Three huge opportunities lie in wait in the Sakhir Grand Prix for a pair of debutants and a driver who hasn’t scored a point in Formula 1, and is now racing the championship-winning car. George Russell driving for Mercedes is much more interesting than his Williams replacement Jack Aitken, or Haas stand-in Pietro Fittipaldi.
Russell’s chance at Mercedes in place of Lewis Hamilton, who has to miss the race with COVID-19, is an enormous one. Mercedes sees Russell as a potential future world champion but his time at the back of the grid with Williams, plus a contract option Williams activated to keep him for 2021, means his F1 career has no significant results to speak of.
That means some people doubt how good Russell is, and his cause was not helped when badly blew a big opportunity at Imola a couple of races ago, crashing under the safety car. It was an embarrassing and costly mistake.
However, Mercedes has faith in Russell. Which is why it went to such great lengths to get him into the car this weekend, instead of calling up reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne. It’s not clear what Mercedes had to do to get Williams to say ‘yes’ to giving up its driver. Potentially some financial compensation was all it took. If the Sakhir GP on the Bahrain Outer circuit is as dramatic as some people expect it could be then Williams does have a shot at points, which means taking ninth – or even eighth? – in the constructors’ championship is possible, if unlikely.
Mercedes probably hasn’t paid Williams the different between finishing 9th and 10th to get Russell. It might have come to a financial compromise. As I understand it, Williams didn’t want to screw Russell over either. And it needs to keep Mercedes on-side as its engine supplier. So I suspect the negotiations, while drawn out, were not difficult in terms of getting both to agree that they wanted to make a deal happen.
It’s harsh on Vandoorne. As he said, it “hurts” to put in all the effort of travelling to races this year, and be fit enough to drive, alongside his Formula E programme, only to be snubbed when a chance actually arises. But there are three reasons why Mercedes probably shouldn’t feel too bad about its decision.
First, Russell is a serious option for the future so this was a rare, brilliant opportunity for Mercedes to assess him in a live grand prix environment. Second, Vandoorne’s only there for absolute emergency use. If it had happened on Thursday or Friday, it’s more likely that he’d have just slotted straight in. But there was time to find a better option and Mercedes is not obligated to use its named reserve driver (which is why Esteban Gutierrez, another Mercedes reserve, doesn’t even have a superlicence!).Third, Mercedes picked Vandoorne up after his damaging two-year stint at McLaren. It gave him an alternative career, so probably doesn’t feel like it owes him too much.
None of that means it isn’t a shame! As I said, it’s harsh. Vandoorne getting recalled from the sidelines and having a chance to put the terrible experience he had at McLaren behind him would have been a mega story in its own right.
But Russell going up alongside Valtteri Bottas, who he is probably direct rivals with for a Mercedes seat in the long-term, is a really interesting dynamic and it will be fascinating to see how Russell gets on. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc says he’d bet on a Russell win. I think it’s possible (it has to be given he’s driving a Mercedes) but it depends on many circumstances. Given Russell has to learn the car, learn the processes (including the DAS system), is wearing a pair of boots that are too small to fit into the car better, and has a three-year-old seat that’s a bit cramped, he’s hardly making his Mercedes debut in an ideal situation.
Meanwhile Bottas is a brilliant, fast driver in his own right, well embedded within the team, and motivated to do well. Russell will almost certainly not match him, let alone beat him, on pace.
But he should still aim high. A front row start is possible, depending on how quickly he adapts. Starting on the front two rows is probably a more realistic expectation, and would still be a good job.
If everything goes smoothly Russell can, and probably should, mark his first F1 points finish with a first podium. Which would be a pretty incredible turnaround – even in what is already a bizarre year.