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George Russell

Why Russell may fall victim to the Verstappen hunt at Mercedes

Toto Wolff is not hiding it: Max Verstappen is at the top of Mercedes' priority list. However, with Andrea Kimi Antonelli also in the mix, the possible consequences for George Russell have not yet been fully appreciated.

Russell Miami
To news overview © XPBimages

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff believes Max Verstappen is the key to the F1 driver market. 

The Austrian will lose Lewis Hamilton to Ferrari at the end of the year and must search for a suitable replacement to slot in alongside George Russell for the 2025 season.

The ongoing situation at Red Bull plays into Wolff's hands and he is not missing an opportunity to mention Verstappen and how much he would like to bring the reigning world champion to Mercedes.

However, it remains unlikely that Verstappen will leave Red Bull prior to the start of the next F1 regulations cycle, in 2026, if at all - the Dutchman is contracted to the team until the end of 2028.

The Milton Keynes-based outfit has the fastest car within the current regulations and will most likely compete for both titles next year as well. 

Adrian Newey may be leaving Red Bull, but most of the rest of the key players appear to be staying put. Technical director Pierre Waché extended his contract, whilst chatter around the futures of Christian Horner and Helmut Marko have died down of late.

2026, however, is a different story. Then the regulations will go through a major overhaul and Red Bull will build its own power unit for the first time. 

There are rumours that the Red Bull Powertrains engine is not yet performing as hoped, and if Verstappen gets cold feet, Mercedes will be on of the best options open to him. The Brackley-based team dominated for years when the V6 engines were introduced in 2014.

The protégé

George Russell is currently firmly in the saddle at Mercedes. The Briton has a contract through the end of 2025 and could well become Verstappen's team-mate next season, if the Dutchman makes an earlier-than-anticipated switch. However, a move after that point could have much more implications for his position...

That is due to another top talent, Mercedes junior Andrea Kimi Antonelli. The 17-year-old Italian is a key protagonist in how Mercedes' driver line-up will be shaped in coming years. He is highly regarded by Wolff, who appears conscious of losing him in the way he did Verstappen a decade ago.

Antonelli made his debut in Formula 2 this year, is currently taking part in an extensive test plan in old Mercedes cars, and is even already being mentioned at Williams as a replacement for Logan Sargeant.

Further still, that speculation is linking Antonelli to the Williams seat this year, not just for next season as well. After all, a super licence dispensation request has already been submitted to the FIA and should that fail, Antonelli will turn 18 at the Dutch Grand Prix, meaning he could make his F1 debut at the following round, the Italian Grand Prix.

This could end up being an important test towards 2025 and 2026, although the first season may not be a viable option if Antonelli has not made his F1 debut by then.

Even Antonelli is not able to get the requisite experience and is judged not ready by Mercedes for a seat in 2025, that does not mean 2026 is completely out of the equation. Provided nothing crazy happens or that Antonelli fails to perform as expected, it seems more of a question of when, not if, he will be in the Mercedes.

Precarious position

Therefore, Russell could suddenly find himself in a quandary. It is not certain that Wolff will retain confidence in him if he can attract Verstappen and Antonelli. 

Of course, the 26-year-old has done well alongside Hamilton and is performing better than his struggling team-mate this season, but the wow-factor is perhaps more lacking than it was. Russell is getting the most out of the car, but will that be another to save his Mercedes future, if both Verstappen and Antonelli become available?

Wolff is still trying to keep Antonelli out of the limelight for now, but the private tests and rumours surrounding a seat at Williams speak volumes - Wolff wants to get Antonelli ready as soon as possible and is also missing no opportunity to praise Verstappen. This leaves Russell in a precarious position.

It is far from certain that Russell will get a new Mercedes contract. It will likely depend on Verstappen's choice, and it is not certain that the Dutchman will make the switch. 

However, Russell must fear for his seat more than has been assumed so far. Wolff has two men in mind and Russell could quickly find himself on the outside looking in.

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