of the man he outdrove in Sakhir, with long-serving second driver Valtteri Bottas dropping down the grid to Alfa Romeo. Throughout 2021, it felt as if the Finn was living in the shadow of his seemingly inevitable replacement, an image reaffirmed by the two spectacularly colliding in a 160mph crash at Imola. In the aftermath the two had a heated altercation in which Russell asked his fellow driver “if he was trying to kill us both’’ and appeared to strike Bottas’ helmet.
A source inside Williams notes Russell’s upset at Bottas’ retention for 2021, saying “he was definitely frustrated with Mercedes picking Valtteri this year, hence his distasteful reaction back in Imola after crashing into him. I don’t think there’s any bad blood between the two, but tensions were definitely elevated.”
Bottas, in his five years as Hamilton’s partner, never mounted a serious challenge for a world title, in part thanks to the determination of Mercedes’ engineers to prioritise their number one driver. This ensured the team avoided a situation that Hamilton and former teammate Nico Rosberg knew only too well, with the childhood friends becoming bitter enemies over four years racing together. Whether Russell will be treated differently — or will treat his new teammate differently — remains to be seen, however Hamilton expects his incoming partner to be all in, telling BBC Sport “he’s going to want to be quick, he’s going to want to show up and win.”
His Williams colleagues agree. “He’s a polite person who is very welcoming. He doesn’t feel that he’s better than you because he’s a superstar,” one tells me. “If you stand next to him to get a coffee, he’ll happily ask you how you’re doing despite not necessarily knowing you. He’s very well respected within the team.” Following the conclusion of the 2021 season, Russell returned to Williams’ factory in order to say his goodbyes, volunteering to sign items for the team’s 600 employees.
Despite Russell’s maturity, his passion for racing has seen him lash out, first at Bottas, but then at F1 race director Michael Masi, calling the end to the title deciding Abu Dhabi Grand Prix “unacceptable,” in an all-caps tweet.
Australian Masi, who made the controversial decision to withdraw the Safety Car and permit five backmarkers to un-lap themselves, allowed Max Verstappen, who had changed to fresh tyres, to catch and pass Hamilton on the final lap of the championship, winning both the race and his first world title. Russell later added on Twitter “what has just happened is absolutely unacceptable. I cannot believe what we’ve just seen.” Mercedes would go on to protest the decision, but withdrew their appeal after the sport’s governing body, the FIA, agreed to an investigation, the results of which will be presented at the opening round of the season in mid-March.
Affectionately nicknamed “GR”, the driver of car 63 has proven time and time again that he does not belong in uncompetitive machinery, and the speed with which he adapted to Mercedes’ 2020 car, which he had to learn to drive in just one day, proved his ability to alter his style in order to improve. Just two days after the controversial Abu Dhabi race, he participated in his first test as a full-time Mercedes driver, completing 57 laps in a 2019 ‘mule’ car, designed to test new 18” tyres introduced as part of a major technical shake-up for 2022. A Williams insider believes “George will need a few races to adapt to the team and the car itself. Let’s not forget that Lewis has been at the team for almost a decade now. But George will be able to challenge Lewis should the car be competitive enough.”
Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto has claimed the 2022 cars would favour drivers who have recently competed in the junior Formula 2 series due to the cars’ similarities; a championship Russell won. Binotto says “the cars will look more like Formula 2, so whoever was strong in F2 will probably be fast in those cars too”
Russell’s rivalry with his new teammate is conditional on his return. The silence of Hamilton, who missed the 2022 tyre test in order to be knighted, following the season finale has fuelled rampant speculation that the seven-time champion will walk away from the sport entirely. Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff stoked more alarm by telling Sky Sports he had “no assurances” his star driver would return, and that both Hamilton and Wolff himself were “disillusioned” with Formula 1, and, contrary to form, the driver has been absent from all social media. Should he walk away, the loss of the sport’s only black driver in such controversial fashion would hamper the brand of F1 itself, but would elevate Russell to first driver status without even racing the car.
Hamilton’s evolution into the sport’s most senior cultural and social figure has been long in the making. He has repeatedly promoted his own vegan lifestyle, supported the LGBTQ+ community through a specially designed helmet for the Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi races, and campaigned against the effects of climate change, something Formula 1 is not immune from.
In a 2019 sustainability report, FOM, the group responsible for the running of F1, declared F1’s carbon footprint to be over a quarter of a million tonnes, with 45% of emissions caused by transportation between over 20 separate race events around the world. Despite plans to make events “sustainable” by 2025, and reach net-zero emissions by 2030, Liberty Media, F1’s commercial rights-holders, have been criticised for fostering a burgeoning relationship with the Middle East.
Tighter relations with Saudi Arabia’s Aramco has led to the state oil company sponsoring several events, as well as the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, a chaotic event Hamilton noted was “not his choice” to attend. The track, built to be the fastest street race in the world, saw its inaugural F1 race halted twice for major crashes, whilst Enzo Fittipaldi broke his ankle in an F2 support race.
Whilst F1’s future is secure, with all ten teams contracted into the series until at least 2025, the pressure for motorsport’s foremost championship to adopt a more socially aware approach is mounting, led by its most famous export. Hamilton was reprimanded for wearing a t-shirt highlighting the killing of Breonna Taylor last September, leading to new guidelines banning drivers from wearing t-shirts containing political statements whilst on the podium.
Russell has followed Hamilton’s lead in using his platform on social issues, commenting in the wake of George Floyd’s murder that “it’s time we all stand together and kick racism out of our societies for good.” Russell also joined fellow British drivers Norris and Hamilton in taking a knee prior to each race in 2021, something Red Bull driver and Hamilton’s 2021 rival Max Verstappen refused to partake in.
At 10 years old, a young George Russell, Hamilton biography in hand, met his idol at Silverstone. Should Hamilton return to his seat, a quick glance across the garage will present Russell with the familiar purple helmet of the seven-time champion: not his idol, but his equal. With sweeping car changes set to radically change Formula 1 for 2022, Russell’s penchant for learning quickly, as well as his rigorous work ethic and natural speed puts him in pole position to be the one who retires his childhood hero, and succeed Lewis Hamilton as F1’s top British star.