“It’s still early days in his career but we see great potential in him.”
Those were the words of Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff in 2017, when the Formula One champions signed an 18-year-old named George Russell to their junior program.
Over the next four and a half years the young Brit has barely put a foot wrong, winning the Formula 2 championship and getting the very best out of his Williams car for three seasons in F1.
Wolff and the Mercedes brains trust had been waiting to see if their hand-picked successor to Lewis Hamilton was up to the task.
And now they think he is ready.
Mercedes announced Russell as its new driver on Tuesday, replacing Valtteri Bottas to create an all-British line-up next season.
Russell will come into a champion team as the landscape of Formula One drastically changes, with rivals queuing up to try and knock Mercedes off its throne.
Mercedes has been waiting to unleash its heir apparent to Hamilton, and now it has pulled the trigger.
Based on the last four and a half seasons, Russell has shown why Mercedes think he can be the next king of the sport.
Why the Formula One world believes Russell will become a champion
Since signing with the Mercedes team as a junior driver in 2017 George Russell has hardly put a foot wrong.
In three years at the struggling Williams team he has out-qualified his teammate at every grand prix, earning himself the nickname “Mr Saturday”.
But his most recent performances in races on Sunday underline his real potential.
When Lewis Hamilton tested positive for COVID-19 at the end of last season, Russell filled his seat for one race.
How would George go in a competitive car? Was he up to racing at the front with the best in the world? Was the hype real?
By the end of that weekend in Bahrain the answer was easy — this guy is the real deal.
He was on course to take his first win, but a bungled pit stop and a puncture robbed him of what looked like a special victory.
But Russell didn’t dwell on what could have been, he took the experience, and has driven the wheels off his Williams in 2021.
With a focus on securing top 10 finishes, Russell has produced some of this year’s best drives.
He has finished in the points twice, with eighth place in Hungary and his first podium at the rain-hit Belgian Grand Prix where he finished second.
Battles with two-time world champion Fernando Alonso on the track earned him the highest praise from the Spaniard.
At Monaco this year Alonso and Russell swapped helmets as a mark of respect.
Alonso signed his: “George, you rock!! Future world champ.”
The rumour mill was turning and all signs pointed to Russell moving to Mercedes in 2022.
The lap which solidified Russell’s move to Mercedes
Rain is one of the sport’s great equalisers.
In Formula One rain separates the good from the great.
And in Belgium last month George Russell was great.
As rain pelted the circuit at Spa-Francorchamps, Russell in his Williams was on another level.
He took his inferior car to the front row of the grid in what former driver Jolyon Palmer called “one of the Formula One laps, possibly, of all time”.
Russell’s qualifying lap was only bettered by Dutchman Max Verstappen, who is driving one of the sport’s best cars.
In the wet, and on one of the calendar’s most challenging circuits, Russell showed he is one of the fastest drivers in the game.
Going into that weekend rumours were circulating that Russell would be in the Mercedes seat in 2022.
Toto Wolff told the media Mercedes had made up their mind — and as it turns out they were going with Russell.
And if there was even one lingering doubt about Russell before that qualifying session in Belgium, it surely would’ve disappeared when the Mercedes prodigy put his Williams ahead of Lewis Hamilton.
“It [needed] a driver to maximise that or exploit the full potential of the package or over-perform the package, and all that came together today, and you saw a brilliant lap from a brilliant young driver,” Wolff said after the lap.
Now they just needed to wait for the ink to dry on the contract.
Why have Mercedes made the switch now?
At the end of 2016, Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg was on top of Formula One.
He had just beaten his teammate Hamilton to the driver’s championship and was basking in the glory of his maiden title.
Then Rosberg shocked everyone — he retired.
For three seasons Mercedes had dominated, with Hamilton and Rosberg fighting each other for the championship. At times they were laughably ahead of the competition.
Mercedes signed Valtteri Bottas from Williams and continued winning, but Bottas never challenged Hamilton like his predecessor did.
Bottas has secured nine race wins and 17 pole positions, but he has routinely been asked to play the team game, helping Hamilton to four more drivers’ championships.
And while it has caused fewer headaches for Toto Wolff and the top brass at Mercedes, the team was arguably more dominant when it had two genuine title contenders instead of the Batman and Robin act of recent years.
With Bottas as the second driver, teams like Red Bull and Ferrari have been closer to bridging the gap to Mercedes.
This season, Red Bull is just 12 points behind in the constructor’s race, while Dutchman Verstappen currently leads Hamilton by three points for the driver’s championship.
It is a serious threat to the Mercedes dominance which began in 2014, the last time there was a major change to the engine regulations.
Mercedes have had a stranglehold on the sport in the hybrid era, winning the drivers’ and constructors’ championships every year.
But that era is coming to an end, with new regulations and car designs coming into effect next season.
The cars of 2022 will look and feel much different, and will effectively hit the reset button for the sport.
Mercedes will want their strongest driver pairing on the grid, and that does not include Bottas.
What about the current king at Mercedes?
Despite all of the praise, all of the success in the junior ranks, and the supreme drives for Williams, there is no guarantee Russell will become Mercedes’ new king from the start.
Mercedes has a king, Lewis Hamilton, statistically the greatest driver there has ever been.
And Hamilton does not play second fiddle to anyone.
In the 2016 season, he did everything he could in the final race of the season to deny Rosberg the title.
For Hamilton to win the championship he needed to win, but he also needed Rosberg to finish below third.
Hamilton, leading the race, deliberately went slower around the Abu Dhabi track to allow drivers to catch up to Rosberg, who was in second.
The Mercedes team begged and pleaded with Hamilton to do the right thing by the team, but Hamilton simply ignored them.
It was his title Rosberg was taking, and he wasn’t going to give it up without a fight.
This is the environment George Russell now enters.
After three years of being top dog at Williams he has the hardest job in Formula One, battling Lewis Hamilton every weekend.
Hamilton is contracted with Mercedes until the end of 2023, so Russell will have the king as his teammate for at least two seasons.
It will be the ultimate test of Russell’s ability as a Formula One driver, and he will be under more pressure than he ever has been in his career.
But no king reigns forever, and Mercedes believe now is the time for George Russell to carry the torch and guide this powerhouse into the next generation.