Formula 1: The underrated driver who could challenge for the title

George Russell, Mercedes, Formula 1 (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
George Russell, Mercedes, Formula 1 (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) /

There is one driver who doesn’t get talked about nearly as much when it comes to Formula 1’s top and potential championship-contending teams.

When it comes to Formula 1 world championship contenders and rising young stars, everybody who gets discussed is discussed for all the right reasons.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen is a two-time reigning world champion who is coming off the winningest season in Formula 1 history. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was his closest challenger in 2022, opening the season as the points leader for the first several races.

Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton is still hungry for what would be a record-breaking eighth world title, and McLaren’s Lando Norris is a driver whom many believe can be the next big thing once either McLaren can give him a championship-caliber race car or he leaves for Red Bull, Ferrari, or Mercedes.

Verstappen is currently listed by FanDuel Sportsbook as the favorite to win the 2023 title, which would be his third, at -170 (bet $170 to win $100). Leclerc is listed second at +500 (bet $100 to win $500) Hamilton, who was the preseason favorite in both 2021 and 2022 when Verstappen won, is listed third at +550.

But there is one Formula 1 driver who hasn’t cracked the top three and doesn’t generally generate a ton of buzz, and that is Mercedes’ George Russell.

Russell, listed fourth at +1400, has every reason to be confident in his championship chances if Mercedes can give him a car capable of consistently competing at the front, and he demonstrated that last year.

Prior to 2022, the 2016 season was the most recent season in which Hamilton was beaten by a teammate. Unlike Nico Rosberg, whom Hamilton had beaten relatively comfortably en route to his 2014 and 2015 world titles, that year, Russell led his teammate nearly wire-to-wire, leaving little doubt over what he is capable of.

Replicating that performance won’t be easy in 2023, but starting off 1-0 against the driver who is statistically the greatest of all-time is surely a healthy confidence booster.

For Hamilton, you almost have to wonder if knowing he wasn’t going to have the car to compete for a world championship early on last year took something out of him. While he and the team were accused of bluffing when making the early claim that they probably wouldn’t be able to fight in 2022 amid the new rules and regulations, it turned out to be 100% true.

Of course, the team’s struggles held true for both drivers, but Russell seemed to consistently be able to extract the absolute most out of the troubled W13.

He found himself ahead of the seven-time world champion in the standings after 21 of 22 races, the lone exception being the season opener, and finished ahead of him in every major statistical category except podium finishes.

In the first four races of the year, Hamilton finished in 10th place or lower on raw pace on two occasions. Russell averaged seven spots higher than his teammate in those two events.

A sixth place finish in the standings was the worst of Hamilton’s 15-year career. Even excluding that, Russell’s fourth place finish still would have been the second worst for any Mercedes driver since 2014.

But it was less of a “down” year for Russell because it was by far a career-best season. He had never had the chance to drive anything resembling race-winning equipment in his three seasons at Williams, where simply scoring points proved challenging.

So while 2022 was a rough season for Mercedes and brought a screeching halt to their run of eight consecutive world constructor championships, a stretch during which they averaged nearly 14 wins per year, and it ended a 15-year win streak for Hamilton, it was almost like a breath of fresh air for Russell — and a reason for his confidence to continue to grow.

Russell accounted for Mercedes’ lone win and both of their pole positions in 2022, and he led more than twice as many laps as Hamilton did, all while recording a better average starting position and a better average finish than the sport’s all-time winningest driver — and all-time best qualifier. He also led all drivers, not just his teammate, in races finished and lead lap finishes.

Next. All-time Formula 1 wins list. dark

Comparatively speaking, it seems like Russell is being overlooked when it comes to the prospect of challenging for the 2023 Formula 1 world championship. If the Silver Arrows can come through with a strong car, don’t just assume he is going to settle in behind Hamilton.