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George Russell

What could the Hamilton/Verstappen battle mean for Russell's Mercedes future?

Following the controversial incident between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen at the British Grand Prix, some have questioned whether their rivalry could become like the bitter one Hamilton shared with former teammate Nico Rosberg. Bearing this in mind, does this suggest there could be fireworks if George Russell joins Mercedes in 2022?

Analysis
To news overview © Williams

Tensions between 2021 title rivals Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen finally boiled over at the British Grand Prix. Their first-lap clash proved very controversial; Verstappen crashed out heavily and required medical checks in hospital - though was fortunately okay - whilst Hamilton received a 10-second penalty for his part in what happened but still went on to win the race.

The incident had huge consequences, not just in the Grand Prix but for the World Championship and perhaps for the relationship between the pair too. In fact, there have been suggestions from some that the rivalry could now become like the famously bitter one that developed between Hamilton and his former Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg. Former F1 driver Jolyon Palmer is amongst those who can see this happening.

"When Nico Rosberg and Hamilton first touched in their rivalry it was the start of a sequence of clashes and high tensions that remained until Rosberg’s retirement," Palmer said in his column for Formula1.com.

"Here, with different teams at play into the bargain, I fully expect even more fireworks moving forward."

Palmer also added: "The drivers had been toying with mind games earlier on, but remained respectful on track. That respect seems to be gone now, and I can only see this getting more needly from here on."

It is easy to see why the Hamilton/Verstappen rivalry is now drawing this comparison. Yet one of the areas where this differs to the Rosberg relationship is that each driver is at a different stage of their career; the much-romanticised old guard versus the young pretender is playing out between the vastly experienced Hamilton and the younger Verstappen, determined to secure his first ever World Championship.

Taking this into account, it is interesting to consider the implications should 23-year-old George Russell join Mercedes as Hamilton’s teammate in 2022, where that same kind of dynamic between the generations could play out - and potentially blend with the added element of a teammate rivalry that previously took place with Rosberg. Arguably, putting these two ingredients together could be a recipe for disaster, certainly in terms of how many headaches it could give Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff.

Yet the younger/older driver dynamic doesn’t always spell trouble. There have been occasions where it has worked, at least off track even if not always on. Felipe Massa saw Michael Schumacher as his mentor at Ferrari during their time as teammates in 2006. And despite the occasional 'moment' whilst racing, Charles Leclerc recently spoke about his good relationship with Sebastian Vettel, who he viewed as an "older brother" figure whilst racing together between 2019 and 2020. The Monegasque says that they have maintained a friendliness between them, despite Leclerc's high level of performance arguably being a key factor in the Scuderia's decision to drop Vettel.

However, it is perhaps hard to imagine such a dynamic developing with Hamilton and Russell. Hamilton might be of the 'older' generation but has made it clear - as Silverstone showed - that he is in no way slowing down or becoming less determined. In light of recent comments from Bernie Ecclestone suggesting that Hamilton is no longer the "fighter that he was", the Mercedes driver fired back: "I’m definitely not the driver I was when I started. I think I’m better and I know myself way more than I ever did."

Russell too has demonstrated this level of hunger and passion, and in fact this was nearly the undoing of him at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, where he became visibly furious after crashing with Valtteri Bottas mid-way through the race. The British driver went on to make cutting comments after the event, but later apologised to his fans as well as Bottas for his behaviour. He recently admitted that it had been a big lesson for him in how to deal with such incidents and how to handle himself, which will surely serve him well in the future, especially if he were to join a big team.

Yet, like Verstappen, Russell is still young and is unlikely to be immune to further incidents happening. He didn’t want to relent in the battle with Bottas - would he really want to if fighting with Hamilton, given the huge opportunity this would offer to prove he is the equal of a driver deemed one of the best of all time?

Another interesting aspect to consider here is the relationship so far between Hamilton and Russell in contrast to how Hamilton has interacted with other younger drivers. The point was raised during a recent discussion on the F1 Nation podcast that, whilst Hamilton has been vocal in his praise of Lando Norris - even going as far as to compliment him over team radio at the Austrian Grand Prix - he has appeared to be less so of Russell, who stood in for Hamilton at Mercedes when he was unable to race due to coronavirus at the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix.

"Is Lewis bigging up Lando Norris just to raise a few questions in Toto's head?" Formula 1 journalist Tom Clarkson said. "Because I think Lewis would love to have Valtteri Bottas next to him, because he's a known quantity, and in fact Valtteri did a very good race in Austria, because when it didn't work for Lewis after he had those aerodynamic issues, he was there to take the second place.

"I'm just wondering if Lewis is bowling a googly [by praising Norris]. I don't know, it did seem strange."

F1 presenter Natalie Pinkham added: "I would have loved it if Lewis had complimented George after he stepped in for him at the end of last season. That would have been really big and he was noticeably quiet."

			© Mercedes
	© Mercedes

Of course Norris has been one of the stars of the 2021 season so far, so it is understandable that Hamilton would compliment him. But arguably there have been several impressive showings from Russell too; even Fernando Alonso has openly called him a future World Champion. Yet Hamilton has not really voiced any praise for Russell. Could this reflect his feelings about the prospect of them driving together at Mercedes in the future?

Hamilton has also taken every opportunity to praise Bottas for being a great teammate, such as after Silverstone where the Finn moved aside to let Hamilton charge to the front. The feeling, as Clarkson said, is that Hamilton would very much like Bottas to stay.

However, the fact that the multiple World Champion recently signed a contract extension to keep him in Formula 1 for another two years shows he is up for more challenges, like that posed by Verstappen in this year's intense title fight. In fact the rivalry has made him even more keen to stay, which suggests that the possibility of an inter-team battle with Russell might only make Hamilton even hungrier.

Mercedes have yet to confirm who will drive alongside Hamilton next year, with Wolff saying that they will make a decision over the upcoming summer break in August, yet there are some in the paddock who believe that the plan to bring Russell to the Silver Arrows in 2022 is already done. The thought of Hamilton possibly having another fierce rivalry alongside that with Verstappen is a tantalising prospect for Formula 1 fans. It would be fascinating to know though whether, in light of what happened at Silverstone, this idea is sitting okay with Wolff, who is probably keen to avoid a replication of the toxic Hamilton/Rosberg relationship.

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