Horner expects Hamilton to face a battle with Russell in F1 this year

MARTIN SAMUEL: Christian Horner expects Lewis Hamilton to face a fierce battle in the new Formula One season… but with team-mate George Russell, not title rival Max Verstappen

  • The new Formula One season begins with the Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday
  • Lewis Hamilton will once again fight for the title with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen
  • But Christian Horner thinks that Hamilton will face competition within Mercedes
  • George Russell has joined the team and will not simply be Hamilton’s wingman 

Fireworks, says Christian Horner, when asked what he expects from this Formula One season, but he is not talking about the explosion everyone expects.

Lewis Hamilton versus Max Verstappen; Mercedes versus Red Bull — well, that is a given. We know the recent history that still smarts, we know the rivalry that built and built until last year’s stunning denouement in Abu Dhabi. Snarkiness abounds.

Verstappen still doubts Mercedes’ doom-laden assessments of their competitiveness this year; Hamilton is still insistent the FIA report into the race that decided last season’s championship should be published. There is little respect on either side, and zero trust.

The F1 campaign begins on Sunday, 98 days after Max Verstappen controversially won the title

Yet these are not the sparks intriguing Horner. He is more interested in Hamilton’s fledgling relationship with his new team-mate George Russell.

In any other season their partnership would surely be the hot topic. It is only the soap opera of last season’s finish that has diverted attention from the delicate act of balancing Hamilton’s status with the ambitions of his young colleague.

‘They call them team-mates, but that’s one thing they are absolutely not,’ Horner said, with only the merest hint of mischief.

‘The guy in the other car is dictating your worth, your value because he’s the only one with the same equipment, so he is the guy you’re always measured against.

George Russell made it clear he has not joined Mercedes to act as Lewis Hamilton’s wingman

‘For Mercedes, it’s a different dynamic to the one they’ve had for four or five years with Valtteri Bottas. George Russell is a quick lad. He’s young, ambitious, he’s not going to just be Lewis’s wingman.

‘He knows if he gets beaten up over the next two years that then defines his value going forward. Against that, if he wins some races and becomes a challenger, that then elevates him.

‘Look at the next 10 years of the sport — Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, Carlos Sainz, Lando Norris — George is part of that group. He’ll want to maintain that.’

Verstappen has long insisted Hamilton had it all his own way at Mercedes because Bottas was the lesser driver. Russell is not. His huge promise is the reason Mercedes have made the switch now, at the risk of upsetting the equilibrium. 

 Hamilton still insists that the FIA report into the final of race last season should be published

Equally, they know Hamilton is completing the final laps of his career and want a successor ready. Russell is that man.

‘It’s a harder gameplan with two centre forwards,’ Horner added.

‘I remember when Daniel Ricciardo came into our team with Sebastian Vettel. Daniel was a young guy, couple of years’ experience, similar to George. 

‘He won three races to Sebastian’s zero and beat him in the championship. And that was a big factor in Sebastian moving to Ferrari.

‘Daniel came in without the pressure and drove a brilliant season. Hamilton versus Fernando Alonso was also like that — it’s the natural evolution of sport.

‘When you’ve got a clear strategy, it makes life easier. We’ve got a clear set-up at Red Bull. Both drivers get the same chance but we expect Max to be the challenger. It’s a difficult dynamic.

Christian Horner thinks there will be an intense battle between Hamilton and Russell this year

‘I don’t know what Mercedes have said to George, but I presume they told him he has the same opportunity and it’s up to him what he does on the circuit. In the end, the drivers are part of the team. It’s Red Bull Racing, not Max Verstappen Racing.

‘You’ve got to be up front. We had it in Azerbaijan a few years ago when Daniel and Max collided, self-interest over team interest. 

‘But you saw our teamwork in races last year. I don’t know Mercedes’ racing mantra, but they could take points off each other which would be good for us.’

What makes this first race particularly compelling is the extent to which Mercedes’ rivals can take advantage of design issues affecting the constructors’ champions.

 24-year-old Russell is seen as Hamilton’s long-term successor in the Mercedes camp


Verstappen may dismiss Hamilton’s pessimism — claiming he talks the car down every year — but this week Russell compared driving it to enduring extreme turbulence on a flight, saying it could cause injury in the cockpit, and that no amount of experience can prepare a driver for the challenge.

Somewhere, there is a mechanical engineer with a PhD and a brain the size of a F1 tyre, who has to find a way of controlling this beast. In the meantime, Mercedes’ rivals look on and determine to take advantage.

‘It could be random in the early races,’ Horner added. ‘But, sure, if what Mercedes are saying is right, we’ve got to make hay while the sun shines. If they do have an issue, it won’t be for long.’

If Mercedes are hiding their potential — sandbagging, rivals call it — the subterfuge continued in practice yesterday. Russell went faster than Hamilton, but the bouncing that has been such a problem in testing was also visible. 

Seven-time champion Hamilton looked seriously off the pace during practice in Bahrain

Sparks were flying, never a good sign, and Hamilton reported brake issues. Verstappen looked smooth, content, fast. Ferrari, as expected, were also quick; but then they often are, before the racing starts.

‘People think it’s just going to be Lewis versus Max,’ Horner mused, ‘but I think other drivers will be involved this season.’

He will be hoping Russell is one. External turbulence can be corrected; internal is quite another matter. They have got to fix the bouncing first, mind.

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