While George Russell’s explosive performance in Bahrain knighted a new star it has also opened a mighty smelly can of worms for champions Mercedes.
And having flipped the lid on this particular Pandora’s Box boss Toto Wolff may be left wishing he’d kept it shut.
With just two days in the cockpit the 22-year-old outshone Mercedes regular driver Valtteri Bottas. And consequently he has seen his own reputation sky-rocket but knocked chunks out of Hamilton value as he negotiates a new deal. While Bottas’ stock has plunged to an all-time low. But this is where it starts to get slightly murky.
The clamour will only increase, of course, for Russell to replace Bottas in 2021. But are Mercedes willing to break up a winning team ?
Yes the overall result would be a more competitive operation but if Hamilton’s mojo is disrupted their carefully constructed house of cards may collapse.
Wolff has already shown he is unwilling to accept two roosters in the same henhouse. And it’s a mistake to think Bottas needs to be a winner. Wolff doesn’t require him to be.
He actually just wants a decent No 2. One who is happy to lose, lose quietly, with dignity. And finish second.
That’s why the history books will faithfully record an era of monumental Mercedes domination but do so without any real zeal and the dust will soon blow over it without any real regret.
Michael Schumacher won five titles in a row from 2000. Ferrari won six. Twenty-years on no-one calls it the Ferrari era.
And so it will be with the Silver Arrows brand. There has been so little of the wheel-to-wheel drama that made the Senna-Prost years with McLaren so iconic.
Not apart from a few races when Nico Rosberg and Hamilton went toe-to-toe. They soon put a stop to that.
And then there’s the $64 million question: if another driver can cram himself into the cockpit and walk away with the spoils after a few hours driving maybe Hamilton really isn’t so exceptional after all.
He’s good. Of course he is, but maybe he doesn’t have to be special to win in this car against this teammate.
Hamilton versus Alonso in 2007 has done more for his reputation than the last four years at Mercedes, championships and all.
I look at the Alain Prost-Ayrton Senna rivalry and I wonder. They were nip and tuck, the honours shared, pretty much. Hamilton versus Fernando Alonso, too.
Then look at Hamilton-Bottas. Hamilton has four titles, Bottas nine wins. He hasn’t come close.
You know how you can tell when is a driver is being continually pushed to his limits? When he makes mistakes. Usually in qualifying. He is putting it all out there because he has to. He’s forced to. And errors creep in.
I don’t buy it that Hamilton is so damn silky smooth he just knows exactly where the limit is. Always. He’s just nowhere near his limit.
Of course he says “It’s always so tight with Valtteri”. Who wouldn’t ?
He also says “my brakes are not working” just before he sets fastest lap or “my tyres won’t last much longer” before he goes on an extra 25 lap stint that wins him the race. That’s the game.
Yes, Hamilton would happily take on anyone. He’d enjoy it too. But why would he invite trouble to his door?
And the sad thing is that Mercedes are happy it is that way. It’s easy to manage, stupid dramas are rare and the trophy cabinet continues to grow. But its oh so boring.
We’re still talking about a few laps of Rosberg-Hamilton at Bahrain and Abu Dhabi four years later. Is there a truly memorable Bottas-Hamilton battle? I can’t think of one.
Mercedes are doing it for hard-nosed, commercial, reasons – to sell road cars and build passion for the brand. And are they? They are reliable cars. They go. Ho hum. Has the Hamilton era changed the perception of the brand that much? Hardly. And I’m a fan of their cars and used to own one.
Passionate, fierce racing makes for a passionate fierce following. Trolling around endlessly, even at the front, does not.
Mercedes may be selling a few more cars but have they cut into the passion in people’s soul evoked by a Ferrari or Alfa? Not a bit.
Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not Mercedes fault. It certainly is. They could have a more dynamic pairing, they just chose not to. It’s too much bother and too much risk.
How many championships do Mercedes have to win before they remember they are racers not trophy collectors?
So should they slot in Russell for 2021? Yes. Will they? No, of course not.