Interview: Russell on fighting for titles and having ‘the greatest’ as a team mate

2023 F1 season

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“I always knew when I signed in 2021 that there were no guarantees of success.”

When a young George Russell first signed as a Mercedes junior driver in 2017, he would have understandably spent countless nights dreaming of not just joining the grid as a Formula 1 driver, but competing for world title in what was then the most dominant team in the championship.

Now, he has not just realised his potential to not only become the 12th grand prix driver in Mercedes’ history, but their sixth winner, even beating the great Lewis Hamilton over the course of their first season together as team mates in 2022. But Russell has also joined the team during their weakest two-season stretch of the decade, taking their only grand prix victory in the ground effect era to date last year in Brazil.

Heading into the summer break, Russell sixth in the drivers’ championship – the lowest-placed of the drivers from the ‘big three’ teams and 49 points adrift of his multiple world champion team mate. So when RaceFans was invited for an exclusive sit down interview with the 25-year-old with a handful of select media in the Zandvoort paddock following the three weeks without racing, it seemed only fair to ask if his Mercedes experience so far had matched his expectations.

Russell is staying at Mercedes until at least 2025
After a brief pause to consider his response, he gives a typically thoughtful, eloquent reply.

“I think the way which the team have worked and the engineering brilliance I’ve seen, that has probably exceeded my expectations in that regard,” he begins. “Obviously, the results haven’t matched the hope or expectations that I or we as a team were expecting going into these two seasons.

“It was completely new regulations, new tyres, and somebody may just get it right, or somebody might just get it wrong. I always describe it as like a big oil tanker; if you’re pointing the right direction, you’re going to get to your destination quicker than if someone’s pointing the wrong way trying to turn that ship. It takes time. We’re in that turning phase to point in the right direction. We think that we’re kind of in that right direction now to build upon.”

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Although not yet public knowledge during RaceFans’ time with Russell, he had already committed pen to paper with team principal Toto Wolff, keeping him alongside Hamilton until the introduction of the new power unit formula in 2026. However, prior to Zandvoort, Russell had added just a single podium appearance to the eight he racked up over the course of 2022, when it seemed like Mercedes’ woes with their car were even more pronounced than they have dealt with this year. So with fewer points and podiums than he had at the mid-season break last season and two places lower in the standings, how does he feel about his performance so far this season?

George Russell, Mercedes, Albert Park, 2023
Bad luck struck in Melbourne where he retired after leading
“It’s been a bit of a up-and-down season, I’d say,” he replies. “It’s not been clean or smooth whatsoever, especially when I compare it to last year. The results were just coming quite comfortably, week in, week out. I think we were top five in 19 out of 22 races last year and that was in relative ease, to be honest, whereas now it’s been a bit more challenging.

“I think I started off this season really competitively. The first six races, qualifying was a real strength of mine. Every session – Q1, Q2, Q3 – I just felt confident and just pushing the car to the limit. Recent races have been a bit more challenging for me and I think we’ve made some wrong decisions with the set up direction we’ve been taking.

“The summer break was really important to take that reset and start again because you find yourself in a bit of a channel and you sort of keep following the same trends because you believe that is what’s right and what’s needed for the car. It’s only when you take one step out and look at it with fresh eyes, you think ‘actually we probably need to be in a slightly different channel to maximise it’. So the race pace has been really strong. Qualifying has been a bit of a weakness recently and I’ve got ideas of how to improve that or what I need from the car to improve that.”

Russell is not just in his second season as a full-time Mercedes race driver but also his fifth season of Formula 1. That’s a point in his career and an age by which the likes of Hamilton, Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and even Max Verstappen already had at least one world championship crown to their names. But rather than being in a rush to join that illustrious company, Russell is under no illusion that it will take time to build success.

“You obviously dream of jumping in the car and just winning every single race, but it’s not like that for anybody,” he says.

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“Even for Max – he spent three-and-a-half, four years at Red Bull before he got his chance of truly fighting for a championship. And same as Schumacher when he went to Ferrari – it was, I think four years, before he won a championship with Ferrari. Whereas we all look at him as the guy who ‘was’ Ferrari dominance – won everything – it took four or five years before he got that success there.”

(L to R): Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Max Verstappen, Red Bull, George Russell, Mercedes, Circuit de Catalunya, 2023
Mercedes were strong in Spain – Russell reached the podium
While not fighting for wins this season, does Russell feel he is performing at the best level as an F1 driver?

“I’d say at the start of this year, I was,” he explains. “It’s definitely run away from me slightly over the last few races, but I’m not stressed about it. I know the mistakes that I’ve made and there is a reason for why.

“I stood back a little bit. Going in with a fresh set of eyes now, there’s no concerns that the [bad] form will reappear. It’s always the way when things are a little bit more challenging, you’re pushing for more. We started this season on the back foot. We wanted to be winning – we weren’t winning. And then you’re chasing unrealistic goals. And it’s probably sometimes you need to recognise if that is the maximum. It’s important to fulfil that potential rather than trying to overstretch, getting it wrong and actually being three positions further down.”

Before Russell – or his team mate – can challenge their rivals or even each other for world championships, they must make major strides in performance to overcome the unstoppable Red Bulls. But Russell is no stranger to chasing pace and trying to overcome a performance deficit in his car. After all, he did spend his first three seasons with Williams in the slowest car on the grid.

“I think every experience brings something new to the individual,” he says when asked about his years at the rear of the field.

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“The experience of winning is always going to bode you well for the future. The experience of challenging times is always going to help you for the future. There is no right or wrong – every experience brings something to you as an individual, as a professional, as a human.”

Lewis Hamilton, George Russell, Mercedes, Zandvoort, 2023
Team mate Hamilton is “the greatest of all time”
After sticking with their much-maligned ‘zero sidepod’ concept for this year’s W14 after the disappointment of last year, Mercedes quickly found themselves swallowing their pride and abandoning the concept, admitting they would have to take a different direction on their 2024 car. Similarly, the team announced that technical director Mike Elliott would be swapped with chief technical officer James Allison, undoing an original switch between the pair in 2021.

While rivals like Aston Martin, Red Bull and now Ferrari have each engaged in aggressive recruitment drives to tempt technical talent to their respective factories, Russell believes Mercedes’ advantages lies in their ability to find in-house solutions to their technical problems.

“That’s one of the strengths of Mercedes,” he says. “When you look at the core of this team – whether it’s in the engineering, the design office, marketing department – it’s been the same team as it’s been for 20 years or so. Long before Toto’s time.

“I think where he’s done an amazing job, to grow the team and get the right people in the right roles to excel at what they do. As I said earlier in the year, Mike is one of the most intelligent and brilliant engineers I’ve ever come across, and he’s definitely really suited to the new role that he’s in. We’ve got so many great people, it’s just making sure they’re in the right positions to bring the maximum to the team.”

With 2024 shaping up to be a critical season for Mercedes if they are have any realistic chance of fighting for the titles before the new power units are introduced in 2026, what does Russell want to see from his team’s car next season?

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“I think something we’ve been trying to improve a lot is just the through-corner balance of the car,” he explains.

(L to R): George Russell, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Yas Marina, 2022
Russell out-scored Hamilton in their first season as team mates
“Both Lewis and I are searching for a bit more confidence and rear end in the car so that we can hit the ground running during a race weekend. That’s something that Red Bull have done a really great job of allowing their drivers, lap one of the weekend, to go out and push to the limit in little fear of crashing the car or spinning out. So that’s something we’re targeting, just improving that balance.

“But it’s always marginal gains in many areas. If you can find half a tenth there, half a tenth there, suddenly you can add that up to a large chunk of lap time. So that’s what we’re working for at the moment.”

Russell achieved a rare feat in 2022 by becoming only the second of Hamilton’s Formula 1 team mates to out-score him over the course of a season – the other was Jenson Button, a world champion, in 2011. Having the most successful driver ever to step into the cockpit of a Formula 1 car may be a daunting prospect for any driver, but Russell says he relishes the opportunity to be the one driver in the field to be sat alongside Hamilton in the garage.

“He’s obviously the greatest of all time,” he says without any hesitation. “I learn a lot on and off the track from him.

“I think he’s still hungry for more. He’s hungry to try and win more races. I’m hungry to achieve that and beat him. Somebody asked me before ‘if Lewis wasn’t my team mate, who would I want it to be’, and I said Max, because when I joined Mercedes Lewis was, and still is, the greatest driver of all time. You would define him as the quickest and the best on the grid and I’ve got the chance to go head-to-head with him still now week in, week out.

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“So you want to put yourself against the best because I believe in myself and I want to prove to myself and the people around me what I’m capable of. You gain that respect by competing against the best in the business.”

‘Mercedes believed in me – I’m very happy here’
But even putting his multiple world champion team mate to one side, the level of competition at the front in Formula 1 could be intense in the years to come if and when Red Bull are caught. All of Mercedes’ resources and financial clout have not allowed them to bridge the gap to the world champions yet, so how confident is Russell that he truly can win the world title with Mercedes in the future?

“I’m very confident,” he insists.

“I think if you’re within Mercedes or Red Bull you can be very confident that if one isn’t winning, the other one’s going to be right there chasing. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. As everybody always says, we want to be the fastest car whenever possible to win. Of course you want to be in the fastest car. But Mercedes were the ones who believed in me. They’re the ones who supported me.”

With his future in the team secured until at least the end of 2025, Russell is determined to fight to bring Mercedes back to where he and his team feel they belong.

“We’re on this journey and it’s sort of like we’re bound to one another. As drivers, you’re giving the feedback, what you need and what you want from the car. The team are going out there to try and deliver that for you as the driver.

“We’re kind of like a married couple – you’re in this together. Fernando is the prime example – you can change team and you think you’re doing it for the right reasons and it might not work out. Then, he joins Aston Martin, nobody expects anything, and then suddenly he’s been the second-fastest car on many occasions this year. That was totally unexpected. So there’s always going to be these curveballs out there.

“One team gets it right or wrong in a given season, but I’m very confident. Mercedes and also Red Bull, it doesn’t matter what’s thrown at them in terms of regulations – they’re the places you want to be as a driver. And I’m very happy being a Mercedes driver.

“I feel almost like a duty to return their faith in me with loyalty, with delivering my best and ultimately delivering a championship with them. That is my dream and my goal.”

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Author information

Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...
Claire Cottingham
Claire has worked in motorsport for much of her career, covering a broad mix of championships including Formula One, Formula E, the BTCC, British...

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44 comments on “Interview: Russell on fighting for titles and having ‘the greatest’ as a team mate”

  1. Oh my god – Mercedes PR department is burning overtime pushing Lewis image as the GOAT, most honest and sportsmanlike driver ever. Obviously the British media is more than happy to support Mercedes in pushing those messages without questioning/challenging them.

    It is really sad and petty and just shows how jealous they are of the record breaking performances of Max and RB.

    1. Only sad and petty things I see are comments like these. The childish logic of “oh the british media” always seems to casually forget RB is a British team, so by that logic “the british media” should be lauding them to the high heavens.

      1. Isn’t it obvious most Mercedes supporters from Britain are actually Hamilton fans? There’s nothing wrong about it though, just saying.

      2. The drivers are more important than the teams in that sense. Olywhen Ferrari is the biggest challenge to an English team winning does that become a factor.

  2. No, the greatest of all time just won 10 races in a row, something Lewis Hamilton haven’t managed to do during 7 seasons in which he had cars 0.5-1s/lap faster than his rivals. In fact, he only won 5 on the trot, which says everything about his consistency, or rather lack of it. Also, he lost seasons to Button, Rosberg and Russell due to mistakes he was making every other race. How such a driver can be called the greatest of all time?

    1. I don’t even have Hamilton among the greatest. But Verstappen isn’t there either. When you are in a dominant car in a field of garbage cars, the only man to stop you is your teammate, and Verstappen’s teammate can’t even get out of Q1 most of the time for crying out loud.
      His 10 wins in a row is a testament to how bad Perez is. Put Alonso in a RedBull and Verstappen wins no more than 5 races all season until now.

      1. iif you say so, it must be true!

      2. Hamilton is arguably one of the greats, but you can’t deny the ultimate greats like Lauda, Prost, Fangio and Stewart. In comparison Vestappen is nothing.

          1. Their name does not start with a V , enough reason for graig.

      3. With Alonso in a red-bull and Max winning 5 in a row means Max is GOAT actually. I put Alonso above Ham and if Max can beat Alonso at such a level that he wins 5 in a row, it simply means he is GOAT. Anyways my ranking is Max > Alonso > Ham

    2. It’s a very good point about hamilton, I didn’t consider him the greatest of all time even before verstappen came along.

      What I would find interesting about hamilton would be looking at the end of the 2013 season: what was the general consensus, was he considered an all time great? Somehow I doubt it, and if it wasn’t, did he suddenly become an all time great when he got a dominant car? Ofc not, the perception changed because of the better car.

      I think of hamilton without a dominant car and I see him being in a top 10 drivers of all times.

      Verstappen seems stronger, he has more of a chance to become the greatest of all time, but he will definitely have to prove himself again on a non-dominant car for me, what I’ve seen before he got that midway into 2022 was good though, he’s become less of a risk-taker in recent times as well, thinking about early 2022 when he lost plenty of points due to mechanical DNF, but before that avoided crashing at start and such, he was driving for the points, not to win at all costs.

      1. “did he suddenly become an all time great when he got a dominant car? Ofc not, the perception changed because of the better car.”

        All this nonsense about Hamilton was only considered great after 2013 is tripe. Hamiltons reputation was sealed long before 2014. If there’s Verstappen fans out there who didn’t watch F1 before Max came along, you need to re-watch the 2007 season and educate yourselves. To come in and do what he did to Alonso (a double champion, in his prime) in his 1st season in F1, will never ever be under-estimated. There is not a shred of doubt that Verstappen, or anybody else for that matter, would have done to Alonso and the Ferrari’s what Hamilton did, again, in his very first year. In the following years, even as Mclaren fell backwards, he still won races, he was the only non Redbull driver to get pole’s an a win in that dire 2013 Merc that spent most of its life battling in the mid-field.

        Hamiltons own peers can put him up there (Alonso/Vettel/Rosberg, etc), yet some random internet andy whose never even driven a kart has the audacity to judge his ability relative to his peers.

        1. *couldn’t have done to Alonso

          (still no edit button after 16 years)

        2. Russel beat Ham in his first season at Merc with a lot more margin than Ham beat Alonso. Infact Ham and Alonso were neck to neck in that season and Alonso would have beaten him on-merit.

    3. I don’t understand you people that are so desperate to label an individual the “greatest”. So Max won 10 in a row. How were Lauda or Stewart meant to compete with that with less races and poorer reliability, nevermind the increased risk factor. As far as I care, Lewis and Max are both in the “Great” category alongside other big names that have come and left the sport. You may prefer one over the other but the achievments that both have accomplished speak for themselves.

    4. Michael (@freelittlebirds)
      6th September 2023, 22:27

      @armchairexpert Max Verstappen is heading for 50+ wins at the end of this season with 80 to 90 probably over the next 2 seasons. He’s practically driving alone. It’s like to going to a chess tournament with an extra rook over everyone else – you’d have to be terrible to lose and a top 5 player with an extra rook is unbeatable.

      Last time there was a championship, the last race was the biggest clinic of all time akin to the way Nadal beats opponents 6-0, 6-0, 6-0. In the end the referee got up and screamed “Game, set, and match for Max!” while the world watched in utter disbelief.

      As for consistency, consistency is winning the last race not falling behind so far and needing your teammate to slow down or run into your opponent or your team principal begging the race director to intervene on your behalf on the last lap. It was a deplorable way for Max to win and it will stain his career forever because he celebrated that as if he’d won on track, not on paper.

      While Max is fast, the discussion of greatest of all time for Max is pretty much unknown to anyone and will remain unknown unless some day he chooses to race someone.

      In many ways, he’s sort of like Roy Emerson in tennis who won 12 Grand Slams but due to the fact that most professional tennis players were not playing at slams, his slams are downgraded by most people.

      It’s no secret that Max does not like to have competition on track (or at the team) and he has made that known on every occasion that he can. On the other hand, Lewis loves competition and the chance to prove himself. In many ways, Max is more like Roy Emerson of F1 while Lewis is more like Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Everyone loves a fighter even if they don’t win every race. Being afraid to compete is not a good look for anyone that wants to be a GOAT.

    5. Greatest of all time? Gimme a break. Does not make into my top 250 list

  3. Senna is the GOAT for ever. Max is the BOAT.

    1. and Lauda was the STOAT

  4. I can see the argument for Hamilton being the greatest. He showed himself to be the best of his era by edging Alonso in equal cars in his rookie season (certainly the best rookie season ever), and by destroying Vettel in practically equal cars in 2018, his best season. Verstappen was better than him in 2021 as Hamilton had a messy year and made mistakes but when he had a good day he was still the better driver and won more races he shouldn’t have. His list of great drives is among the very strongest, including all sorts of different ones like Britain 2008, Italy 2018 and Brazil 2021.

    But for me the weakness is his consistency. He was beaten seven times in a row by Rosberg in 2015-16 and could have won that title with a better season despite the bad luck. He was also genuinely second best to Button in 2011, and has always had random off days where Bottas beat him that other greats don’t have. And perhaps it is reflective of his era more than anything, but he hasn’t shone in lesser machinery in the way that other greats have.

    For me, the greatest of all time is Jim Clark. In the 1960s, between the injury of Stirling Moss and the emergence of Jackie Stewart, he was in a class of his own despite strong opposition in Hill, Gurney and Surtees. His ‘trail-braking’ style of driving put him clear of the opposition both in speed, and he did it so smoothly that he looked after his car far better than anyone else, and even once used the same set of tyres for four consecutive races, winning the last three. He won a race by five minutes in torrential rain driving one handed to hold the gearstick in place, won by turning his engine off in the corners to save oil, almost won on merit in a 2-litre car in a 3-litre formula and almost won from a lap behind after a puncture before more mechanical problems set in. In 1965 he won every race he finished in F1, and won the Indy 500, and F2, and the Tasman Series, all in a car that arguably wasn’t even the best. I don’t think anyone will ever surpass Jim Clark as the greatest of all time. In second place I would have Ayrton Senna, because Prost was king of Formula 1 in 1988 and Senna was significantly better than him.

    1. In terms of his peers, I agree Clark was better by a larger margin than any since. The most impressive stat IMO was 25 GP wins, but only finished second once.

      The caveat is that many of that era simply never got the chance to race, in any form. Europe was still recovering from WW2 and most were simply ‘getting by’ with little spare cash. I grew up during that era and whilst we were never poor, there was zero money for taking your kid[s] karting, slot car racing was the best we had.

  5. I’m pretty sure Rosberg also beat Lewis over a season.

    Nice interview though 👍

    1. Yeah the article said two, but as you note Rosberg makes it three.

  6. Whether you agree with Russell’s statement that Hamilton is the greatest of all time, it is easy to understand why he says that. It shows respect to his teammate and it also has a positive effect on himself when he beat the best. So it is a win-win to both of them. On-topic, I think Russell is doing a pretty good job against a exceptionally good teammate.

    1. We started this season on the back foot. We wanted to be winning – we weren’t winning. And then you’re chasing unrealistic goals. And it’s probably sometimes you need to recognise if that is the maximum. It’s important to fulfil that potential rather than trying to overstretch, getting it wrong and actually being three positions further down.

      Surprising that he had this hope after Bahrain but he’s also been the optimistic one in that team the last two years.

      Had a few poor qualis, and bad luck at race weekends like Melbourne, Silverstone and Zandvoort where he had the measure of his teammate but had terrible luck wrt reliability and operations.

      Good to see him on beating his teammate again – hopefully he can keep up this till end of the season, and grow as a driver.

      1. Congrats on being the first post in this thread that is not bickering about who is the GOAT! LOL

  7. It says a lot about some people what they’re automatic response to this is.

    1. “Hamilton is arguably one of the greats, but you can’t deny the ultimate greats like Lauda, Prost, Fangio and Stewart. In comparison Vestappen is nothing.”

      you mean something like this?

  8. Ha Ha Ha…. LH Is Not Even In the Top 10… Senna, Piquet, Mansell, Prost, Lauda, Stewart, Schumacher, Fangio, Alonso, Verstappen…

    1. What exactly makes the others great and Lewis not, he holds records over all of them. He raced against top drivers just like they did, he had his share of sues, just like they did. It isn’t practical to suggest that someone is great when all they did was drive a dangerous car, or win a few races, or championships. Drivers from the past 20 years have had a whole new set of issues to deal with. I doubt that many on the great list would be able to deal with buttons on the steering wheel and still be as fast as they were.

  9. So speaking of George. He is obviously very talented but I do doubt if we will ever rank him among the greatest drivers.
    I sometimes wonder if he is his own worst enemy – sulking and moaning on the team radio, long before a race is run – his judgements are often way of the mark and the tone he uses towards his team on the radio.. I can’t imagine are very motivating. Maybe he it’s a completely different story after the race and it’s just ‘a heat of the moment’ thing – but still race after race.

    1. So speaking of George. He is obviously very talented but I do doubt if we will ever rank him among the greatest drivers

      I wish we had seen George in the W11 over a season with Lewis. While I would fully expect Lewis to have won, it would have done wonders for George’s public perception.

      I think he has the pace, but lacks consistency and peaks of great drivers.

  10. Lewis is NOT the greatest

  11. There is no ‘greatest’ driver, at best there’s a gallery of people who stood out among their peers, or did things that made people shake their head in amazement and confusion. And it’s much harder these days to do the latter. Everything is simulated a dozen times over before it happens, every tiny part of the car has a sensor that feeds into an ever expanding model of how to perfect the setup of the car to a particular track, and competitive orders are mostly fixed for not just a season, but series of seasons while chances for technological breakthroughs are all but outlawed entirely.

    In one of the races earlier on, I think it was one of Pérez’ recoveries from another bad qualifying, they said something to the effect of him doing a few places better than their simulations had shown. They’re even simulating things after qualifying… what room is there for the driver to do anything noteworthy in these circumstances?! The only thing he can realistically do is either confirm the simulation, get a pat on the back, or fail to, and be stared at with disapproving eyes by engineers huddled around a laptop. It’s not a great time in F1 to make new heroes, I guess.

    1. Data rules the world. Not just in F1 but also in sports like cycling. It kinda takes away from the magic and heroics of exceptional performances. Especially in a sport like F1 that has always been at the forefront of technology the question rises: what is F1 about? Do we want to have a competition to see who is the best driver in the world or do we want to see the best drivers in the world driving the fastest cars. If we want to find out who is the best driver we would be better of with one-make cars heavily depending on mechanical grip – safe versions of cars from the 60’s before aero and completely analog. But that is not what F1 is about we want to see the best drivers and the fastest cars (adding to the heroics). F1 kinda needs to be a balance between the both and I guess it shows in the current rules and rule making that it’s really hard to find this balance.

      1. I wonder what Newey thinks about it. “How good is my car? Human is limitation. If only AI could handle my car and drive it to perfection… Oh that would be awesome!”

        1. By the way: AI finally beats humans at a real-life sport – drone racing

      2. Indeed, and while it’s possible to limit these developments (such as has been done with constant two-way communication between car and pit), it’s also part of F1’s basic premise to use technology wherever it’s allowed.

        F1 benefits from being both a car and driver championship, but results after 2009 show it badly needs to reconsider how much freedom designers have, because all this domination for years at a time was never normal.

  12. Russell calling Hamilton the GOAT = more triggers than a pan of popcorn.

  13. If Hamiltons achievements are being belittled, surely the driver with the unbeatable car right now will be looked at the same.

    1. For sure, it takes time for these things to settle down. There is a lot of incentive for hyping up the current champion, right down to the ‘we are watching F1 history’ trope that gets trotted out to distract from the utter lack of competition.

      Hamilton is still a great driver, just not a ‘twice as great as Prost because of his number of race wins’ driver. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

  14. I wouldn’t be so bothered if I was George. Lewis might appear greater than he is since the car was so flattering even Bottas brought it home 2nd most of the time. And even still quite some ‘Valtteri, it’s James’ were needed to get Lewis to where he is.

  15. Unless he’s been alongside Verstappen at some point in his career, George has never been against the greatest.

    Unless he meant the greatest sulker or whiner, in which case no driver can hold a candle to LewSir.

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