Lewis Hamilton faces age gap challenge in demanding new George Russell era
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MONZA – Like any ageing champion, Lewis Hamilton faces a most demanding and potentially unsettling season when fellow-Briton George Russell replaces Valtteri Bottas as his Mercedes team-mate next year.
As if battling a 13-year age gap against Red Bull's Max Verstappen was not enough, the 36-year-old seven-time champion will have to contend with an even younger racing partner in a 'new age' formula following a radical regulations overhaul to create closer racing.
Not since Nico Rosberg beat Hamilton to the title and retired in 2016 has the sport's greatest driver been given such a clear reminder of his racing mortality – and at a time when Formula One is undergoing a widespread move to youth.
Hamilton, mindful of his comforts, often made clear his respect for, and trust in, Bottas as a team-mate, but it was not enough to save the Finn from being dropped.
Hamilton, who has signed a new contract keeping him with Mercedes until 2023, recently admitted he did not plan to go on 'too much longer'. As a 'millennial' he knows that Generation Z has arrived.
This year is his 15th as an F1 driver, a spell that has transformed his life and made him one of the world's most recognisable, wealthy and successful sports stars.
Asked by Dutch broadcaster Ziggo how long he wished to continue racing, Hamilton said he did not know.
"I can't imagine too much longer, but it could change."
He admitted he hated losing, a trait he may revisit if Russell rises to the challenge as he did as substitute for a Covid-stricken Hamilton at the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix where he would have won, but for a bungled pit-stop.
Russell had only two days' notice of his promotion from Williams, he was slightly too big for the cockpit and had to wear small racing boots and struggled with the controls tailored for Hamilton.
But he almost out-qualified Bottas, made a faster start than him and looked set to triumph.
- 'A star is born' -
"I would say a new star is born," admitted Mercedes team chief Toto Wolff.
That qualifying defeat to Bottas, by 0.026 seconds, is his only one by any team-mate in three seasons with Williams during which, on average, he out-paces his partner by six-tenths of a second.
'Mr Saturday' has proved his successive titles in GP3 and GP2 were no fluke.
Having pushed for the unthreatening Bottas to stay for a sixth harmonious year, Hamilton admitted at the Dutch Grand Prix that Russell was an 'incredible talent'.
Russell's potential was confirmed again when he gained his first podium finish, by virtue of a brilliant qualifying, at the rain-aborted Belgian Grand Prix. He impressed his rivals too.
"For sure, he will make it very difficult for Lewis next year," said Verstappen while Alonso, now 40, wryly observed "with George, we will see a better competition inside the team."
As Hamilton seeks to become the first driver to win 100 Grands Prix at Monza this weekend, he is increasingly reliant on his experience while Russell, unproven under pressure in a front-running team, where consistency is paramount, is fired by ambition.
His move follows a youthful trend and his erstwhile junior rivals in Verstappen, at Red Bull, Charles Leclerc at Ferrari, both 23, and Lando Norris, just 21, at McLaren in moving to a major team.
For Russell, the task is not to exceed expectations, but to deliver them with metronomic regularity. A podium will be the minimum goal.
It is a role Bottas filled with exemplary style. Mercedes’ run of seven teams' titles is evidence of his contribution.
"He's the best team-mate I've had the pleasure of working with," said Hamilton.
"Where you truly stand out to me is the human being you are -- and gentleman. You are greater than you know."
As a Mercedes academy graduate, Russell knows what lies ahead.
"I'm under no illusions as to the scale of the challenge," he said.
"I've looked up to Lewis since I was in go-karts, but it's every driver's dream because I want to learn from the best and go up against the best."