There’s a power vacuum coming at the top of Formula 1. Since the start of the 2014 season, Lewis Hamilton has won six of seven drivers’ championships and 77 of the 148 races in which he’s participated, a stunning 52 percent success rate. He’s set or tied all-time records for wins, pole positions, championships, and podium finishes. But the 36-year-old has also flirted with retirement once, after last season, and it’s clear that someday in the not-too-distant future he’ll see fit to walk away from the series he’s dominated for the past 15 years.
The leading candidate to fill that vacuum is Red Bull driver Max Verstappen, who’s currently giving Hamilton the toughest title challenge he’s faced in years. Or Charles Leclerc, who grew up in the shadow of Formula 1’s most iconic circuit and whose stunning exploits convinced Ferrari, the sport’s winningest team, to cut ties with four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel in order to build around the Monegasque youngster.
But in a Thursday press conference ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix, both Verstappen and Leclerc endorsed another 23-year-old, George Russell, as a potential championship contender. Russell races for eighth-place Williams, but has been in the Mercedes developmental pipeline for years and is represented by Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff (which is allowed in the complicated, sometimes incestuous world of F1).
Mercedes has yet to announce who will be Hamilton’s teammate in 2022—Russell or five-year incumbent Valtteri Bottas—and the pair deflected questions about it when they appeared together in front of the media this week. But the wind seems to have shifted in Russell’s direction, and the young English driver is touted as the man who can win championships for Mercedes after Hamilton retires.
“We [drivers] all have an overall goal, which is to become world champion,” Russell told me via Zoom after his press conference. “For me, I never want to think too much about this or dream too much about this because the only way I would achieve that is if I take everything race by race. If I do the best job tomorrow in practice, that will set me up to do the best job possible on Saturday and Sunday. If I do the best job possible on Saturday and Sunday and build on that momentum, then the opportunities will come and I’ll find myself in a car capable of winning world championships.”
That type of momentum is easier to see in Verstappen and Leclerc—both multiple race winners who have already taken the fight to Hamilton on the track. Russell, meanwhile, has finished in the top 10 just twice in 49 Formula 1 starts, and he currently ranks 16th out of 20 drivers with four points—which would be the best finishing position and points total of his career.
Russell’s F1 race results don’t give much of an indication as to why Mercedes and Wolff view him as a potential world champion. Verstappen won his first F1 race at age 18. Hamilton and Vettel were both world champions by the time they were Russell’s age. So why would Mercedes even consider cashiering a proven race winner like Bottas for a youngster who’s never finished higher than eighth in an F1 race? Answering that question requires a closer look at Russell’s career.
Russell made his debut in race cars at age 16, driving in Formula 4. At that level—and all levels below Formula 1—cars feature common engine and chassis specifications. Some teams are better funded and more competent than others, but there’s much more parity there than at the highest level, which puts more emphasis on the drivers’ skill and savvy.
In his first Formula 4 season, Russell won the championship. The next two seasons he competed in Formula 3, where he attracted the attention of Mercedes and signed to the team’s developmental program. He then won the 2017 GP3 title at age 19, scoring half again as many points as his nearest rival, current Williams reserve driver Jack Aitken. And the year after that, he moved up to Formula 2 and absolutely demolished a field that included Aitken, Nicholas Latifi, Formula E champion Nyck de Vries, and Russell’s future F1 rivals Lando Norris and Alexander Albon. Winning that series is a near-certain ticket into F1—previous champions include Leclerc, Alpha Tauri race winner Pierre Gasly, F1 lifers Romain Grosjean and Nico Hulkenberg, and world champions Hamilton and Nico Rosberg—and it was for Russell as well. Mercedes worked out a deal to loan Russell to Williams for 2019, and the driver got his first taste of Formula 1.
From the early 1980s through the mid-2000s, Williams was one of the most successful teams on the grid. They won seven world drivers’ championships in that span with seven different drivers, including Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, and Nelson Piquet. Despite lacking the industrial resources of a team like Ferrari, Williams spent decades pushing the technological envelope in order to compete with—and indeed become one of—the giants of the sport.
But as technology advanced and costs rose in the 21st century, Williams fell off the pace. It hasn’t won a race since 2012 or a title since 1997, and in the intervening years has seen most of its senior leadership—including legendary founder Sir Frank Williams—retire or move on, leaving the team in dire competitive and financial straits. The 2019 team didn’t even finish its car in time to participate at the start of preseason testing, and the 10 points Russell and Latifi pulled in at the Hungaroring a month ago are more than Williams had scored in the previous three and a half seasons combined.
Last year, the Williams family sold the team to an American private equity firm, which has slowly been rebuilding the organization from the ground up. And the results have so far been promising.
“We’ve just managed to keep on chipping away at the small things, and when the small things add up, you find a lot,” Russell says. “Also, I’m improving as well on the technical side—how to extract more from the team, from the car, from the tires, and everything’s just coming together nicely at the moment.”
Unlike team sports, or even NASCAR or IndyCar in which equipment is more standardized, Formula 1 is more an engineering challenge than it is a driving challenge. Drivers without a competitive car can’t hope for much more than a safe finish, and the Williams cars of Russell’s early tenure weren’t competitive. In 2019, he and then-teammate Robert Kubica were routinely a second a lap slower than their competitors (during our interview, Russell recounted being lapped three times in his first F1 race). And in 2020, he’d occasionally be able to sneak into the top 15 in qualifying before falling back during the race.
But in 2021, Williams built a car that’s been able to exploit Russell’s strength in qualifying. Equipped with the same engine package that’s in Hamilton’s Mercedes, the 2021 Williams employs an aerodynamically sensitive design that’s tricky to operate in traffic but can be quite fast in the clearer air of qualifying. That’s allowed Russell to get far enough up the grid to capitalize in the event of bad weather or an early crash—or both, which happened in Hungary. In addition to his points finish there, Russell qualified a career-best ninth in Austria and nearly stayed in the top 10 until the checkered flag.
Without a car he can put at the front of the grid, all Russell can do is continue making incremental improvements until his big break comes.
“It’s like a baby growing,” he says. “If you’re with the baby every day, you don’t really see the change. But if you’re a distant family member and you’re away for a few months, you come back and see the baby’s grown a lot. So here we are, this is our baby.”
Russell is quite cognizant of what he’s gained in his two and a half years at the back of the pack. He credits Kubica with teaching him how to understand the engineering side of the sport better. And despite his lack of flashy results, he’s developed as a leader, both inside the team and among his peers. In March, Russell was elected to the board of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, the Formula 1 drivers’ trade union.
“I’m sure I’ll probably look back in 10 years’ time and say these years did me a lot of good because it made me more resilient,” he says. “It taught me how to deal with a difficult car and how to deal with the team morale side of things when dealing with difficult situations. On the whole, it’s been a fantastic experience.”
But Russell can afford to be only so patient. Even at 23, he knows how quickly the shine can wear off a star of the future. The winning driver in Hungary, Alpine’s Esteban Ocon, was Mercedes and Wolff’s star pupil just two years ago, but his first F1 win was something of a comeback story even though he’s only 24.
“If you’re a football player inside the top 20 best in the world, and you go through half a season on bad performance, you might drop outside the top 20 but the following year you’re back inside the top 10,” he says. “As a race driver, you drop outside the top 20 and there’s someone else who comes into the championship and replaces you. And you’re out of the sport and you might never get back in.”
The paucity of open seats, particularly at the front of the grid, explains why Russell has remained at Williams so long. And his performance when he does get to compete on equal terms explains why Mercedes is still interested in bringing him in.
Given how much drivers are limited (or helped) by the cars they drive, Russell’s closest competition since joining F1 has been his own teammates. These are the only people he races against on equal footing. And he’s annihilated them.
Russell out-qualified his teammate in 48 out of 49 F1 appearances, including the first 36 races of his career. That’s by far the longest streak ever to start a career, and tied for the third-longest ever. The only two drivers with longer streaks are Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna.
The one exception to Russell’s otherwise perfect record came in last year’s Sakhir Grand Prix. Ahead of that race, Hamilton tested positive for COVID, so Mercedes recalled Russell from his loan in order to fill in. “I was very fortunate to get the opportunity, and I thought we did a good job, considering the circumstances,” says Russell.
Those circumstances: On less than a week’s notice, Russell jumped into a car he’d never driven before, on a track that had never been used in F1. Making matters worse, he didn’t fit comfortably into Hamilton’s car. Hamilton and Bottas are both at least 4 inches shorter than Russell, and while Mercedes had previously built him a custom seat, he says the measurements it used were three years old. He also had to wear racing boots that were a size too small in order to operate the pedals.
And yet he qualified second, less than three hundredths of a second behind Bottas, then passed his new teammate at the first corner of the race itself. He was on course for his first F1 win, and an easy one at that, until a late pit-stop snafu dropped him to fifth. Even then, he passed Bottas again, and was threatening to retake the lead before a flat tire forced him to make yet another pit stop and took him out of contention for good. While Russell’s credentials in the junior series and in qualifying had been impeccable, nobody had seen him put together a comprehensive performance in a top-tier car before. The Sakhir Grand Prix erased those doubts.
“It was just refreshing to know, in my mind, that given the opportunity, I could do it,” says Russell. “When we have a good weekend and we qualify 11th and finish 12th, there’s always that small doubt. … Could Hamilton or Verstappen have done a better job if they were in the Williams? Getting that opportunity in the Mercedes made me believe that actually, when I believe I’ve done a good job then we probably have done a good job.”
Calls for Mercedes to replace Bottas had been percolating in the background since 2019, and they only intensified after Russell’s cameo in black. He’d proved that he could hold his own in front-of-the-pack traffic, and that even with minimal preparation he could keep up with Bottas. With a full offseason under his belt—to say nothing of shoes that fit—perhaps he could push Hamilton in a way Bottas never had. But Wolff had already extended Bottas’s contract, and rather than rip it up he sent Russell back to Williams for at least one more year.
Nothing that’s happened so far this year has doused the rumors that Russell will be in a Mercedes next season. While Russell has continued growing his proverbial baby, Bottas has had his worst season of his Mercedes career. After finishing second to Hamilton in 2019 and 2020, Bottas is currently a distant fourth and has just one pole position and zero race wins. Nevertheless, Wolff and Mercedes have refused to name Hamilton’s partner for 2022; in June, Wolff joked that he might wait until winter to make a final decision. So momentum or not, Russell is facing the possibility of waiting yet another year for his chance to win races.
“If next year I’m sat here in a Williams car, I’d be so excited to continue this journey, because I really think Williams are going to be a force to be reckoned with in the future,” he says. “If not, I’ll be incredibly proud to know that I’ve helped push this team back up the grid.”
It’s an equanimous viewpoint from a young driver who’s had to wait so long for his shot in a winning car. Particularly since he’s used to getting to his destinations quickly.