George Russell downplays the fact he beat Formula One great Lewis Hamilton in their first season at Mercedes and fully expects him to come charging back.
Russell was fourth overall last year compared to sixth for Hamilton, the F1 record-holder with 103 wins and 103 pole positions.
The performances of Russell surprised some observers considering he joined from a Williams team used to languishing at the back. But he secured Mercedes' only pole position and victory — in Hungary and Brazil — while Hamilton didn't win a race for the first time in a F1 career dating to 2007.
“Those stats against a guy like Lewis are pretty irrelevant. He's achieved 100 and more poles and victories," Russell said on Thursday ahead of the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday.
"Race pace is maybe something I want to improve slightly, and I probably improved that towards the end of the year compared to Lewis. But he's just an animal and he keeps on fighting, he keeps on going, and he never gives up. So I think he's going to come back fighting even more."
Both Mercedes cars struggled for much of last year with the ground effect known as “ porpoising,” an aerodynamic issue where cars hop and bounce on the track.
Preseason testing last week suggested the problem is a thing of the past, and Russell is looking forward to a battle with Hamilton without stressing about the car.
“I'm excited to have that challenge," Russell said. "But ultimately the two of us are looking for the top step on the podium, not just the No. 1 spot on the team.”
Hamilton's back took a pounding from bouncing problems last year. So he's relieved that's fixed — also because other issues can now be sorted out.
“On the positive, not having the bouncing this year is a huge plus," he said Thursday. “Trying to understand what the problems were whilst having bouncing really masked so many things, it made it difficult to figure out what was up. So we don't have that now."
He does, however, feel that Mercedes is a little off the pace again.
“We’re not where we wanted to start a season, naturally," he said. “I knew from the moment I drove the car (in testing) where we were, and the challenges that we would be facing.”
Both drivers looked in relaxed mood as they arrived at the Sakhir circuit on Thursday for their media duties, ahead of Friday's first practice session. Russell gave a thumbs up while Hamilton strolled through the paddock with an eye-catching all-red outfit and red-framed sunglasses.
There were issues with the car's balance and traction during testing in Bahrain, but Russell is confident those have been resolved.
“We had a really good time between the test and the race to analyse what happened," he said. "There were a few things going on with the car that we didn't quite expect but we've been able to resolve pretty easily. (We were) just working slightly in the wrong window, we were running with a different rear wing in the Bahrain test just for some correlation work, and that wasn't an optimal rear wing.”
Mercedes won a record eight straight constructors titles before Red Bull ended that run last year when Max Verstappen crushed the field on his way to a record 15 wins and a second straight world title.
“We need to trust in our process. Mercedes have built a world championship-winning car for eight seasons in a row," Russell said. "We've still fundamentally got all of the same guys there, and they haven't just forgotten how to build a fast race car.”
But neither has Red Bull, and Verstappen said during testing the RB19 could be even better than last year's car.
Russell tends to agree that Red Bull is ahead, for now.
“It's definitely fair to say Red Bull are in a league of their own this weekend in Bahrain," he said. "It will probably be a nice fight for second place probably between (Mercedes), Ferrari and Aston Martin. I absolutely believe as the season progresses we're going to close that gap.”
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