Formula 1: Mercedes must find a 2019 seat for George Russell

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 10: George Russell of Great Britain and Force India prepares to drive in the garage during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 10, 2017 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 10: George Russell of Great Britain and Force India prepares to drive in the garage during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 10, 2017 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images) /

As the contract dominoes begin to fall around the Formula 1 paddock, Mercedes would be wise to act quickly and secure a 2019 drive for their standout junior and current Formula 2 championship leader George Russell.

Having recently re-signed the reigning four-time world champion Lewis Hamilton for two more years and extended the contract of his teammate Valtteri Bottas for another season, Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport have locked in their lineup for the 2019 Formula 1 season, and they have kick-started the annual game of musical chairs, which tends to filter its way down the grid.

However, Mercedes cannot afford to sit back and watch the chaos unfold just yet with their British reserve driver, 20-year-old George Russell, placing mounting pressure on the four-time defending constructor champion to find him a spot in Formula 1 next year with several dominant performances in Formula 2 series so far this season.

Currently driving for ART Grand Prix, Russell leads the driver standings by 37 points with 10 races remaining on the back of five podium finishes in his last six starts and three consecutive finishes in second place.

Russell’s 170-point haul has also included feature race wins at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Spain, Circuit Paul Ricard in France and the Red Bull Ring in Austria in addition to a spectacular sprint victory on the streets of Baku in Azerbaijan.

In fact, it could be argued that Russell’s most impressive race craft has come on a Sunday in the reverse-grid races. Whilst not necessarily taking the checkered flag, after starting towards the back of the top 10, his ability to rapidly slice through the mid-field pack and onto the podium has been on full display.

Simply put, Russell is a class above an overwhelming majority of the best young drivers outside of Formula 1.

Akin to Alfa Romeo Sauber’s rising star, Charles Leclerc, if Russell can close out the 2018 Formula 2 championship, he would have secured both the GP3 and F2 titles in back-to-back seasons.

Further comparisons with Leclerc, who is the raging hot favorite to replace Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari in 2019 (or 2020), might be slightly premature, but Mercedes should be looking to replicate the Scuderia in their management of an insanely talented young driver with an eye on the future after Hamilton and Bottas.

This starts with pulling out all the stops to get Russell in a Formula 1 car next season to give him a year or two of top-flight experience before potentially moving him “back” to Mercedes as a replacement for Bottas in 2020 or 2021 or possibly a retiring Hamilton in 2021.

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Just as Ferrari kept Leclerc close to home at Sauber, Mercedes should keep Russell close to home, which leaves Sahara Force India and Williams Martini Racing as the most logical suitors.

At first glance, the rock-solid point scoring tandem of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez gives the Force India outfit little incentive to make any changes for 2019. That said, Ocon, who himself is part of the Mercedes setup, has naturally been linked to Renault, particularly if the French team lose Carlos Sainz Jr. to McLaren or send him back to Scuderia Toro Rosso due to the new Red Bull Racing engine deal with Honda.

Similarly, Perez could end up in the Haas alongside Kevin Magnussen if they make the tough decision to cut ties with Romain Grosjean due to his subpar performances, opening the door for Mercedes to cut a deal with their customer team to take on Russell.

Alternatively, if Lance Stroll decides to take his substantial financial backing elsewhere, possibly to Force India, then Mercedes could loan Russell to Williams. Another seat might be available too, depending on whether Williams (and sponsors) stick with Sergey Sirotkin, who is the only driver in Formula 1 who has failed to score a point through the first 11 races of the 2018 season.

Further reports suggest that Mercedes could inject a significant investment into Williams and essentially turn them into a Toro Rosso-esque “B-Team”, although that speculation has been denied.

Entertaining this scenario, the team would probably feature Russell and another Mercedes prospect such as Pascal Wehrlein in 2019 over current reserve driver Robert Kubica, unfortunately hampering his prospects of a dream return to Formula 1.

Elsewhere, it is particularly difficult to see Russell racing in a Honda, Renault or obviously a Ferrari-powered car next season. Given the choice, there is no question that Mercedes should favor putting him at Force India provided Ocon or Perez (or both) leave the team.

Notably, Russell is no stranger to Force India having tested for them in free practice in Interlagos, Brazil and Yas Marina, United Arab Emirates in 2017 as well as Catalunya, Spain for the Pirelli tyre test this past May.

The “Pink Panther” offers a competitive mid-field car that is capable of scoring points on a weekly basis. This is a stark comparison to the Williams cars, which have been relegated to the back of the grid. A ride at Force India would provide a more appropriate Formula 1 apprenticeship for Russell and give him every chance at impressing Toto Wolff enough for promotion to the works Mercedes team in 2020 or 2021.

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That said, if an open seat at Force India does not materialize, then it is still important for Mercedes to at least get Russell into Formula 1 with a ride at Williams. He is far too gifted behind the wheel to be kept off the grid in 2019.