If reports are to be believed, Mercedes F1 co-owners Daimler are seriously considering George Russell as a successor to Lewis Hamilton not just in a few years’ time but immediately. Claims Hamilton may find his 2021 drive at risk may be exaggerated but if they are not, Daimler would be wrong to doubt Hamilton.
The Brit has little left to prove in the sport of F1 having seen off Nico Rosberg, Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas to win the title in the hybrid engine era, only losing out on one title to Rosberg in 2016.
That’s without bringing into his equation his success with McLaren, his 2008 title win seeing him edge out Ferrari duo Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen.
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Hamilton’s latest triumph in 2020, which ties him level with the great Michael Schumacher, came with a 124-point gap over team-mate Bottas in the final standings, despite him missing one round of racing with coronavirus forcing him out of the Sakhir Grand Prix.
Since 2014, Mercedes have now won every drivers’ and constructors’ championship. Only Ferrari have come close to such domination, managing five consecutive double titles from 2000 and 2004.
Hamilton has been a monumental part of that success having consistently delivered, taking his tally of race wins from 21 to 95 since joining Mercedes in 2013.
He is one of few drivers in the history of the sport that could justify an outlay as massive as £40million a year, which is what the Silver Arrows are said to pay him per season – or at least did pay him in his last deal.
Hamilton is now out of contract however and while it has been made clear by the driver himself and his team principal Toto Wolff that an extension should be expected, there have been contrasting claims.
Reports regarding Daimler’s apparent uncertainty to agree to his demands cite that Hamilton wants a £147m ($200m) four-year contract with the team.
That works out at £35m a season, so slightly below his current salary, but would see him tied down until the age of 40, given Hamilton turns 36 this week.
It is a significant pay-packet and commitment and there are those who believe other drivers may be able to do what Hamilton can in the W11, or the W12 next year.
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Widely regarded as the second fastest man on the grid after Hamilton, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, is one of those who have expressed such a verdict.
“I have a lot of respect for what they’ve achieved. I’m not frustrated about Lewis in a Mercedes car,” the Dutchman said last year. “To be honest, 90 per cent of the field could win in that car. Nothing against Lewis, he’s a great driver, but the car is so dominant.
“OK, maybe others wouldn’t be as dominant as Lewis is, but you accept the situation you are in and you just try to make the best of it.”
That, though, discounts the fact that Hamilton has so resoundingly dominated Bottas – a very talented driver even if not one of Hamilton’s class – and got the better of Rosberg in three of their four seasons together.
Hamilton displayed his still-improving racecraft in the best possible fashion when he wrapped up his latest world championship at the Turkish Grand Prix with a supreme – yet routine for Hamilton – drive in tricky conditions in Istanbul.
Quite simply, no other driver – even Verstappen – would have steered the Mercedes to victory in those conditions.
Sebastian Vettel summed it up best, saying post-race that day: “It’s a difficult race, a very difficult race to stay on track and two hours long and probably, if we’re honest, it wasn’t his race to win and he still won it.
“So I think, once again, he managed to pull out something special out of that bag and therefore I think he deserves everything he has achieved.”
Hamilton’s performance was underlined by the display of Bottas, a steady and consistent racer boasting strong pace of his own, who finished eighth after multiple spins.
And despite getting older, Hamilton was as dependable as ever across the entire 2020 campaign with 11 race wins and podium finishes in all but two of the 16 races that he competed in.
The two events he missed out on a top three finish? Both due to penalties, having reached the chequered flag in second in Austria only to be punished for a collision with Alex Albon in the Red Bull and penalised three grid places.
Whether Russell might be a greater rival to Hamilton than Bottas is another separate debate but is he capable of being a replacement for his fellow Brit?
The 23-year-old has immense talent but needs more time before being considered the No 1 driver, or at least as a major title contender, for a top team.
Perhaps him replacing Bottas from 2022 onwards and trying to give Hamilton a fresh and tougher challenge in his twilight years might be the best outcome, albeit not for the Finn, unless he can bridge the gap to his team-mate in the next 12 months.
Russell is brimming with future world champion potential but Hamilton is tried and trusted and has proven many, many times he is the best driver on the grid. He might even be the best of all time and he is at the very least in the conversation, there is no doubting that.
Paying him what he wants for another three years, or even more if he has the appetite for it, makes sense for Mercedes even with the massive changes expected to come in the next few seasons. Get the deal done.
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