So the worst-kept secret in Formula 1 is out: George Russell will be a Mercedes-AMG driver beside Sir Lewis Hamilton in 2022, as Valtteri Bottas takes a step or three down the grid to Alfa Romeo. No surprise, of course, especially in the wake of the Bottas move being confirmed just a day after the Dutch Grand Prix. But the confirmation still represents a seismic moment in F1, not only for young Russell but also for Mercedes.
Pause for a moment: the great German manufacturer will be employing an all-British driver line-up for the first time in its long history in grand prix racing. That’s significant and when you take a step back, quite astonishing. But whatever their nationalities, it’s one hell of a juicy driver line-up and that’s what counts more than anything.
One is statistically the most successful in the world championship era, indubitably among the best ever, but who will be 37 next January; the other will be 24 in February, has clear and obvious promise matched to a fierce ambition, but with a few rough edges still to be shaved off. We saw that at Imola earlier this year in his collision with Bottas, and most starkly in his immature response in its aftermath.
A potentially heady brew, then. No wonder Hamilton was said to have wanted the status quo to remain for another year (after all, he could handle Bottas). This is no master and apprentice scenario, that’s for sure. As Sebastian Vettel experienced when Charles Leclerc stepped up at Ferrari, youth has no respect for reputations and past titles. Russell’s Sakhir GP performance last year, when he subbed for a Covid-struck Hamilton, more or less sealed Bottas’s fate in one weekend. He can’t expect to do the same to Hamilton, but he’ll absolutely fancy his chances against his new team-mate, no matter how many race wins and titles stand between them. Add in the new technical regulations that will change the shape and performance of F1 cars next year and the as-yet unknown repercussions that will have for every driver and team on the grid, and there’s much to be excited about.
As for Bottas, he had it coming. Sure, the Finn had his moments racing with the three-pointed star, including nine victories so far. But Nico Rosberg managed that in one season, when he nicked a title off Hamilton in 2016. Bottas deserves respect for his five years of service, but he fell short of what was required to challenge Hamilton week in, week out. Now he has to contemplate life at Sauber (for that is the team he is joining, whatever it says on the side of the car). This will be a test of character that will require him to dig deep for a new form of motivation and prove he remains hungry driving for a team that is unlikely to be challenging for podiums, never mind race victories.
In Bottas, the Swiss squad gains a fantastic barometer by which it can measure precisely where it truly sits in the pecking order, to judge what it does right and more importantly what it needs to improve. That aspect will be stronger than it was with Kimi Räikkönen, another Finn who stepped down from a race-winning car. The difference this time is Bottas is 10 years younger (he’s still only 32), is coming from the fantastic operation that is Mercedes-AMG and should have a greater desire to prove his critics wrong than his famously laconic countryman.