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Rarely has so much been asked from a newcomer who thus far has accomplished so little. But George Russell is the driver Mercedes believes gives it its best chance of retaining Formula 1 superiority. Bragging rights, the reputation of one of the world’s most prestigious consumer brands, and tens of millions of dollars are riding on it.

There may be a better time to confirm it, but it might as well be now. It certainly wasn’t two seasons ago, or even last year.

George Russell joins a world-famous team at a time of uncertainty

George Russell walks in the paddock ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Qatar on Nov. 18, 2021, in Doha, Qatar. | Matthew Lewis - Formula 1 via Getty Images
George Russell walks in the paddock ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Qatar on Nov. 18, 2021, in Doha, Qatar. | Matthew Lewis – Formula 1 via Getty Images

George Russell, who turns 24 before the start of the new season, has been in the Mercedes Formula 1 team’s plans for quite some time. The sport’s dominant team of the past decade tabbed him as a reserve driver four years ago and called upon him in a pinch during the 2020 season. Thus, it surprised no one when Mercedes tabbed him as the replacement last year when it decided not to extend Valtteri Bottas’ contract beyond 2021.

However, the presumption at the time was that Russell’s role would be complementary; Lewis Hamilton’s success would continue to be the team’s priority, but Russell would be counted upon to help maintain Mercedes’ position atop the constructors’ standings, a title that is both a matter of pride and the source of substantial Formula 1 prize money.

Though unlikely, it is possible that is no longer the case. On the heels of a devastating loss to Max Verstappen at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to miss out on a record-setting eighth World Drivers’ Championship, Hamilton has not said publicly that he is coming back for the 2022 F1 season.

If Hamilton does indeed retire, then Russell must do more than merely register a steady stream of podium finishes. The team will need him to win races against the likes of first-time champion Verstappen, and the highly accomplished Sergio Perez, Carlos Sainz, Lando Norris, and Charles Leclerc.

Welcome to the team, George.

New Mercedes driver George Russell was wrong two years in a row

Signing with the Mercedes Formula 1 team is a little like being a quarterback drafted by the Green Bay Packers; you’re going to have to wait your turn since the guy ahead of you is pretty good.

George Russell experienced that after winning the 2017 GP3 Series championship. The feat earned him a seat in the following season’s Formula 2 Series, but it also prompted Mercedes to select him as a reserve driver, theoretically making him one case of the flu away from subbing for Lewis Hamilton or Valtteri Bottas in a Formula 1 race.

Mercedes didn’t need to call upon Russell, but he continued to impress by winning seven of 24 F2 races and the series crown. That earned Russell his first Formula 1 contract, a multi-year deal with the Williams team. Given the cozy relationship between the two teams, the assignment amounted to Russell’s audition with Mercedes.

He didn’t place in the top 10 in any of the 21 races as a rookie, meaning he did not score a point, but the taste of F1 left Russell yearning for more. He wanted Bottas’ ride.

“After Year 1, I would have felt ready,” Russell said, according to Racing News 365. “I’m a better driver today than I was then.

“Two years (at Williams) would have been perfect. This year I would have been more than ready to move up.”

He was wrong on both counts. But give Russell points for confidence and determination.

Three years with Williams made him ready for Mercedes in 2022

The Williams team is a virtual non-entity in Formula 1, meaning the three finishes in the top 10 that George Russell scored (plus the quirky points from the Belgian GP non-race) last season qualified as a minor miracle.

The expectation is that he will take advantage of Mercedes’ superior assets and finish in the top five in the 2022 points. Truthfully, Mercedes desperately needs him to finish third or maybe fourth to hang on to the constructors’ championship, which determines the distribution of prize money. Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas barely held off Red Bull Racing in 2021 for Mercedes’ eighth straight title.

Russell already seized one opportunity with Mercedes. He subbed for Hamilton at the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix, qualified second, and roared to the lead early in the race. His crew’s botched pit stop and a tire puncture later left Russell in ninth place for the day, but Mercedes recognized it had chosen wisely.

Now, it’s up to Russell to show everyone that the third year of Formula 1 seasoning completed his preparation.

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