Why Mercedes is forced to run a 'sub-optimal' Lewis Hamilton-George Russell driver line-up
Lewis Hamilton secured a podium finish for Mercedes at the 2023 F1 Singapore GP while George Russell crashed out on the last lap. While the drive to the podium was impressive, there were several fans on social media who felt a win was on the table for Hamilton.
So much so that many have questioned why Mercedes has gone ahead with having a driver like Russell in the team alongside Hamilton, with the argument that it is a sub-optimal partnership.
It might come as a surprise to any F1 fan when a driver pairing of Hamilton and Russell will be called sub-optimal by anyone but there is truth to that as well. At the same time, there is truth to the fact that Mercedes has been almost cornered to run such a pairing.
Before we go ahead and answer why Mercedes is running the Lewis Hamilton-George Russell pairing, let's talk about why, in essence, this is a sub-optimal pairing.
Why is it a sub-optimal pairing?
The reason why the Lewis Hamilton and George Russell lineup is sub-optimal is not because either of the two are bad drivers. That's not the case at all. The two should easily be considered as some of the best talents in F1 right now. When you have drivers of such caliber, more often than not what we end up seeing is that the best from the car is achieved every weekend.
In all of this, such a lineup becomes really potent in capturing superiority in the constructors championship. This is precisely why George Russell and Lewis Hamilton have propelled Mercedes to P2 in the championship from the start of the season.
There is one shortcoming, however, that did get potentially exposed in Singapore. At the end of the race, it did appear that Hamilton had the edge over Russell when it came to speed. A few F1 pundits suggested that maybe if the order was reversed, Hamilton would have got the win.
Whether he would have or not isn't the issue. The issue is that if next season Mercedes is in a battle for the title against Red Bull, the German team will have two similarly paced drivers taking points off each other all season while Max Verstappen won't have such a problem.
As a result, both Lewis Hamilton and George Russell will be at an inherent disadvantage should we see a championship battle next season against Max Verstappen.
More often than not, this is the reason why top teams don't have two elite drivers. It not only leads to the two drivers taking points off each other but also creates a certain tension within the team.
Mercedes, however, has been cornered into a position where it has to go ahead with this line-up. Here's why.
Why go with Lewis Hamilton and George Russell?
#1 George Russell would get poached by some other team
One of the major reasons why Mercedes boss Toto Wolff was backed into a corner with George Russell was because of what happened in 2021.
By that season it was crystal clear that the young driver backed by the German squad was something special. He had a credible junior record when he made it to F1 but the three years in Williams helped him show everyone that he was a special talent.
A talent that could be a world champion one day. By that time, it wasn't a case of Mercedes being in the driver's seat when it came to Russell's future. It was the young driver who had made his frustrations public of spending one year too many in a backmarker. If Toto Wolff had not bit the bullet and promoted Russell at that stage to the senior team, he would have lost him to the competition.
Most importantly in 2021, if Lewis Hamilton had won the title (his eighth) then there was a strong possibility that he would have retired from the sport. Wolff started at the possibility of Hamilton retiring from the sport and his next best talent Russell, the one who has been nurtured by the team for a long time, getting poached by one of the competitors.
Caught in a no man's land, Wolff decided to go for it and promote Russell to Mercedes for 2022 and bear the consequences of a sub-optimal partnership.
#2 Uncertainty around Lewis Hamilton's future
Lewis Hamilton has been quite vocal in his pursuit of an eighth title but it's also clear as day that the moment he gets that title, he will retire. That is the last bastion left for Hamilton to conquer and when he accomplishes it, there won't be anything left.
For any team, a driver partnership is done keeping the long-term goal in place. Toto Wolff cannot do that with Hamilton because let's face it, the Brit driver won't be around for that long. In terms of success, the most that Mercedes can get from Hamilton is one title before he retires.
This is precisely the reason why the team has to switch to a long-term focus. Mercedes has to look at George Russell and nurture him to a point where he becomes a title contender.
This is also the reason why Mercedes has opted to go with a sub-optimal driver lineup of Lewis Hamilton and George Russell.