BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — The last time Lewis Hamilton had a teammate who consistently challenged him throughout an entire Formula 1 season was in 2016 when Nico Rosberg beat him by five points to win the drivers’ championship.
And the only other time it happened was in 2007, his rookie year, with McLaren teammate Fernando Alonso.
Yes, Heikki Kovalainen, Jenson Button and, for the past five years, Valtteri Bottas have had strong performances … but not consistently. Bottas may stand third in points, but as of mid-September he had not won this year whereas Hamilton had won four times and was only five points behind championship leader Max Verstappen.
I predict that is going to change next year with Hamilton’s new teammate George Russell, who will be replacing Bottas. The latter signed a long-term contract with Alfa Romeo where he will replace Kimi Räikkönen, who is going to retire.
Hamilton, 36, has a Mercedes contract for the next two years. He is not slowing and you can be sure that if he does start to lose pace, he will retire. He is also keen to pursue other interests outside of F-1. Hamilton has been with the team since 2013. Bottas, 32, joined it in 2017.
Russell, a Mercedes protégée, is 23 and only in his third season of F-1 racing. It’s not guaranteed, of course, that Russell, like Hamilton, will spend many years with Mercedes, but it is obvious that’s what both sides are targeting.
Niki Lauda realized when Alain Prost joined McLaren in 1984 that Prost was faster and, therefore, he would have to use his experience to beat him. When Ayrton Senna arrived at McLaren in 1988, the situation was reversed for Prost.
Will that be the case next year? Russell has served a three-year apprenticeship at Williams and when he subbed for Hamilton in last year’s Sakhir Grand Prix, he was immediately quick in the Mercedes.
But unlike the feuding Senna and Prost, Hamilton and Russell both believe they will get along.
“George is an incredibly talented driver, clearly,” Hamilton said. “He’s humble, I think he’s got a great approach. Naturally, being British I would imagine probably helps in terms of communication.
“He’s the future; he’s one of the members of the future of the sport. I think he’s already shown incredible driving so far and I’m sure he’s going to continue to grow.”
Hamilton is on record saying he preferred to have Bottas as his teammate next year. This was not because he feared fierce competition from the talented Russell, but rather because Bottas and Hamilton have such a harmonious teammate relationship. Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff insisted the driver choice for 2022 would be based on what was best for the team.
“This hasn’t been an easy process or a straightforward decision for us,” Wolff said. “Valtteri has done a fantastic job over the past five seasons and he has made an essential contribution to our success and to our growth.
“Together with Lewis, he has built a benchmark partnership between two teammates in the sport and that has been a valuable weapon in our championship battles and pushed us to achieve unprecedented success.
“He would absolutely have deserved to stay with the team and I am pleased that he has been able to choose an exciting challenge with Alfa next year.”
Mercedes says Hamilton and Russell will be equal No. 1 drivers and that there will be no team orders. But as Bottas found out, Mercedes will not hesitate to issue team orders if the championship is at stake. A recent example was toward the end of the Dutch Grand Prix when Bottas was told not to go for the bonus point by setting the fastest race lap, so Hamilton could collect it.
But that works both ways. If, for example, Russell is fighting for the championship and Hamilton is out of contention, Hamilton will have to submit to team orders.
Russell will consistently challenge Hamilton from race one in 2022 and it is going to be a fascinating battle to watch.