George Russell won a Formula 1 race in his first season with a competitive team, but it still somehow felt overdue. Russell came so close at the end of the 2020 season, coming one "colossal" Mercedes mistake away from taking a race win in his lone appearance with the team as a relief driver. His breakthrough at Interlagos late last year has felt inevitable since that day.
This is the seventeenth installment of our driver-by-driver preview of the 2022 Formula 1 season. This weekend, we will be covering Mercedes. You can find the rest of our previews here.
Now that he is a winner, and now that Mercedes has been able to spend an offseason trying to solve the issues that kept their 2022 challenger from fighting for wins until the end of the season, Russell's future is wide open. He has tough competition both inside and outside his team, but he could be a champion as soon as this year.
HOW HE GOT HERE
Although Charles Leclerc can give him an admirable run for his money, George Russell had the best junior career of anyone to enter Formula 1 in the past decade. His record is almost spotless: A championship in his only season in British Formula 4, finishes of 6th and 3rd in his two seasons in the now-defunct Formula 3 Europe, a championship on debut in GP3 (now Formula 3) and a championship on debut in Formula 2. While he didn't win his one attempt at the Macau Grand Prix, he did start that 2016 race from pole.
All of that made Leclerc an exceptionally prestigious prospect when he joined Williams in 2019. Unfortunately for him, that era of Williams was unprepared to give a young prospect a shot to fight for anything notable. His best finish that season was an 11th, completing the season without a single point.
2020 was more encouraging, even as Russell once again did not score a single point in the Williams. The highlight came in the second race at Bahrain, a race 2020 champion Lewis Hamilton missed after testing positive for COVID-19. Russell stepped up and fought for the win in his first-ever race in a competitive F1 car, a win he would've had if not for a mistake on the pit lane. He followed that up with another competitive year in an underperforming Williams, then finally joined Mercedes full time in 2022.
HOW 2022 WENT
Although the Mercedes W13 struggled badly with porpoising and was uncompetitive until the final months of the season, George Russell spent 2022 finding ways to impress. He finished in the top five in all but two races on the season, securing eight podiums and a win on his way to fourth in the driver's standings. Most significantly, he also outscored teammate and seven-time series champion Lewis Hamilton by 35 points.
Given the struggles Mercedes had throughout the season, it was a stellar first year with the team. Mercedes is a hyper-ambitious team that has long since fully committed its resources to fighting for wins and championships every year; if they live up to their own standards this year, both Russell and Hamilton will win multiple races.
GOALS FOR 2023
Now that Russell is a winner, his goal is to win more. If he does that enough, his goal will quickly become winning his first career championship.
The unorthodox relationship between Russell and the legendary Hamilton within the team means that he cannot become a true #1 driver at the team simply by routinely outrunning his teammate, but he can consistently push for wins and can force his way into a championship fight in his own right. Russell will have to expect that Hamilton would be the team's preference to win a title in a fair fight at the end of a season, but if he wins more than his teammate over the course of a year it is entirely possible that he could be the only Mercedes driver fighting for a championship late in the year. Whether or not that happens now, long-term commitments from Mercedes seem to suggest that he will be fighting for titles for years to come.
A SUCCESSFUL SEASON LOOKS LIKE...
If Mercedes once again has a car capable of competing for a title, a successful season is one in which Russell outscores at least one of Verstappen, Hamilton, and Leclerc. He is expected to belong in that circle of championship-level drivers sooner than later, and he already accomplished that goal when he beat his teammate last season.
That does not change how tall the ask is. George Russell is competing at the very top of the grid in a unique situation, as a clear future lead driver in a traditionally-oriented team currently asked to work alongside a living legend that still has years of title fights left in the tank. At this point, he is expected to impress and expected to keep improving. Like the goals Mercedes sets for himself, those expectations are lofty.
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