Mercedes have decided who will be Lewis Hamilton’s team mate next year, they just aren’t ready to tell anyone about it yet.Valtteri Bottas and the driver tipped to replace him, George Russell, when the pair appeared together for an FIA press conference today at Spa-Francorchamps.
Clearly well-primed to deliver the same line to any question about their futures, they clung to it like drowning men tossed a life-preserver. “There’s no news to share yet,” dictated Bottas, which was tellingly not quite a response to the question “do you know yet what you’re doing next year”.
The same question was put to Russell. “No news to share at this stage,” he echoed. It wasn’t the last time we heard that PR-hewn line either.
If it was obvious Mercedes have made their minds up, it’s not yet certain what they’ve decided. But their approach invites the interpretation that they have decided to show Bottas the door and install Russell in his place.
If Bottas were staying, there would be little reason to delay the announcement. But if he’s leaving, Mercedes need to soften that blow, keep his morale up.
A bitter Bottas, unwilling to play the role of co-operative team mate as he did at Catalunya and Silverstone, could compromise Hamilton’s championship chances. Better to keep him sweet, ensure his next move is lined up before his exit is announced – a “soft landing”, as Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff has previously called it. But whether that is to Alfa Romeo, as previously suggested, or elsewhere, that may take time. That may explain Toto Wolff’s shift from talking about resolving the situation in September instead of summer, as previously stated.
The more telling observations about the situation came not from the drivers at the heart of the matter, but their rivals. Notably Hamilton, who has previously talked up his relationship with Bottas (naturally – he’s won every championship going while they’ve been team mates).
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“I’ve obviously been vocal in the past about my loyalty to Valtteri and worked incredibly closely with him,” said Hamilton. “I think our working relationship is better than ever.”
However Hamilton indicated his willingness to accept whatever Wolff has decided to do with their driver line-up.
“Toto’s a great leader and as I said in the past we always stay connected. Of course we talk about these things and naturally, we’re part of the same team, we want what’s best for the team moving forwards. We want to win more championships and so we just have conversations.
“But at the end of the day, it’s down to him and the board at Mercedes to make that decision. I’m a part of the team, so I support him whichever way they go, naturally. I’m just at the moment trying to put all my energy into doing the best I can this season.”
These sound like the words of someone who’s accepted a change is coming. Whether or not Mercedes have decided Russell is the right driver of the job, he was given a vote of confidence by two of the top drivers in F1 today.
Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc both served apprenticeships of, at most, little more than a year with midfield teams before joining their front-running squads. In contrast Russell is in his third season at Williams.
“For sure George is very quick and he can’t stay where he is, I think, forever,” said Verstappen. “I think he deserves more.
“At the end of the day it’s up to Mercedes to make the call, not really from my side. But for sure I rate him very high as a driver. He is, of course, still very young as well, so it’s natural that the younger guys at one point move up, especially the good drivers.”
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Leclerc also strongly backed Russell, who impressed on his one-off showing for Mercedes last year.
“I think it’s great if George gets that seat because he deserves it,” he said. “It is always very difficult to judge in Formula 1 because the cars are so different and obviously with George being at Williams, it is always difficult to judge how much of a good job he’s doing. But he’s consistently there and showing good things.
“Also in the past I’ve raced with him and I know how strong is George. So he definitely deserve that spot and I think it will be great to have such a talented driver in that seat.”
Ever since Russell stunned F1 by almost winning his one-off race for Mercedes last year, the rumours around him taking over from Bottas have gathered momentum. If he has finally been told he’s got the gig, he’s keeping tight-lipped about it for now.
But as he admitted today, it’s an challenge he’s desperate to take on.
“As any driver wants to go up against the best and obviously Lewis is probably the greatest of all time. So you want to put yourself against [him] and see how you fare. It would be probably an honour for anybody to get that opportunity.
“That’s obviously all hypothetical at the moment. But this is the same comments as I’ve said three years ago, if I could choose to race against anybody as my team mate, Lewis would be the one.”
Quotes: Dieter Rencken
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