Since becoming teammates at Mercedes in 2017, Lewis Hamilton of England and Valtteri Bottas of Finland have formed one of the most successful driver pairings in Formula 1 history.
Together, they have scored 57 race victories and won four team championships for Mercedes. Hamilton has also won the drivers’ title every season they have raced together.
But their partnership will end in 2022, because Mercedes this year signed George Russell of England, who currently races for Williams, to replace Bottas, 32. It signals a big change for Mercedes.
“It’s pretty surreal, to be honest,” Russell, 23, said about the move. “I’ve been part of Mercedes for so long now. I joined as a junior driver and came through the ranks.
“At Williams, Mercedes oversaw everything and managed me, so in a way I am almost returning back to where I started my journey towards Formula 1.”
Mercedes first took an interest in Russell when he requested a meeting with Toto Wolff, the team principal, at the age of 15 after winning a Formula 4 championship. Russell turned up to the meeting alone and wearing a suit, before showing a PowerPoint presentation explaining why he could be a successful Mercedes driver in the future.
When he was 18, Russell joined the Mercedes junior driver program before winning titles in GP3 and Formula 2, the categories below Formula 1.
Russell moved into Formula 1 with Williams, which uses Mercedes engines, in 2019. The team finished last in the championship for his first two seasons as it struggled with an uncompetitive car. Russell did not score any points for Williams until this year’s Hungarian Grand Prix.
But Russell won acclaim from his Formula 1 rivals as he regularly outperformed the capabilities of the Williams car. His performances were enough to convince Mercedes that it was time to put its faith in him.
An unexpected opportunity to see what Russell could do in a Mercedes arose at last year’s Sakhir Grand Prix in Bahrain. After Hamilton tested positive for Covid-19, Russell replaced him for the race.
Russell had not driven the Mercedes car and had to wear boots one size too small so he could fit into the cockpit that was designed for Hamilton, who is four inches shorter than Russell.
After qualifying second behind Bottas, Russell took the lead at the start of the Grand Prix and dominated before a pit error by the team dropped him to fifth. He fought back to second, but a tire puncture cost him time and he finished ninth.
The performance showed Russell’s potential, but the decision to sign him for 2022 was not easy for Mercedes. Wolff said that Bottas had been “an integral part of the team’s success over the last five years.” Bottas will join Alfa Romeo’s Formula 1 team for 2022.
Wolff felt that signing Russell was a chance to “rejuvenate the team by transitioning into the next generation,” noting that many of the team’s rivals have young drivers in their lineups. Max Verstappen of Red Bull and Charles Leclerc of Ferrari are both 24. McLaren has Lando Norris, who is 21.
“You can see that in most of the other top teams, there is a young driver with potential,” Wolff said. “We opted for George to see how he can learn from Lewis. He has a lot of ability and talent. He is very ambitious. And when you look at his career record, he’s really among the best of his generation.”
Russell looked up to Hamilton, 36, when he was a child. Their first encounter came when Hamilton was a guest at Russell’s go-kart race when he was 11. He said meeting Hamilton was “like meeting a superhero” and helped inspire him to become a Formula 1 driver.
Hamilton said he believed that “fresh blood” at Mercedes would be a good thing. “That definitely will energize the whole team, knowing they have a new youngster coming through who’s super hungry, driven and will be pushing the team forward,” he said.
Other Formula 1 drivers predicted that Russell would be a bigger threat to Hamilton than Bottas, who has given up position to his teammate under instruction from the team and scored just 10 of their combined 57 wins.
Hamilton’s championship rival, Verstappen, said Russell could “make it very difficult” for Hamilton next year. Fernando Alonso of Spain, who drives for Alpine, said racing with Russell would “for sure be more challenging for Lewis than with Valtteri.”
Jost Capito, the team principal of Williams, always hoped that his driver would get the chance to join Mercedes. “He is ready for this,” Capito said. “After three years at Williams and showing what he could do last year in the Mercedes, he deserves it.”
Capito said Russell had been a great team player for Williams. He was confident that Russell could “more than challenge” Hamilton at Mercedes and fight for the championship next year.
“I’m sure George is not going there to be No. 2,” Capito added.
Mercedes had its drivers go head-to-head for the championship from 2014 to 2016, when Hamilton’s teammate was Nico Rosberg. The two drivers crashed together on multiple occasions. Rosberg retired at the end of 2016 after winning the championship.
Wolff doubted that there would be a repeat of such friction between Hamilton and Russell. “The situation with Nico and Lewis was very much influenced by lots of history,” Wolff said. “We are better equipped, better prepared, and a team with a very strong bond.
“We know what we have in Lewis, and we always protect our relationship. George will slot in just good. I have no doubt about that.”
Mercedes has always ensured that its drivers get equal chances to win races and championships. Russell said it had been made clear that he would be “on level terms” with Hamilton next season. But he was also conscious of the challenge he faced alongside a driver who has won seven titles and 100 Grands Prix.
“I’m under no illusion of how tough that’s going to be,” Russell said. “We all know how strong Lewis is. In my opinion, he’s probably the greatest driver of all time. He’s a seven-time world champion for a reason, so I’m in an incredibly fortunate position that I can go in and learn from the best.”
Russell hoped the tough times he went through with Williams in the early part of his Formula 1 career would serve him well in dealing with future challenges.
“Jumping into a race-winning car which is really dialed in, and the team are at the top of their game, it’s in some ways quite straightforward for the driver,” he said.
“Nobody runs through their whole career with no difficulties. You’re always going to have to face it at some point.”
Russell will not depart Williams without some success. His input into the development of the team’s car has helped it become competitive this year, putting it on course for its best season since 2017 and in a stronger position for the future.
Williams scored its first finish on the podium in over four years in August’s Belgian Grand Prix because of Russell. His qualifying lap in wet conditions meant Russell started the Grand Prix in second, a position he held after the race was called off after just two laps because of torrential rain.
“The guys here have worked so hard, week in, week out, to improve the car slowly across this time,” Russell said. “I’ll always look back on this time now and say it was three tough years, but we came away with a podium, a front-row start and a Top 3 in qualifying.
“The team really seems to be taking a positive stride at the moment. I’m sure they’re on their way forwards.”