Why Hamilton’s return is worse for Bottas than Russell…

Lewis Hamilton is back in his car for the final weekend

George Russell (pictured) won’t be driving the Mercedes in Abu Dhabi

Lewis Hamilton’s immediate return from having COVID-19 means that George Russell’s chance at Mercedes is going to be limited to a one-off in Bahrain last weekend. It’s a shame because he did a great job and he was robbed of a podium if not a win, through no fault of his own. So, another chance to step on the podium felt like it would have been a good consolation for last weekend at the very least. 

Instead, George is going straight back to Williams. And he’s going to have to wait until 2022 for another chance. At least that’s what it looks like on the surface. He did tease after the Bahrain race that maybe he’d given Mercedes boss Toto Wolff a headache for 2021 too. And he since played that down, but in reality he did an amazing job last weekend, and it would be silly if Mercedes did not at least consider whether or not it should put Russell in the car next year and find a way out of his contract with Valtteri Bottas.

There were many reasons why Russell’s Mercedes debut was so impressive. The car was uncomfortable, it was designed around Hamilton, everything was conditioned for Lewis, right down to the size and shape of the clutch paddles on the back of the steering wheel. George was wearing too small race boots, he had an old seat that wasn’t comfortable, the harnesses were digging into his shoulders, he was cramped in the cockpit, and all of the buttons were not set up for Russell’s preferences. 

He made some changes during the weekend, including a couple of switch changes to suit his Williams habits. But as a general rule, this was a massively compromised outing with none of the stuff that should be automatic for a driver in such a complex car being automatic at all.
That’s just one part of it. What he did on track mattered most. And he was massively quick, nearly beat Bottas to pole, and then beat Bottas in all of the pressure moments during the race, and looked like he was going to win not once but twice. This was, under pressure and in very unusual circumstances, an absolutely fantastic audition for a Mercedes seat in the future, and a vindication of Russell’s talents because some people do doubt whether he’s really capable of running at the front in Formula 1. He’s made some mistakes in the Williams the main one being obviously the shunt under the safety car which was a little bit too much like Romain Grosjean and not very much like Lewis Hamilton, but he’s young, learning and improving all the time and we saw last weekend just how good he is. 

2020 Sakhir Grand Prix, Sunday – LAT Images

I’d be amazed if this is the last time we’ve seen George Russell in a Mercedes. It would have been great to see him in the car this weekend, though it would have been harder. The circuit is different, it’s a longer lap with more corners and it’s a tricky circuit with a lot of corners like the ones he was struggling with most in Bahrain. Not a huge deficit in those corners but if there’s nine or 10 of them instead of one or two that adds up over a lap. 

There would also be a higher pressure and expectation because we’ve seen what he’s capable of and everyone would have expected him to do exactly the same this weekend. Mercedes would have had high hopes as well, and wouldn’t have given him the sort of easy route to a top five it was prepared to give him last weekend. But Bottas is the guy this is a bigger issue for. He would have been massively fired up because this is quite embarrassing to be beaten by the new guy. And impressions last. So he needed to get one back over on George. Now he just goes back to driving alongside Hamilton and Lewis is also coming back from illness. Last week was no-win for Bottas. If he beat Russell it was what he was meant to do, no big deal. If he lost to Russell it was a huge embarrassment. Hamilton has now come back from illness so if Bottas beats Hamilton, he’s beaten a driver who has come back from illness so it’s no big deal. And if he doesn’t beat Hamilton, he just lost to a guy who’s come back from illness, which looks terrible. 

Bottas needed to go back up against Russell this weekend, smash him, and then go into the winter having reminded Mercedes that he is actually capable of leading the team. Unfortunately, it would have been nice to have that final battle in Abu Dhabi instead of going back to the status quo. But it is what it is. At least we had a taste of something different last weekend. And in terms of the bigger picture, Russell at least got a chance to show what he’s capable of and remove one of the hypotheticals in his bid to get a top drive longer term.