It would be folly to anoint Mercedes new boy Russell as the new king at Mercedes after only five races of the new season
BARCELONA, SPAIN – MAY 20: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes walks in the Paddock prior to practice ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Spain at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on May 20, 2022 in Barcelona, Spain
The expression is unmistakably alpha, all business, the shades adding an aura of seriousness rather than cool. Lewis Hamilton must have been about 10, the age he wrote a note to Ron Dennis at McLaren presaging a golden future. “Hi. I’m Lewis Hamilton. I won the British Championship [karting] and one day I want to be racing your cars.” Write back in nine years came the reply. Ha. As if. It didn’t take Dennis that long to wise up.
Hamilton posted the picture on his Instagram page earlier this week with the caption: “At the end of the day still that same kid.” There are a number of ways to interpret this. One would be as a riposte to those observing Mercedes’ difficult start to the season and inferring the superiority of his team-mate George Russell, who has outscored Hamilton in four of the opening five races and is the only driver to finish every race in the top five.
There is a persuasive charm to Russell, who arrived in Formula One boasting a similarly stellar CV in the junior categories. He is self-evidently quick, but in a season that stretches across 22 grands prix, five races is a small sample. Besides over a single lap, Hamilton has been the quicker, outqualifying Russell 3-2. Indeed at the last race in Miami, Russell could not get out of Q2, a stout illustration of the aero mysteries that have baffled the Mercedes design team, the more so after a Friday practice session during which Russell stuck a Mercedes at the top of the time sheets for the first time this season.
That he would finish a place ahead of his team-mate in the race demonstrates the curse under which Hamilton is operating. The timing of a late safety car allowed Russell to emerge from the pits on fresh boots with the seven-times champion powerless to stop him on old rubber.
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The return to Europe at the Circuit de Catalunya for the Spanish Grand Prix this weekend represents a watershed moment for Mercedes. The porpoising, an exaggerated bouncing phenomenon at high speeds resulting from the radical shift to ground force aerodynamics this season, is a dastardly impediment that is not revealed in the wind tunnel or via computer modelling. Mercedes, the only team to adopt heavily shrunken sidepods, have thus been condemned to weeks of trial and error on track, picking through the debris of each catastrophic grand prix and then trying out new solutions at the next race. If they don’t crack it in Barcelona, the focus will almost certainly shift to next year’s car and possibly the dumping of skinny sidepods theory.
Hamilton has been a victim of the experimentation with Mercedes attempting differing set-up solutions on each car. Russell, as he would readily agree, has had the rub of the green, the fates favouring him whilst dumping on Hamilton.
Welcome to my world, said two-time champion Fernando Alonso in a revealing interview. “He [Hamilton] deserves everything he’s achieved in the past but this year is a good reminder that in all those records and numbers there is a big part on what you have in your hands as a package in the car.
“I still believe Lewis will eventually finish the championship in front [of Russell]. Eventually when things are more tricky or [there are] difficult situations, Lewis will have more experience and maybe more talent.”
Were Alonso to be proved wrong this would not be the first season Hamilton will have lost out to a team-mate. He finished second to Jenson Button in a poor McLaren in 2011 and to Nico Rosberg at Mercedes in 2016. The latter was again a season in which the mechanical failures at Mercedes were visited disproportionately upon Hamilton’s car.
Though Button won the world title in 2009 and Rosberg in 2016, an achievement which left the German so mentally exhausted he immediately retired, both accept Hamilton is on a different plane.
After the 2021 larceny when he lost out to Max Verstappen in that confected finale in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton would have expected revenge this year. Should Mercedes happen across a cure, the deficit to Ferrari and Red Bull is too great, pushing back to 2023 Hamilton’s assault on an unprecedented eighth drivers crown.
Should he achieve that mark it would, perhaps, represent the perfect time to exit the stage.
Either way, after just five races of an arresting campaign it would be folly to anoint young Russell at Hamilton’s expense. Let’s speak again in November.