Lewis Hamilton’s two-year contract extension is a timely reminder that actually the generations are now well and truly turning.
Not only is Max Verstappen – 13 years Hamilton’s junior – convincingly leading the world championship, but Charles Leclerc and Pierre Gasly are already grand prix winners, Carlos Sainz will surely be one soon and both Lando Norris and George Russell have recently been creating a stir.
The two British drivers delivered particularly sensational performances in the most recent grand prix, at the Red Bull Ring.
Norris qualified on the front row and ran the race at Mercedes pace in a McLaren that, though much improved, is still not genuinely a Mercedes match.
Hamilton, after finally getting the upper hand in a long dice as the McLaren’s rear tyres faded, radioed-in his admiration: “Such a great driver, Lando.” Valtteri Bottas’ Merc only got ahead through Norris’ 5s penalty at his pit stop for his earlier contact with Sergio Perez.
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Russell meanwhile had got his Williams through to Q3 for the first time, in a car that on merit should be a Q1 casualty. He too has an elder statesman admiring his performances.
Fernando Alonso engaged him in a late race dice for the final point and came out on top, but has repeatedly stated his respect for the job Russell is doing in the Williams, which reminds those with long memories of Alonso in an outclassed Minardi in 2001.
These are just the latest and most head-turning performances of the former F2 rivals, each now in their third seasons of F1 and clearly showing their potential race-winning credentials.
Russell, 15 months older at 23, came into F1 with a little more experience and was instantly super-impressive.
In three years he’s yet to be out-qualified by a team mate at Williams, though it’s fair to say the quality of that competition has been less than that facing Norris at McLaren.
Even in his one-off at Mercedes last year in a car he’d not previously driven and which he didn’t properly fit, Russell was only just shaded by Bottas in qualifying – before then out-performing him in the race.
McLaren of course has provided Norris with a more competitive car in the last three seasons than Williams has been able to give Russell and this has allowed him to more obviously shop-window his skills.
Using the barometer of team-mate Carlos Sainz in 2019 and ’20, Norris worked on his weaknesses but right from the start his peak performances were often superb.
This year for the first time he has been able to produce those peaks pretty much on demand. His final Q3 lap at the second Austria race was arguably the quali lap of the year so far and several times he has been ahead of faster cars in the early stages of the race.
They are both now turning in world class performances pretty much every weekend. But how soon that potential is unleashed in race-winning machinery is not strictly under their control.
For Russell everything appears to hinge on his being given the Mercedes seat currently occupied by Bottas. Should he get it, the game suddenly becomes a whole lot tougher and the direct comparison with Hamilton will be enough to expose even the most minute flaws. He’s more than intelligent enough to accept, understand and respond to any weaknesses that become apparent in that process.
Ideally, he can show Mercedes that he can be their long-term succession plan, looking ahead to the day when Hamilton finally calls time on his career. In the meantime, he’d be in the perfect place to learn as well as compete. But we can be pretty sure if he does get the opportunity, he will not be going in there with the idea of being in a support role.
For Norris, who recently extended his commitment to McLaren to the end of 2023, winning races is dependent upon the team continuing its recent progress towards the front.
The regulation reset of 2022 and the associated cost cap could just be a game changer in that regard and if McLaren can emerge from that process as an absolute front rank team, Norris is fully capable of being the standard bearer for it, winning races and fighting for titles.
There are several potential world champions on the grid. But Russell and Norris are certainly two of them.
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