‘Do not hold up your team-mate’: Lewis Hamilton must prove George Russell has not got his number
The Miami Grand Prix weekend was an odd one for Lewis Hamilton, summing up a trying couple of years at Mercedes. His 13th in qualifying was his worst performance since last year’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, arguably his poorest weekend of 2022 but at a time when Mercedes were still trying to get their heads around the new regulations and their descent down the order.
In contrast to a miserable Sunday at Imola 12 months ago, Hamilton drove a measured and fine race in Miami to finish a creditable sixth, despite battling in the midfield with Haas, Williams and AlphaTauri drivers early on.
But there was an interesting moment during the race when he was asked to move aside for team-mate George Russell, a rare occurrence in the career of Hamilton. In his decade at Mercedes, it has usually been his team-mate making way for him. Of course, the context here is that the two men were on different strategies and were not fighting one another. Hamilton knew that and reluctantly obliged – “he can go by but I’m not backing off though” – for which Russell was thankful: “Thank you very much, very much appreciated.”
After becoming only the third team-mate to beat Hamilton over a season, Russell continues to give the seven-time champion stiff competition in their second season together. Russell is perhaps even the toughest competition Hamilton has faced within a team since his debut year at McLaren alongside Fernando Alonso. This year Russell could make history in becoming the first team-mate to beat the seven-time world champion in two consecutive seasons.
The 25-year-old has a bit of work to do as he trails Hamilton by 16 points in the standings. The story might be different had he not retired from the Australian Grand Prix, having been previously compromised by an early red flag before a power unit failure. But Russell had been the quicker driver that weekend and has had the upper hand over one lap this year. After six qualifying sessions he leads Hamilton 5-1, a noteworthy statistic given the 38-year-old’s place as one of F1’s greatest-ever qualifiers.
So has Russell got Hamilton’s number?
The answer is complicated. There is no doubt that he is as good as equal to Hamilton but there are plenty of caveats to add to the statistics. The 5-1 gap in qualifying is a fact but if you analyse the numbers from an average lap-time perspective rather than a binary “ahead or behind” answer, the gap is just 0.07sec. Hamilton also leads the way in average finishing position, 4.8 to 5.75.
Russell has also been prone to the odd distant weekend. In Azerbaijan he was never really on the pace of his team-mate and finished eighth after being eliminated in Q2. Hamilton has so far benefitted from Russell’s misfortune this year, but he had more than his fair share of bad luck with poorly timed safety cars in 2022.
It does feel like a significant season for Hamilton for several reasons. First, the reality of his once all-conquering team’s position is now starker than it was at any point in the past 12 months. Any hopes he had to put right the wrong of Abu Dhabi 2021 seem fantastically distant. Last year there was at least the – albeit unfulfilled – promise of Mercedes unlocking the true potential of their car and challenging at the front again. There was some progress but the W13’s success was too unpredictable and vague.
The team have finally confronted that reality, dismissing their previous car concept. Again last weekend, team principal Toto Wolff called the W14 a “nasty piece of work”. The Austrian’s brutal honesty is fine, but these apologies and proclamations will not make his drivers feel better or make their cars quicker.
Hamilton, too, has been more open to criticising his team. It is probably best to not interpret that as anything other than understandable frustration. But at least it makes a change from constantly praising the brilliance of his team and the people “back at the factory”.
No team can carry on winning forever. After a significant regulation change in 1998, Williams slipped down the order. They went from winning five constructors’ and four drivers’ titles between 1992 and 1997 to winning just 10 races in the following seven years and not one since 2012. Mercedes’ decline is unlikely to be so precipitous, given the structure of modern F1, but it does illustrate how the winning habit can disappear overnight. Hamilton’s last victory was 29 races ago.
What next for Hamilton?
All this combined raises the question of how Mercedes a) get the best out of their star driver and b) keep hold of him. It is difficult to question his inner motivation but his plight must be deflating. The car in its current state is barely good enough to fight for podiums.
Contrast that to Russell, who after three years in a substandard Williams is in a car much closer to the front. Of course he would rather be in winning machinery, but his position must be relatively novel and easier to stomach. He has plenty of years left in the tank. Does Hamilton?
We are told Hamilton’s new contract is a matter of "just putting a few different numbers in there". But if he was not at least questioning the team and his place in it now, then when?
But where would he go? Red Bull is the only team that would count as an improvement but that is off-limits unless Max Verstappen does the unthinkable and retires. Mercedes might be struggling to challenge Red Bull, but then so is everybody else. Last year he talked earnestly about continuing for years to come but having an uncompetitive car surely changes that equation. What about retirement? Racing has been his life but it is not his entire life.
With all that in mind, what are Hamilton’s motivating factors in 2023? Simply, Russell should have a target on his back. Beating your team-mate is the first priority for any driver and Hamilton is no different. Russell is a fine driver but were Hamilton to be second best again this year, it would be a chip out of his reputation. While Verstappen, his 2021 rival, racks up the victories, seeing off his younger compatriot and doing so comprehensively is the biggest (and perhaps only) win Hamilton can achieve this year.