What Lewis Hamilton’s clash with George Russell tells us about state of play at Mercedes

Hamilton apologised to Russell after their first-lap collision at the Qatar Grand Prix – but for how much longer can respect be maintained?

Kieran Jackson
Formula 1 Correspondent
Monday 09 October 2023 13:27 BST
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Lewis Hamilton apologises to George Russell after collision in Qatar

The post-race video on Mercedes’ social media channels was exquisitely timed. It captured Lewis Hamilton walking over to George Russell in the Silver Arrows motorhome in Qatar: an apology, an embrace. “Sorry about that, it wasn’t your fault,” said the seven-time world champion. No fallout. No outrage.

The message was clear: let it be known that the collision which derailed both drivers’ race on Sunday night is unequivocally brushed under the carpet. Incidents like this happens. It is, after all, racing.

However, the reality is that this one has been brewing for some time.

Lewis Hamilton apologises to George Russell after collision in Qatar

The initial rumblings on team radio tell a better story. Russell, sandwiched in-between Max Verstappen and Hamilton at turn one, bellowing: “Come on, what the hell! That is two races in a row.” Somewhat remarkably, he recovered from dead last to finish fourth.

Hamilton, though later taking full responsibility, insisted he was “taken out by his team-mate.” The 38-year-old was left beached in the gravel, his race run after a matter of seconds. All in all, it marks the end of quite a tumultuous month for Mercedes in Asia.

Because what has largely characterised Hamilton and Russell’s relationship since the latter joined from Williams at the start of 2022 – his long-awaited opportunity of a lifetime – is respect. Two British drivers, 13 years apart. Hamilton: one of the greatest of all time. Russell: the next big thing.

Both have grown equally frustrated at Mercedes’ underperformance in the past 18 months. A period defined by a car with a misdirected philosophy. A period of anguish and pain, both literally with last year’s porpoising and mentally with constant problems and a lack of pace. A period of one win in 39 races.

But despite all the issues, respect had been maintained. And, they both say now, it still is. The video – captioned “actions speak louder than words” – points to that. But the touch paper has most certainly been lit.

It started in Singapore, when Russell’s eagerness to taste victory resulted in a last lap mistake and shunt into the wall. Hamilton was on his tail then and profiteered to finish on the podium.

Hamilton and Russell almost came together in Japan two weeks ago

A week later, in Japan, it intensified. The pair scrapped on numerous occasions, both on track in feisty moves and off track with different strategies and approaches. Russell, upon resisting an initial team order to let Hamilton pass, was told in no uncertain terms: “This is an instruction, George.”

Hamilton was also unsatisfied with his team’s tactics in Suzuka, told to stay within DRS range to Russell behind to help his team-mate defend from Carlos Sainz. In the end, the elder statesman finished fifth, two places clear of his junior.

So contrary to what both may believe, Sunday’s first turn collision – when both had a sniff and a glimpse of the lead – had been in the offing for Hamilton and Russell. And while both may well want to leave the Middle East with a mantra of forgive and forget, it points to a deeper tale emerging within the team.

Both signed new deals last month until the end of the 2025 season. Both are desperate for success: Hamilton for that record-breaking eighth title, a title unjustly snatched from him in Abu Dhabi in 2021, and Russell to simply be in a fight for a championship. But when two competitive animals, vying to be No 1, are left fighting for every point and position, clashes are something of an inevitability. This incident will not be the last.

Russell and Hamilton have clashed in the absence of Mercedes boss Toto Wolff (left)

We saw it with Hamilton and Nico Rosberg; a partnership with blew up at various points in 2016. Further back, you only have to go to Hamilton’s rookie season when he squared up to two-time world champion Fernando Alonso across the garage. It is little wonder Hamilton says his team-mate between 2017-2021 – when he won four of his seven titles – was his favourite. Valtteri Bottas never quite had the pace to match-up to the indomitable Hamilton.

But Russell does not want to fall into that same bracket. Telling The Independent a year ago of his “ultimate goal” to win a world championship, his ambitions are sky-high. So much so, in fact, that he finished above his team-mate in last season’s standings and will be ruing a few errors this year which means he currently trails Hamilton by 62 points and is languishing in eighth spot, now below Lando Norris. Behind the impeccable politeness is an intense competitiveness and Russell is not interested in playing second fiddle.

It all makes for an intriguing sub-plot to play out in the remaining five races of the season as we cross over to the Americas. The state of play in the Mercedes garage is bubbling up, to a point where something may well have to give. Toto Wolff was absent in Japan and Qatar due to undergoing knee surgery, but dialled in on Sunday to calm Russell down. After the incidents in the past two races, no doubt he will be back present in Austin in two weeks’ time and, frankly, both drivers might just need their boss back in town.

The respect still seems present between the two Brits – but for how much longer?

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