Lewis Hamilton is 21 points behind George Russell in the 2022 F1 championship. The Mercedes driver was a victim of a few jibes here and there from Nico Rosberg and Ralf Schumacher during the Imola GP weekend as both of them highlighted the fact that the disparity between what George Russell and Lewis Hamilton were able to do in the car was far too much.
This season, out of the four races that we've had, Lewis Hamilton has finished behind George Russell in three of them. He is currently 7th in the Driver Standings with 28 points to his name and 21 points behind George Russell, who has 49 points and is currently 4th in the championship standings.
After the shock and awe about where the chips have fallen after the first four races of the season, if we look at things closely, Lewis Hamilton facing struggles early in the season should not surprise F1 fans.
Now, before we do that, let's take a look at whether the uproar that Hamilton has been facing since Imola is even justified.
Are the Hamilton critics right?
If we are to judge Lewis Hamilton's season up until now, we'll have to analyze his performance in two parts. The first part is the rather unfortunate set of races that Hamilton has had this season. The setup error and the late pitstop in Saudi Arabia were unfortunate. So was the safety car in Australia that cost him a podium finish. Imola was by all measures a poor race for Lewis.
All in all, except Imola, Lewis has been there or thereabouts this season. The problem is the second part, the part where George Russell has been rather faultless this season. He didn't have any setup mishap in Saudi Arabia. He was the driver that benefitted from the safety car and took the podium away from Lewis in Australia, and in Imola, he was in a league of his own in comparison to Lewis.
These woes have compounded over time and are some of the reasons why Lewis Hamilton is 21 points behind his new teammate in the Driver Standings.
Having said that, is the uproar justified? Perhaps not - it's not as if Lewis is being dominated by Russell every weekend. There's just not much to choose between the two drivers at the moment. But at the same time, a 21-point gap to your teammate surely shows that something's not right.
So, with that out of the way, let's take a look at why Lewis Hamilton's early-season struggles against George Russell should not be a surprise.
George Russell is an exceptional talent
Amidst all the criticism that has been levied on Lewis, there's one thing that has been grossly ignored. George Russell is a fantastic driver. We all knew this when he was signed by Mercedes to replace Bottas, although not many would have expected him to outperform Lewis this early on.
The thing is, when you spend so many years in a backmarker car, people tend to forget how good you are. Well, for those who don't know how good George Russell is, here is a slight reminder! He is a former F2 and GP3 champion. The drivers he beat en route to his title in F2? Lando Norris, Alex Albon, Nyck De Vries and of coure, Nicholas Latifi.
George Russell has a junior category resume that is probably as good as Charles Leclerc's resume and this season, we have Leclerc fighting for the title. Looking at Russell's resume and what he has already done in F1 with Williams, should his excellent performance this season really be a surprise?
That Mercedes is an upgrade for Russell but a downgrade for Lewis
Mercedes has produced the fastest car on the grid every season since 2014. That's almost a decade of driving a fast, dependable car for Lewis Hamilton. However, this time around, the Mercedes car is not the class of the field. It is a handful and not the easiest to set up either.
For Lewis, this is a clear downgrade in terms of the machinery he's used to driving. On the other hand, Russell has been driving a backmarker car ever since he stepped into the world of F1. The Williams of last year cannot hold a candle in front of the Mercedes of this season. Russell simply has had more experience than Hamilton in driving difficult cars in the recent past, which could explain why he has come to grips with this year's Mercedes faster than his teammate.
It's a valid notion that in F1, it is easier to transition from a slower car to a faster car than to adapt to a slower car after driving a fast one for years. Something like this is an advantage for Russell while for Lewis, it is a disadvantage.
George Russell might be the hungrier and more motivated Mercedes driver
When Toto Wolff came on the radio and told Lewis Hamilton that the car was undrivable and not worthy of fighting for the title, he was right. The Mercedes is not capable of fighting for the title. It is at best, the third fastest car on the grid. The best the team can hope for is an outside shot at the podium if the Ferraris or the Red Bulls suffer from reliability issues.
Is it possible that a change in mindset where your ceiling is only an outside shot at the podium leads to a drop in motivation? Especially for a driver like Lewis Hamilton that has been fighting for the title for the last 8 seasons and has over 100 wins and pole positions in his career.
Can a driver, that has won a race every season he has raced in, and basically drove a front-running car throughout his 15-year career, find it hard to motivate himself this season, since the best that he can hope for in a straightforward weekend is 5th in the race?
Now, compare that to George Russell. He has zero wins, zero pole positions and zero championships to his name. In terms of achievements in F1, he is pretty much at the starting point of his career. For him, every race is an opportunity to prove himself. Every race is an opportunity to show Mercedes and the rest of the paddock that he too can be a championship contender when given the right car.
He hustled Kevin Magnussen from pillar to post until he overtook the Haas driver. Russell has not finished a race outside the top 5 this season and has been the epitome of consistency this season.
Will Hamilton be able to make a comeback and overthrow George Russell in the Driver Standings? Always. Lewis Hamilton is the greatest driver of his generation. However, if George Russell does end up beating Lewis Hamilton this season, it probably would not be a surprise either.