POLE POSITION: Hamilton will always be Wolff's favourite

POLE POSITION: Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton will always be Toto Wolff’s favourite, so maybe George Russell has to leave Mercedes

  • Toto Wolff is thought to favour Lewis Hamilton over team-mate George Russell 
  •  Mercedes boss ordered Russell to let Hamilton pass in Suzuka last weekend
  • Red Bull to stick with Sergio Perez despite his wobbles in Max Verstappen’s wake

It was no surprise that Toto Wolff — remarkably in contact from home in Monaco rather than in Suzuka — ordered George Russell to let Lewis Hamilton pass last weekend.

Despite the Mercedes team being in disarray on several levels, they insist they got this call right. Perhaps they did, though we can never be sure, but it certainly achieved what appeared to be Wolff’s main aim: to look after Hamilton. He finished fifth. He had been running sixth.

Russell finished seventh. He had been running fifth.

Wolff’s intervention came when Russell, the only man on a one-stopper, was battling to maintain his position on tyres 10 laps older than Hamilton’s with eight laps remaining.

Hamilton, with Carlos Sainz on his tail, wanted to be let past Russell. Russell wanted Hamilton to stay behind him until the last lap so they could resist the Ferrari man’s charge together.

Toto Wolff is thought to favour Lewis Hamilton over Mercedes team-mate George Russell

This spat followed a hard, wheel-to-wheel battle earlier in which Hamilton bared his teeth. It was a borderline fair scrap that hinted at an increasingly lively rivalry between the pair that might be hard to prevent escalating.

But back to the incident in question. Hamilton warned: ‘We’re going to lose both of these positions.’

After some fraught radio exchanges, Hamilton was reassured: ‘George has been instructed, we will swap positions into Turn One.’

Russell made his case: ‘Why don’t we invert on the last lap and he just stays in DRS like last week (referring to Singapore), unless he’s fighting for a bigger result?’

‘It’s an instruction, George,’ he was told emphatically. ‘Swap positions.’ He did.

The Mercedes’ case — widely accepted after PR spinning afterwards, though not clear enough at the time to strategists as they debated what to do prior to Wolff’s executive decision — was that at Suzuka, with overtaking easier than in Singapore, Sainz would pick off both Silver Arrows unless Russell let Hamilton past. (Sainz passed Russell in due course, but not Hamilton.) They say the result helped them to maintain second place in the constructors’ championship, albeit by a reduced 20 points over Ferrari.

There is logic to some of this. But it is difficult not to think Wolff favours Hamilton. He is always visibly more pleased by his success than Russell’s. He bigs Lewis up at every opportunity: last year he poured so much treacle into his ear over the radio it was sickening. If you doubt this, think how he only recently agreed to give Hamilton a pay rise to £50million a year for two further seasons, taking him to the end of his 41st year.

Fair enough, you might say — Lewis is the seven-time world champion and George has one win to his name. If so, well, fair enough indeed!

Russell was ordered to let Hamilton pass at the Japanese Grand Prix last weekend

But it remains true that Russell is No 2 in his boss’s affections. Wolff, the businessman, maybe sees more commercial opportunities in one driver than the other.

Now, Wolff either believes in Russell’s abilities to win the title, or he doesn’t. He has nurtured him through the junior ranks but still patronises him, at 25 (shades of Ron Dennis with Lewis at McLaren).

He also pays him a fraction of Lewis’s moolah. Senior figures in the team say, ‘George is still learning’. Which sounds very much like, ‘Back in your box, boy’.

In which case, if I were Russell, I wouldn’t be sure Mercedes is the team for me. It is also in a mess. After months of idle talk, they finished 49 and 57 seconds off the pace in Japan, whatever the damn strategy was.

Now Norris needs his first win

Lando Norris is cresting the wave of McLaren’s resurgence brilliantly, up against a very able rookie team-mate in Oscar Piastri.

The one thing the 24-year-old Briton has yet to achieve, and which will give him a major boost of confidence if and when he does, is a win. His fellow young Brit George Russell has got himself over that line, once in Brazil last year.

Norris’ fine second place in Japan suggests he can climb on to the top step. The knack is to be on the spot if anything goes wrong with Max Verstappen’s expert use of a fine Red Bull. As Carlos Sainz showed with his intelligent drive to victory in Singapore.

Too many races

The madness of a 23-race season — a product of American owner Liberty Media’s financial targets — is underlined when the fare is a one-way procession.

You can have too much of a good thing. You can have very much too much of a bad thing.

Red Bull are set to stick with Sergio Perez and the Mexican is right partner for Max Verstappen

Red Bull right to stick with Perez

Red Bull are to stick with Sergio Perez for next season, according to several Pole Position sources. That is the right decision despite the Mexican suffering wobbles in Max Verstappen’s wake.

To ditch him now would create unnecessary upheaval in a team producing everything it needs: they have won the constructors’ title with six races to spare.

Perez’s record is far from poor — he has won twice and finished second four times. There is also a lack of alternatives right now. And, anyway, history suggests that pairing Verstappen with a young gun doesn’t work. The balance Perez provides within the team is almost dead right.

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