Toto Wolff is confident that George Russell will one day be a Formula One world champion and has upped the pressure on Valtteri Bottas by insisting Mercedes can “count on” the young Brit in the future.
Bottas is tied down with the Silver Arrows until the end of the 2021 season but the Finn has been comprehensively bettered by Lewis Hamilton in his time with the Brackley-based outfit.
In the current season, in which Hamilton extended his title haul to seven to tie level with Ferrari icon Michael Schumacher, Bottas is 127 points behind his team-mate.
That’s despite Hamilton having missed last weekend’s Sakhir Grand Prix, with Russell standing in for the 35-year-old, who currently has the coronavirus.
Russell scored his first point in F1 by finishing ninth in Bahrain but his final position did not at all tell the story, with the Williams driver having looked set for victory.
Racing Point’s Sergio Perez was the eventual victor after a pit stop error from Mercedes ruined Russell’s race, though he had led for a good period of it after overtaking Bottas at the first corner.
The highly-rated 22-year-old – whose own future is uncertain after 2021 when his Williams deal runs out – was widely expected to be an option for Mercedes in the next few years even before he drove for Mercedes.
But his performance in Sakhir, after which the F2 and GP3 Series champion was visibly devastated at being robbed of victory, has underlined his potential to win championships later in his career.
And Mercedes team principal Wolff is confident the King’s Lynn-born racer can be a real contender once he steps into the Silver Arrows car on a full-time basis, insisting he can copy the likes of fellow Brits Hamilton and Jenson Button to win a title.
That could come as soon as 2022 if Bottas finds himself well adrift of Hamilton next year, provided that the seven-time world champion puts pen to paper himself with his current deal running out later this year.
“This is not a sad day. We learned that George Russell is somebody to count on in the future, he has all the potential and all the ingredients that a future star needs,” Wolff said.
“In that respect, I am sad with that result that he could have had in his first race for Mercedes, but from the other side, I am happy about his performances.
“I feel for George. We didn’t want to set expectations high but he over-delivered and over-delivered and over-delivered.
“He over-delivered on Friday, he over-delivered in qualifying when he was just a few hundredths away [0.026s] from Valtteri and he over-delivered in the race.
“There is now no doubt that he’s F1 world-champion material. He didn’t make any mistakes in a challenging situation.
“He drove impeccably until he had the win taken away. Any doubts anyone had, will be gone. Clearly he’s exceptional.
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“His racing was unbelievable. He got off the starting line with the best reaction time in a car that isn’t built for him in a car, that is much too small, with paddles that didn’t fit his hands, and he got into the lead and drove a brilliant race, and could have won twice.”
Asked about taking Russell from Williams and putting him in Mercedes’ W12 next season, Wolff declared categorically: “He is a Williams driver, he is signed up to Williams and our driver line-up is Valtteri and Lewis.
“So I don’t see this as a realistic situation at this moment in time. But I can understand that it would be an interesting situation to have them both [Hamilton and Russell] in the team.
“And maybe a bit of a wild ride for all of us, but maybe we will have that in the future.”
It remains to be seen whether or not Hamilton will be healthy for the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this weekend.
He must serve 10 days of self-isolation and then return a negative COVID-19 test to get back in his W11.
He remains under quarantine in Bahrain and would only be able to join up with his team on Thursday at the earliest, with it not yet known whether Hamilton will be given the green light to travel.