George Russell enters high-profile role at Mercedes, ‘inspired’ by Lewis Hamilton

George Russell Mercedes Bahrain

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, 24, 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,” 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 also will 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 preseason 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 a.m.,” 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 likely would have won if not for a badly timed pit stop that was entirely the team’s fault.

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 Russell 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.”

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images

Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.