Mercedes have witnessed a 'changing of the guard' in the opening five races of the season with George Russell now positioned as the number one driver ahead of teammate Lewis Hamilton, according to Jacques Villeneuve.
Russell maintained a record of securing a top-five finish in every race this season in the most recent round in Miami, benefitting from a safety car to secure a free change of tyres and then utilising them to overtake Hamilton.
That saw Russell finish above the seven-time world champion for the fourth race in a row and position himself 23 points ahead of his teammate in the Driver's Championship.
Mercedes have encountered numerous issues this season, with the eight-time consecutive champions struggling with 'porpoising', but Russell has managed to be consistent and Villenueve believes it's an indication of a significant change in the team.
"I think we have seen the final changing of the guard at Mercedes. George Russell is riding the wave, Lewis Hamilton is trying not to drown. After many years of winning without competition, it’s hard to wake up and realise it’s not that easy," he wrote in his column for Formule1.nl.
"He now has to drive like he did in his first two years in Formula 1, which is what Russell is doing now. In the race Russell took the decision: leave me out, maybe a safety car will come – and it paid off. Lewis’ champion’s luck seems to have left him, he doesn’t have the momentum and nothing’s going his way.
"It’s going to be a tough fight, but Lewis is a racer and a champion. He knows what needs to be done and we’ll see if he still has the energy to do it. But I think missing the world title last year is a heavy burden for him that he carried with him all winter. He was bitter and feels that he was robbed. But you can see from the way Max drives that he didn’t steal the title at all and is a deserved champion."
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Hamilton's best finish this season was third in the season opener in Bahrain but he has been unable to put himself anywhere near another podium finish since, even finishing outside the points entirely at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.
Mercedes are set to utilise further upgrades for the next race in Barcelona, the start of the first double-header of the season with Monaco following swiftly after, which will prove to be decisive as they look to salvage their campaign.
Hamilton was won each of the last five races in Barcelona but his chances of retaining his bragging rights in Catalonia look exceptionally slim.
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