In the midst of ‘silly season’ no seat has been so hotly contested as that of the second Mercedes for 2022. The two drivers seemingly in consideration for the seat are George Russell and Valtteri Bottas. Both drivers had very different experiences in this weekend’s Hungarian GP, which may have influenced decision-makers as to who is ultimately signed.
The former scored his first points for his team, Williams, after landing 9th position (later increased to 8th after Vettel’s disqualification), whereas the latter made a big mistake in lap one which caused a collision that took out five cars and damaged several others.
Current leaders in both the constructor and driver championships, Mercedes is one of the most competitive teams in F1, and their star driver Lewis Hamilton is set to return to his guaranteed seat after signing a two-year contract in July that keeps him with the Silver Arrows until 2023. The second seat, currently held by Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas, is less secure – Mercedes must consider who would work well in partnership with Hamilton and make the best decision for their future as a team.
George Russell appears to be the favourite to replace Bottas, and as a Mercedes junior driver hand-picked by boss Toto Wolff, a move to Mercedes in 2022 is a real possibility for the 23-year-old Brit. Russell himself has added fuel to these rumours as despite refusing to disclose whether a deal has yet been made, his coy, giggly reactions to questioning and insistence that next year he will be driving with a Mercedes engine could equally suggest signing a new contract or remaining with the Williams team.
The recent Grand Prix at the Hungaroring may have worked in his favour, finally securing points for Williams, showcasing his talent and skill as a driver in only his third F1 season after winning GP2 prior in his maiden season. Russell has been praised for pushing what is considered to be one of the worst cars on the grid to consistently high qualifying positions and often finishing just below the middle of the grid. Russell also got to demonstrate what he could be capable of in a Mercedes when he stood in for Hamilton in the 2020 Sakhir GP and arguably would have won if not for a failed pit-stop and puncture which left him in 9th. It did however allow Russell, now in an equally powerful car, to be directly compared with current Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas.
Part of the Mercedes team since 2017, Bottas has helped Hamilton and the team win consecutive drivers and constructors championships every year since his arrival and has reached pole position in nine races himself. His experience and track record certainly makes him the most sensible decision for Mercedes going forward into 2022, as in comparison to Russell’s 7-lifetime points, Bottas stuns with his career total of 1,620 – results that demonstrate how shocking it would be if Mercedes were to replace Bottas with the young Russell.
On the other hand, however, there has been an apparent drop in performance from Bottas this year, not yet achieving pole position and despite consistent podiums is currently fourth in the driver standings with McLaren’s Lando Norris currently claiming third.
With Mercedes seeing some real competition for the first time in years in the form of Red Bull’s Verstappen, their team may well be compromised by a flagging Bottas who has been known to ignore team orders in frustration at playing subordinate to Hamilton. Russell contrastingly displayed his willingness to sacrifice his performance for that of the team on Sunday as he insisted: “Prioritise Nicky… You can compromise my race” – something that may well have impressed Mercedes bosses.
They might plan to allow Russell to learn alongside star and mentor Hamilton in the 2022 season – one that will be characterised by huge change as an overhaul of technical regulations will see many teams with new (and hopefully improved) cars. A young and enthusiastic driver might be just what Mercedes need to grow with this new car from the beginning. Equally, Russell’s clear emotion at Williams finally gaining their first team points may suggest a wish to follow through his hard work with the growing team and see them improve even further under the new rules.
With Wolff stating a decision will be made ‘in the summer’, many will be waiting in anticipation as to whether the team will go with experience and stability in Bottas or innovation and youth in Russell.
Image: Artes Max via Flickr