George Russell proves he’s ready to replace Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes as F1 testing moment speaks volumes

Lewis Hamilton will leave Mercedes at the end of the 2024 F1 season to join Ferrari

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With Lewis Hamilton on his way out and Mercedes no longer expected to dominate Formula 1 like they used to, there is arguably no better time for George Russell to prepare for the peak years of his career by becoming the team’s leading driver.

The 26-year-old has watched his friends from karting reach the heights in their respective teams, with Max Verstappen a three-time world champion at Red Bull and Charles Leclerc celebrating five race wins with Ferrari.

Now into his third season with the Silver Arrows, the young driver tag is fading away – and Russell knows the responsibility of taking the team forwards will rest mainly on his shoulders when Hamilton swaps Brackley for Maranello.

The Kings Lynn-born racer has already showcased his maturity with his assessment of Mercedes’ prospects ahead of the season during F1 testing in Bahrain.

Russell is always eloquent and articulate in front of the microphone, but there was a sense of leadership in how he spoke about the team’s efforts in constructing a W15 car that tackles their issues from 2022 and 2023.

George Russell at the Mercedes end-of-season photoshoot at the 2023 Abu Dhabi GP | LAT Images / Mercedes F1 Team

A mature head on young shoulders

“The car last year was really challenging to drive, Lewis and I had no confidence in it like it was going to bite us every single corner,” Russell said during the drivers’ conference.

“We can attack for the medium and high speed corners without the rear end snapping out, and we feel like we’ve made a really good step in terms of the consistency of the car, we can really lean on it better than we’ve been able to in the past.

“And this was a huge focus throughout last year, we saw many flaws with the W14, which the team have done a really great job to rectify.

“We’ve now got a car mechanically where the aero guys can go and focus on just building downforce upon that, whereas in the past, whatever we did aerodynamically there were underlying issues with the race car that took a while to understand and solve.

“When the car feels nice but it’s not quite on the pace, you just need to find downforce in the right places.”

Focusing on the positives and showing his appreciation for the guys at the factory? Perhaps being Hamilton’s team-mate has rubbed off on Russell more than we thought, because that line is right out of the Hamilton playbook. His main challenge for 2024 is matching or beating Hamilton in his final season with the Silver Arrows to prove he is ready.

Toto Wolff’s secret plan

By his own admission, Russell spent “a lot of time” with Toto Wolff through the winter break, groomed by the Austrian supremo into another role model to be the face of the team.

Hamilton’s departure has thrown up a nightmare scenario for the team and they needed to recalibrate, but Wolff’s plan may be as simple as replacing him with a young driver, promoting Russell and waiting to see how he copes.

It’s too early to say whether he will give a seat to Andrea Kimi Antonelli, the 17-year-old sensation who is set to drive in Formula 2 for PREMA Racing, having been a part of the Mercedes young driver programme since he was 12.

He needs a full season in a challenging environment before he can think about cutting it at the highest level in F1, but there is excitement that he could be the ‘next gen’ version of Verstappen.

George Russell and Toto Wolff | Mercedes F1 Team

Then there is Fernando Alonso, a driver who continues to defy his ripe age of 42 with incredible speed. But having one year of Alonso, who would almost certainly demand to be the team’s No.1 driver if he were to leave Aston Martin, might not be worth it if it means antagonising Russell.

The low-risk option is for Mercedes to put their eggs in the Briton’s basket and hire one of Wolff’s former proteges to keep him on his toes. Esteban Ocon, Mick Schumacher and Carlos Sainz would no doubt jump at the chance to secure a seat with the German manufacturer.

But they look in safe hands with Russell, who has already broken his duck with his maiden success in Brazil in 2022. A committed and determined driver desperate to bring the glory days back to Brackley and show he is the rightful heir to Hamilton’s throne.

Joe Krishnan
Joe Krishnan
Joe Krishnan is an NCTJ-qualified journalist who has worked for a number of media organisations, including the Daily Express, The Mirror, Evening Standard, The Independent and Bleacher Report. Joe has been following F1 since when he watched Mika Hakkinen clinch the 1999 drivers' championship, and his first taste of real-life racing action was watching David Coulthard spin off into the gravel at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in 2001.
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