Mercedes teammates Hamilton and Russell nearly collided during several close wheel-to-wheel battles that raised eyebrows during Sunday’s race at Suzuka.
After the Safety Car restart, Russell made a lunge into the final chicane stick, only for the seven-time world champion to immediately repass after a better run onto the main straight enabled him to sweep by on the fast run into Turn 1.
Battle lines were again drawn on Lap 16 after a wide moment from Hamilton at the second Degner allowed Russell to mount an attack into Spoon Curve. Hamilton held firm by edging both cars out wide, prompting an exasperated response from Russell.
“Who do we want to fight here? Each other or the others?” Russell questioned over team radio.
On differing strategies, Hamilton and Russell found themselves sharing the same piece of tarmac once more in the closing stages.
Hamilton, on fresher tyres after making his second stop, was frustrated by the lack of immediate call for his one-stopping teammate to give up fifth place with Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz rapidly closing in on the pair.
By the time the switch was orchestrated, Sainz was on the gearbox of Russell, who requested help from Hamilton while alluding to his frustrations about their earlier duel.
“[Hamilton needs] to play the team game [and give me DRS], he pushed me off the track earlier, it’s the least he can do,” Russell pleaded.
Hamilton did back off to give Russell DRS but that didn’t stop Sainz blasting by, leading the more experienced Mercedes driver to criticise what he felt was a call that “made no sense”.
Despite the aggro, Mercedes moved quickly to play down talk of friction between Hamilton and Russell.
“They are obviously both racing hard in a car that was tricky, pushing to the limit. And obviously there was some radio traffic as well, that reflected that,” Mercedes chief communications officer Bradley Lord said after the race.
“I think we have got into the habit over the years of not reading too much into what is said in the heat of the moment amid the pressure in the cockpit, particularly at a hot and demanding race like this one.
“Anything that needs tidying up or discussing afterwards, we’ll be able to take away from that pressure cooker and deal with it nice and calmly in the debrief.”
But Sky F1 pundit Karun Chandhok was among many observers who couldn’t help but notice the “needle” between Hamilton and Russell, who is now 75 points adrift of his teammate in the championship.
“He [Hamilton] is 75 points ahead of George. He was quite quick to point that out!” Chandhok said of Hamilton.
“There was needle with George. There is a little bit of needle between the two drivers.”
Both drivers made an obvious attempt to diffuse the situation after the race, with Hamilton revealing that he plans to sit down with Russell ahead of the next round in Qatar.
“Well, for sure, we’ll talk offline,” he said. “That’s the best way to do it. Our ultimate goal is to try and get ahead of the Ferraris and that’s what my goal was today.”
Russell also offered a softer stance once he had stepped away from the heat of the cockpit.
“It’s just hard, fair racing,” he insisted. “Of course we lost a bit of overall time fighting one another, and again you get a bit frustrated on the radio but it’s something that’s a part of racing.
“We aren’t going to give up the position easily to one another, it was still early on in the race and I had more pace but he was the car who was ahead.
“As I said, it’s part of racing and there’s nothing to discuss [with the team]. We’ve got bigger fish to fry which is how do we make our car faster.”
It is not the first time there have been signs of tension between the pair since they became teammates at the start of 2022.
This year alone has seen a couple of flashpoints, with collisions and near-misses in qualifying sessions in Spain and Belgium that were put down to miscommunication and confusion.
It is to be expected when a team fields two ‘alpha’ drivers and there are no shortage of examples from the past when tensions between two top drivers have boiled over, as Mercedes knows all too well.
Russell is regarded as Mercedes’ future but with Hamilton now staying for another two years (at least) in his longer-than-expected quest to win a record eighth title, the 25-year-old Briton will have to fight hard to establish himself, rather than simply waiting for Hamilton to hang up his helmet.
Having finally been given his chance to drive what in theory should have been a front-running car after earning his stripes at backmarkers Williams, Russell has had to be more patient than anticipated amid Mercedes’ ongoing competitive struggles.
At the same time, 38-year-old Hamilton remains as hungry as ever and is determined to win back the title he felt was stolen from him in the controversial 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – adding another dimension to an already fascinating dynamic.
The Hamilton-Russell combination always had the potential to be an explosive pairing. Mercedes knew that from the start and were willing to take the risk in order to boast one of the strongest driver line-ups on the grid.
After the harmonious years of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, Hamilton and Russell are putting Mercedes in territory closer to the uncomfortable Rosberg-Hamilton rivalry they had been so desperate to avoid repeating.
It feels inevitable that there will be more fireworks down the road, especially when Mercedes produce a car capable of fighting for world championships and the stakes are suddenly elevated that much higher.