Russell eclipsed Hamilton across the weekend at Imola and managed to claim fourth place in Sunday’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, largely thanks to a superb start. 

Meanwhile, seven-time world champion Hamilton could only finish 13th, a lap behind race winner Max Verstappen and a minute adrift of Russell, who sits fourth in the championship and 21 points clear of seventh-placed Hamilton.

They are both driving the same car. So what is behind Russell’s better start to the season and Hamilton’s early struggles? 

Getting the rub of the green

Hamilton's season started promisingly in Bahrain as he held the edge over Russell in both qualifying and the race on his way to scoring a podium in third. 

But things went spectacularly wrong in Saudi Arabia as Hamilton slumped to his worst qualifying result on outright performance since the 2009 British Grand Prix and was eliminated in Q1, while Russell secured sixth on the grid. 

Hamilton blamed his shock Q1 exit on an experimental set-up choice that backfired. A long stint on hard tyres and a Safety Car period helped Hamilton to rise as high as sixth in the race, but a crucial missed pit stop amid a confusing situation on track meant Hamilton squandered a golden opportunity to gain under the Virtual Safety Car. 

When he eventually pitted under normal racing conditions after the VSC had ended, Hamilton majorly lost out and plummeted to 12th. He managed to fight back to 10th in the final few laps as Russell took fifth. 

Things swung back towards Hamilton in Australia. He was quicker than Russell all weekend - despite running extra sensors on his Mercedes that added to the weight of his car - and was ahead in the race until a Safety Car period enabled Russell to get the jump.

Hamilton made his pit stop one lap before the Safety Car was deployed, whereas Russell benefitted from a smaller time loss than usual by making his pit stop under the Safety Car, meaning he kept track position and ultimately sealed his first podium for Mercedes.  

Russell was quicker than Hamilton on merit in qualifying at Imola and moved himself up from 11th to sixth amid a chaotic start to Sunday’s race. He managed to pass Kevin Magnussen’s Haas for fifth, and inherited fourth when Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc spun out of the top three. 

Hamilton was up to 12th at the end of the first lap but lost places with a slightly slow pit stop and near-miss in the pitlane with Esteban Ocon following an unsafe release by Alpine. More ground was lost on his outlap as Hamilton struggled to get his cold tyres up to temperature, with warm-up proving to be an Achilles’ heel for Mercedes. 

The rest of the race was hugely frustrating for Hamilton as he was forced to stare at the back of Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri while stuck in a DRS train. With only one dry line around a track where passing is difficult at the best of times, overtaking opportunities were almost non-existent. 

After the race, Mercedes newcomer Russell admitted that luck has played its part in him being ahead of Hamilton.

“I think it’s just how things fall out sometimes in a race weekend,” Russell explained. 

“I made a very strong start, I don’t know what happened to him at the start. We are equally struggling and when the car is so far out of bed and it’s not in the right window. It doesn’t really feel like a proper racing car to drive.

“Especially we are struggling with the tyre warm-up. On Friday it was 13 degrees and it was just a nightmare to drive.” 

Experience of driving a poor car 

Another factor that could explain Russell’s superior start to 2022 is his past experience at driving an ill-handling car, a situation he faced during his three years spent at backmarkers Williams between 2019-2021. 

Russell regularly starred in uncompetitive Williams machinery to drag his car into positions it simply did not deserve to be with many sensational qualifying displays over the past three years. 

In contrast, Hamilton has almost exclusively enjoyed the benefit of a fast and largely dominant Mercedes since the start of the V6 turbo hybrid era in 2014. The W13 is a far-cry from its predecessors and is the worst car Hamilton has had to drive since McLaren’s disastrous MP4-24 in 2009. 

Some critics have argued that Hamilton’s struggles have been exacerbated because he has grown unfamiliar with the nitty-gritty combat of F1’s midfield after enjoying the luxury of racing at the very front of the pack for several years.

But Hamilton has regularly been forced to demonstrate his racecraft during fightback drives in recent times, including an incredible charge from last to first in Brazil last year. 

However, it is also true that Hamilton’s car no longer holds the pace advantage it once boasted. Mercedes boss Toto Wolff even went as far as to apologise to Hamilton for the “undriveable” car the team has produced this year. 

Is Russell’s knowledge of how to get the most from a poor car therefore helping him get the better of Hamilton? It was a suggestion he did not dismiss after the race at Imola. 

“It’s just been a really difficult position for the team and perhaps, with my struggles at Williams driving very difficult cars, maybe that has helped in some small regard,” he said. 

Speaking in an exclusive interview with Crash.net at the end of last season, Russell further elaborated on what he described as being a “toolbox” of skills he had acquired as a result of his experiences driving sub-par machinery. 

“When you drive a top car, the car is planted, it’s what you want from a car. It’s a joy to drive and it gives you confidence,” Russell explained. 

“In a way, I’ve had a fortunate experience where I’ve had a car that is really difficult to drive. It doesn’t give me confidence and I have had to properly work for it, to get more out of it. 

“I think it almost builds this toolbox and creates this skill set that you perhaps would not have had if you always had a car that was great.” 

Russell ‘not getting comfortable’ 

Despite his impressive performances, Russell has backed Hamilton to come back stronger from his recent difficulties. 

Russell has continually downplayed his excellent start to the season and has made a clear attempt to show support towards Hamilton every time he has faced questions about beating his teammate. 

“I expect him to come back so strong and the way he is pushing and motivating the team is inspiring,” Russell said. 

“I’m not getting comfortable with this position because I know what he is capable of. Lewis is going to come back incredibly strong and he’s definitely going to be pushing me all the way.”

Russell’s reluctance not to speak out against Hamilton not only reflects the respect he holds for a driver who is one of his biggest idols, but it also demonstrates his intelligence by lowering expectations and self-inflicted pressure to shield himself. 

Not many people would have backed Russell to beat Hamilton in his first season at Mercedes but it is clear he does not want to get carried away with such thoughts, particularly with 19 races still remaining and considering Hamilton’s remarkable track record over the course of a full F1 season. 

On the inside, Russell must be loving the way things have gone so far but publicly, he has handled the media like a dream from Mercedes’ perspective.