The long-awaited announcement of Lewis Hamilton's contract renewal with Mercedes has sparked a frenzy of further speculation, with the 7 time world champion only signing on for the 2021 season, and not a multi-year contract as widely anticipated.
All eyes are now firmly on the 2022 driver line-up, with both Hamilton and Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas out of contract at the end of 2021. George Russell, a Mercedes protege who's contract with Williams also ends in 2021, will no doubt be eyeing up one of the seats, whilst Red Bull's Max Verstappen has often been touted as Hamilton's successor when the Brit finally decides to retire from the sport he has dominated with Mercedes for the last 7 years.
Whether or not a one-year deal was what Hamilton wanted, it leaves the power firmly in Mercedes hands for their 2022 driver line-up. Verstappen is contracted to Red Bull until the end of 2023, but there are often break clauses on the driver's contracts which Verstappen could likely exploit, especially given the departure of Red Bull's engine supplier, Honda, at the end of 2021, and even though the seismic regulation changes pose a threat to Mercedes' dominance, any driver would surely jump at the opportunity to driver for the team. As a result, Mercedes may be able to pick from any of the four drivers mentioned as they please.
On paper, it appears that the latest news about Hamilton is good news for Russell, as both current Mercedes drivers being at risk of leaving the team increases the likelihood of him driving for the Silver Arrows from 2022. But when we delve deeper into the possible line-ups, it appears that it's not as rosy for Russell as you might think.
If Hamilton eventually does re-sign for Mercedes in 2022, the team will be keen to avoid a team-mate that is combative and may pose a threat to Hamilton and the team's title push. Mercedes certainly won't have forgotten the highly challenging situation between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg - team mates from 2013 to 2016 - which soured and resulted in a number of on-track collisions which cost the team several race wins.
Mercedes' significant advantage over the rest of the grid (from 2014) meant that ultimately, the tension between Hamilton and Rosberg never put the drivers and constructors titles at risk - but there is absolutely no guarantee of that being the case in 2022 with the new regulations. Lessons will also have been learnt from Hamilton's rookie season in 2007, when, driving for McLaren alongside Fernando Alonso, tensions boiled over and ultimately handed drivers title to Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen.
Unfortunately, Russell appears to be the Hamilton of yesteryear - which in any other context would be a compliment. Mercedes would surely opt for Bottas to drive as Hamilton's team mate once again in 2022, with a clear de facto hierarchy in place after 5 years of team harmony, rather than risk fireworks by putting Russell alongside Hamilton.
Russell stood in for Hamilton at the 2020 Sakhir GP when the latter tested positive for Covid-19, and was hugely impressive, overtaking Bottas at the start and was set to win until a major pitstop blunder by Mercedes halted his charge. To outperform Bottas in the same machinery, which Russell had stepped into last minute, was nothing short of sensational and at the time, it felt that he was an absolute shoo-in for one of the Mercedes' seats for 2022.
In that sense, Russell is very much a victim of his own success. By showing just how fast he can be at Sakhir, and suggesting that he has the ability to deal with the pressure of driving at the front, may have blacklisted him as a potential team-mate to Hamilton.
The alternative suggestion, naturally, is for Russell to become Team Leader alongside the likes of Bottas, if and when Hamilton retires. But this solution isn't foolproof either; whilst Russell's outing at Sakhir was mightily impressive, he lacks experience in driving anywhere near the front in F1, or even in a midfield car. Russell's 2 years in F1 so far have been in the highly uncompetitive Williams, and whilst he has managed to drag some impressive qualifying pace out of the car, it may be considered a risk to take a driver from the slowest car on the grid and expect him to perform consistently over 20+ races.
This lack of experience is only emphasised when compared to Verstappen, who despite being only 5 months older, has been in F1 4 years longer and has more wins (10) than Russell does points (3). Whilst this is obviously a reflection of the machinery that Russell has had and the lesser number of races, it truly shows that Verstappen has the experience to match the hype.
Russell's best bet may well be to stick with Williams - who will be desperate to keep him - for 2022, bank on the team providing a more competitive car in which he can at least challenge for points in, and hope that Hamilton sticks with Mercedes until the end of 2022 before retiring and leaving the door open for Russell to join the team.
Whatever happens next, Russell may just come to regret his stand-in with Mercedes at Sakhir - what may have seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime may have simply proved that he is 'too fast' to be a number 2 driver, without proving to Mercedes that he is unquestionably their best option in the coming years.