George Russell: Mercedes boss Toto Wolff’s comments are clear warning to Valtteri Bottas

Valtteri Bottas already knows the biggest challenge ahead of him in 2021, and it’s not beating seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton to the drivers’ title – which is pretty unlikely – but to prove he is worthy of remaining his team-mate. But Toto Wolff’s latest words a reminder of the threat that lurks in the background.

Wolff has repeatedly made it clear the amicable dynamic between Hamilton and Bottas, and the fact the duo score highly having finished one and two in the standings in both 2019 and 2020, is what makes life easy for Mercedes when it comes to deciding Bottas’ future.

The relationship between Hamilton and his previous team-mate Nico Rosberg was of course drastically different and led to constant tension and plenty of needless drama – though it was certainly entertaining for the fans.

But there is an ever-increasing clamour for George Russell to get a shot for the Silver Arrows, as the Brackley-based outfit will be well aware. They only need to check their social media mentions to see for themselves.

Russell exceeded expectations when standing in for the coronavirus-stricken Hamilton at the Sakhir Grand Prix back in November and his long-term future is destined to be with Mercedes.

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But it may not be so long term after all, with Bottas only under contract until the end of the 2021 Formula One season, when Russell’s three-year stint with backmarkers Williams also comes to an end.

And discussing Russell this week with, Mercedes team principal Wolff reaffirmed the world champions’ belief in their junior driver, saying: “Winning Formula One championships is about making the least amount of mistakes. And that only comes with routine and experience.

“Mercedes expects these kind of sustainable performance levels. And that’s why you need to give young drivers time.

“Because as exuberant as they may be perceived after the performance that we’ve seen [at the Sakhir GP] from George, at the same time, young drivers will be criticised, and criticised quickly, when they make mistakes in such a high pressure environment like a top team.

“That’s why making experiences like in Imola, and the learnings from that, are very important to form a driver that can perform at a sustainable high level.

“We believed in George because there’s not many drivers out there that have won junior championships as rookies, especially not the very competitive GP3 and F2 championships.

“For us, [using him as replacement for Hamilton] was a possibility to confirm what we were thinking about George. It was unfortunate that this opportunity came with Lewis having been out.

“I would have wished it would have happened in a different way, but it gave us a set of data points to look at. And in a way it affirmed how we judged him.

“It was also an advantage for him and Williams. He was going to go back to his team with a lot of learning, with more understanding. And this is why I think for him personally and for Williams, it was advantageous.”

Those comments show that Russell is clearly in the frame for a Mercedes seat in the future but being at Williams, the 22-year-old is unable to finish high up the drivers’ standings to be able to make the Silver Arrows’ decision for them.

The way he will send a message to Mercedes to say that he’s ready to step up is simply by continuing his consistency on Saturdays and perhaps managing a points finish or two on a Sunday but most importantly managing as many error-free drives as possible.

But much is surely on Bottas’ shoulders and what he can produce this season, which gets underway in Sakhir, Bahrain on March 28. That is likely to decide more than anything where he and Russell end up.

The 124-point gap last year suggests a massive difference in quality between Bottas and Hamilton but the former Williams driver has actually been incredibly unfortunate in recent seasons, including in 2020.

Bottas has regularly shown that he has the pace to rival Hamilton, clinching five pole positions to Hamilton’s 10, although only converting them into two wins.

Punctures, car damage, power unit failures and spins not his fault all undermined his title tilt last season and it’s hard not to feel that Bottas is one of the most unfortunate drivers in the entire history of F1.

The question in everyone’s minds is whether Russell would provide an even sterner test of Hamilton than Bottas, and we do not truly know the answer.

On the whole Russell enjoyed a greater weekend at the Sakhir Grand Prix, qualifying a very close second after only one day in the W11 and twice looking the likely race victor before cruel misfortune denied him on both occasions.

But it is important to remember that Hamilton is a generational talent and even despite Russell’s immense promise, the 36-year-old would still be the big favourite to win the title in 2022 were his fellow Brit to join him at Mercedes.

It would certainly spice things up, however, and that is what most F1 crave. But Bottas will be hoping to prove in 2021 that Mercedes do not need to make a change, and if fortune can favour him for once, he can certainly bridge the gap to Hamilton significantly.

He only managed two wins last year, having mustered four in 2019, and must add to his tally of race wins and continue to impress in qualifying to ensure he does not lose a top drive.

Russell is a rising star and Bottas will know that. But the Finn will also be confident enough in his own abilities to stave off the Brit a few years longer just yet. At only 31, Bottas has plenty to give yet – but Wolff’s comments prove if he doesn’t produce this year, his time at Mercedes may well be up.

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