How Mercedes rivalry could hand Max Verstappen a third World title

2022 Sao Paulo Grand Prix, Saturday - George Russell and Lewis Hamilton
2022 Sao Paulo Grand Prix, Saturday - George Russell and Lewis Hamilton

Following a bitter battle with Mercedes in 2021, Max Verstappen and Red Bull took full advantage of the Silver Arrows dropping the ball with their car concept for 2022, by sweeping aside the challenge of Ferrari.

Ferrari’s own mistakes only served to underscore the dominance of the Milton Keynes team, as Red Bull won the Constructors’ title for the first time since 2013.

In 2023, Mercedes are expected to be somewhat resurgent and return to the battle at the front on a regular basis.

But could their driver pairing of Lewis Hamilton and George Russell, arguably the strongest pairing on the grid, prove to be a hindrance to either driver launching a serious challenge to Verstappen this year?

Russell impressive in 2022

After a season where the car was unpredictable and inconsistent in 2022, the Silver Arrows finally seemed to engineer some consistency into the W13, which allowed the team to claim its only Grand Prix victory in Sao Paulo, George Russell’s maiden win after the 24-year-old had also won the Sprint on Saturday.

And while Russell beat seven-time World Champion teammate Lewis Hamilton in the points, 275-240, Hamilton, who will be 38 by lights out in Bahrain for the season opener, had the edge in Qualifying, winning the overall head-to-head 13-11.

At face value, looking at championship position and the fact that Russell scored a victory and Hamilton did not, it would seem that the pair are similarly matched, but that would ignore how much of his own success Hamilton sacrificed in the early rounds to get on top of the bouncing issues the car suffered with.

Hamilton as good as ever, even if the points didn’t show it

Once the car had been tamed somewhat, Hamilton was soon able to display his considerable talents behind the wheel, although Russell had by then settled into a streak of nine top-five finishes, which would only end with the first-lap collision at the British GP.

Russell’s ability should not be discounted in sparking that excellent run of early-season form.

Having come from the regularly uncompetitive Williams package, the Kings-Lynn-born driver was able to solve car balance issues more effectively for his own benefit and being familiar with the team itself, having been a Mercedes junior driver.

Add in Russell’s speed and consistency; the result was a healthy championship position versus his teammate.

Hamilton soon exerted some control over the performance balance within the team, as the W13 closed on the Ferrari in performance, the most obvious example coming in Budapest, where Russell had claimed his first career pole position, but Hamilton recovered from seventh on the grid to outperform his younger teammate.

Russell subsequently suffered a drop in form, speaking of a “mental dip”, just as the W13 peaked in performance in 2022, but bounced back from his slump in Sao Paulo to eventually hold off Hamilton for the win.

Hamilton had tangled with Verstappen early in the race and picked up some small damage, but was still able to match and better Russell’s lap times during the race.

A win though, as they say, is a win, however they come.

Both drivers will expect to challenge in 2023

In the broader context of the season, both Hamilton and Russell will feel they can take on Verstappen and Red Bull in a title fight in 2023.

Russell has proven to be just as quick as the man he replaced at Mercedes, Valtteri Bottas, in Qualifying, but far more effective in race-trim and more robust in combat.

Hamilton, of course, we know all about and a title challenge is the minimum he will expect from the W14.

That Russell wasn’t blown away by Hamilton bodes well for both his own and Mercedes’ future but it could also lead to a confrontation between the pair on track for in-house supremacy and almost the “right” to challenge Verstappen for the Dutchman’s crown.

There is no reason to believe that Verstappen or Red Bull will slow down in 2023, so how Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff manages his drivers could shape the direction of another battle with F1’s newest double World Champion.

Mercedes are known for allowing their drivers to race, with the rare occasion they have stepped in with team orders, obedience from the drivers has been a big talking point.

In the past, Wolff has talked of not wishing to revisit the Hamilton-Rosberg days, where the animosity led to several major flashpoints.

Should the pair remain close in 2023, Russell and Hamilton could inadvertently cost each other a shot at a world title and pave the way for Verstappen to win his third title on the bounce.

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