The 'car vs driver' debate rages on...

By autoX Editorial | on January 20, 2021

George Russell’s Mercedes debut might have ended in heartbreak, but his performance has opened a can of worms on the ‘car vs driver’ debate.

Lewis Hamilton is, statistically, the greatest F1 driver of all time. But how much of his success is down to the Mercedes car that he drives? It’s a topic that attracts raging arguments from fans and critics of the sport alike. And the Sakhir Grand Prix has undoubtedly added fuel to the fire. 

Hamilton missed the second round at Bahrain after testing positive for Coronavirus. George Russell, who currently drives for Williams Racing, substituted the 7-time world champion at Sakhir Grand Prix. Russell is part of the Mercedes junior driver programme and without a doubt an extraordinary talent – the 22-year-old Brit was the 2018 Formula 2 and 2017 GP3 champion. He made his F1 debut in 2019 with Williams – a tail-ender team that’s struggling big time at the moment. Because of a slow car, Russell obviously hasn’t had any success in F1 so far. However, he is clearly a great talent, and his results with Williams are proof of that. In 2019, Russell out-qualified his then-teammate, Robert Kubica in all 21 races – a record that was unbroken even in 2020, with Russell outqualifying his current teammate Nicholas Latifi in all races this year. So, when Russell was called in to replace Hamilton, it was his time to rise and shine, which he clearly did. It’s a different story that it ended with a heartbreak…

Right off the bat, Russell meant business – he topped the very first practice session in the Mercedes and missed pole position by only 26 milliseconds to teammate Valtteri Bottas. Despite being P2, Russell dominated the opening stages after pipping Bottas off the line at the start. Russell had a healthy lead at the front, but it all went downhill soon. A Safety Car period led to Mercedes pitting both their drivers for a double stack-up, which went horribly wrong, owing to a pit-lane confusion in the Mercedes garage. This meant that the team sent Russell out on a mixed set of tyres, and Bottas’ stop was unnecessarily delayed. It was a colossal mistake, as both drivers lost track positions. Russell was called in again to replace the tyres, and he dropped to fifth behind Bottas. 

Still, Russell battled through the pack, overtook Bottas with a spectacular move, and was back in second place, two seconds behind Sergio Perez. However, a puncture forced Russell to drop back again, and he had to make another stop. A disheartened Russell finished in ninth position. Perez, meantime, took his maiden F1 win. 

While Russell couldn’t win the race, his performance proved two things. First, Mercedes, without a doubt, is superior to any other car on the grid. Of course, Hamilton has proved it time and again, but had it not been for his cruel luck, Russell was on course to win the race, just as dominantly as Hamilton. Secondly, while the car definitely plays a major role in F1 these days, one can’t deny that the true potential of a machine can only be extracted by a top tier driver. For instance, as good as Bottas is, he isn’t able to match Hamilton. On the other hand, Russell proved that he can be a race winner from day 1 in that car. Whether he can match Hamilton’s consistency is something that only time will tell.

However, we won’t see Russell and Hamilton battling it out in the same team – not for another year at least. Mercedes has confirmed that Bottas will stay with the team in 2021, while Russell is committed to Williams for another season. Could we see Hamilton and Russell paired together at Mercedes in 2022? Well, that’ll be a fiery combo, but will Mercedes dare to take that risk?  

F1 2020 in a nutshell

Lewis Hamilton

The Relentless
Lewis Hamilton was undoubtedly the driver of the year. In 2020, Hamilton won his seventh world championship, equalling the all-time record of Michael Schumacher. Not only that, he’s now F1’s most successful driver of all time, with 95 race wins under his belt. Eleven of those wins came this year alone. Hamilton is expected to continue for at least a couple more years, and if his winning rate remains as high, he is going to retire as the greatest F1 driver of all time – statistically, at least.

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes F1

Mighty Merc
Since the start of the turbo-hybrid era, Mercedes-AMG has dominated the sport and how! They’ve won every driver’s and constructor’s championship since 2014. 2020 was no exception, as the team bagged both the titles yet again. Mercedes won 13 races out of 17 this year, which clearly demonstrates their superiority over others.

Pierre Gasly Alpha Tauri

Monza Magic
Monza is a special place, thanks to Ferrari and its army of fans. Despite both of them missing from action this year, the racing action at Monza was still incredible. A thrilling and unpredictable race unfolded with AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly claiming his maiden F1 win, ahead of Sainz and Lance Stroll. It was, without a doubt, the race of the season.

Max Verstappen

Max Out
There was only one driver who came close to challenging Mercedes this year – Max Verstappen. The Red Bull Racing driver bagged two victories and a pole position in 2020 and finished the season in P3, behind the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. More impressively, he scored 100 points more than teammate Alex Albon.

McLaren F1

Steady McLaren
McLaren finished third in the team’s championship behind Mercedes and Red Bull, making it the best of the rest. Sure, McLaren didn’t have the pace to challenge the top two teams, but thanks to the consistent results of its drivers – Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris – McLaren was back in top-three for the first time in eight years.

Romain Grosjean

Grosjean braves it out
The Bahrain Grand Prix turned into a horror show when Romain Grosjean’s Haas shot into the barrier and turned into a fireball. Grosjean was stuck in the fire for 28 seconds but bravely walked out of the car in what quickly became F1’s most powerful image of 2020. Thankfully, Grosjean only suffered minor burns and is already recovering.

Scuderia F1

Ferrari Falters
The 2020 season is one to forget for Ferrari and Tifosi, as it marked the team’s worst season finish in 40 years. Between 2017 and 2019, Ferrari was the only team to challenge Mercedes in the championship, as it finished second on both occasions. This year Ferrari dropped to sixth in the championship, and the team achieved only three podiums in total.

Read more:

From the horse's mouth: Romain Grosjean's account of his Bahrain GP crash

Why's F1 2020 turning into a procession?

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