Sunday’s Sakhir Grand Prix wasn’t supposed to be a showdown between Valtteri Bottas and George Russell … at least that’s what Mercedes’ team principal Toto Wolff kept saying before the race.
But regardless of the intentions, a showdown quickly became the reality. After qualifying 0.026s off Bottas, Russell took the upper in the race and, had it not been for two doses of bad luck, would have won his first grand prix as a Mercedes driver at his first attempt.
In doing so, he put himself in the middle of the conversation about Mercedes’ future driver line-up and raised questions over Bottas’ position at the team.
One race result could be misleading for a number of reasons — Bottas has urged people to view the bigger picture — but that conversation and those questions are unlikely to go away.
If Lewis Hamilton fails to test negative for COVID-19 in time for this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Russell will get another chance to show what he can do and opinions may change or be strengthened.
But on the basis of what we saw in Bahrain, it’s hard to imagine a situation where Russell does not end up driving for the world champions in 2022 and there are already suggestions he could be a better option than Bottas as early as 2021.
What made Russell’s performance so good?
The most talented people in life have a knack of making highly-skilled jobs look easy. The less you see the struggle, the more likely you’re witnessing supreme talent.
As was the case with Russell at the Sakhir Grand Prix.
His 6’2″ frame may have looked uncomfortable in a car designed for someone who is 5’9″ or shorter, but it did not translate in his driving. The only time he looked slightly out of his depth was in the final practice session when he experimented with the setup and his driving style, but when it mattered in qualifying he was back in the zone.
Switching from one F1 car to another is not easy. Aside from the physical changes, such as cockpit size and switch placement on the steering wheel (Russell hit the neutral button by accident at one point during qualifying), there is also the way the car drives.
The Mercedes has more downforce and better cornering capabilities than the Williams Russell drove at the previous 16 races this year, and building enough confidence to extract that performance while dealing with the pressures of a race weekend is no mean feat.
“Probably the thing that was least surprising was his speed in qualifying, because if you look at his what he’s been doing in the Williams clearly he knows how to drive a car quickly and knows how to get the most out of it,” Mercedes’ chief engineer Andrew Shovlin said. “So that was not a complete shock to me and was what we were hoping to see and pleased that we did see.
“How he handles the pressure is a harder thing to predict, but that was really impressive actually. He really attacked the session and the risk for him was that it was the one opportunity to show what you can do in the best car and it’s so easy to get it wrong and it’s so easy to create lasting impressions, but clearly he wasn’t thinking about that for a second.
“He was confident, he was disciplined and was methodical in how approached each run. At times we were under pressure with both cars in the early part of it and he kept calm and that was nice to see. But he’s clearly a very good racing driver.”
In the race, Russell’s confidence was clear to see and he aced the start to get ahead of Bottas. In theory, he should have been at a disadvantage jumping into a new car with a different starting procedure and a clutch paddle shaped to Hamilton’s fingers, but after practising throughout the weekend on a specially-made rig that travels the world in Hamilton’s driver room, he made a near-perfect getaway.
Once Russell was ahead, Bottas had no answer in the first stint and instead started to mould his race strategy to attack in the second half of the race. Although Bottas believes he would have been in the running for victory had the race played out, it seems unlikely and, ultimately, we will never know as a Safety Car period prompted a pit stop that saw Mercedes’ evening unravel.
Details of the disastrous pit stop and what it meant for Russell’s race can be found here, but despite a fightback from fifth place to second when racing resumed, Russell’s victory charge was ultimately halted by a puncture.
“I feel for George,” Wolff said after the race. “We didn’t want to set expectations high and he over-delivered, and over-delivered, and over-delivered throughout the weekend.
“He over-delivered on Friday, he over-delivered in qualifying in being just a few hundreths away from Valtteri and he over-delivered today [in the race].
“His racing was unbelievable. He got off the starting line with the best reaction time in a car that isn’t built for him, that is much too small with [steering wheel] paddles that didn’t fit his hands and he got into the lead and drove a brilliant race, and could have won twice.
“We learnt that George Russell is someone to count on in the future. He has all the potential and all the ingredients that a future star needs.
“In that respect, I am sad for the result that he could have had in his first race for Mercedes but on the other side, I am happy about his performance.”
Was it just the car?
Without taking time to appreciate the above, it’s easy to look at Russell’s performance and assume anyone could have done it.
Those not familiar with Russell’s impressive junior career or his talent behind a wheel will have simply seen a driver who has never scored a point in Formula One switch teams and go from racing at the back of the grid to the front.
But no one has ever suggested the W11 can’t win races in the right hands — it would be ludicrous to do so after the results of the 2020 season — and equally no one would expect Hamilton to win a Williams. But to suggest any drive would have stepped in and done as well as Russell is misguided.
There’s a reason why Mercedes has poured money into Russell’s junior career and there’s a reason he was at the top of the team’s list when Hamilton was unavailable. Mercedes has no reason to back drivers for the fun of it, the team does it to discover the next multiple world champion.
As a result, Russell’s drive in Bahrain should be seen as proof that he has what it takes to be counted among the very best in the sport rather than a measure of anyone else’s talent. The same was true of Max Verstappen when he won on his debut with Red Bull in 2016 and also of Charles Leclerc when he delivered his breakthrough drive for Ferrari in Bahrain last year.
The argument that has followed on social media is to suggest Russell’s impressive performance somehow devalues Hamilton’s achievements this year. Again, it’s wide of the mark.
Yes, Russell may prove to be a more difficult teammate to beat than Bottas if he gets a chance to partner Hamilton in the future, but the consistency and dominance of Hamilton’s year (and his career to date) puts his talent beyond question.
Having the best car on the grid does not preclude Hamilton being the best driver just as Russell’s lack of results at Williams does not make him a bad driver.
It’s a shame Formula One’s teams aren’t more closely matched across the grid, but that’s another story for another day.
As things stand, Hamilton is the driver who has seven world titles to his name and the rest of the grid are playing catch-up.
“I think Lewis Hamilton wins so much and so many titles because he is the best driver in the best car at the moment,” Wolff said on Sunday. “We are very humble about it as it is not a given we provide him with the best car and that is why we have a positive influence when the car works well to be part of his success and a negative influence when it doesn’t work. It’s never one alone.
“It’s never the driver that makes all the difference and never the car that makes all the difference, it’s a combination of the two. Lewis is still the benchmark, he’s the best driver out there, he has proven that with his multiple records, and we mustn’t be carried away at that stage by a phenomenal drive from anew kid who has a bright future in Formula One.
“Lewis is still the benchmark.”
Are Bottas’ days at Mercedes numbered?
The biggest question to emerge from Sunday’s race is what it all means for Mercedes’ future driver line-up.
As things stand, Russell will enter the last season of a three-year deal with Williams next year and Bottas has a single-year deal with Mercedes. Hamilton is expected to stay at Mercedes, but has not yet signed a contract and it is not clear how many years he will commit to.
Even before Russell’s performance in Bahrain, he seemed destined to drive for the world champions in 2022. Mercedes enquired about his availability for 2021 earlier this year, but Williams’ management at the time — under Claire Williams — was looking to sell the team and did not want to lose one of its prime assets.
Rumour has it the new owners, Dorilton Capital, flirted with the idea of replacing Russell with Sergio Perez soon after they took charge, but such stories were more easily traced to Perez’s camp than the team itself. Nevertheless, with Perez still on the market for both 2021 and 2022, a ready-made solution to Russell leaving Williams still exits.
On Sunday evening in Bahrain, Mercedes strategist James Vowles, Williams board member James Matthews and Wolff were seen in conversation in the middle of the paddock. It’s not known what they were talking about, but it’s worth noting Vowles heads up Mercedes young driver programme of which Russell is still the shining light.
When the question of replacing Bottas with Russell for 2021 was asked directly to Wolff on Sunday night during a press conference, he gave the following answer.
“He is a Williams driver and he is signed up to Williams and our drive line-up is Valtteri and Lewis, so I don’t see this as a realistic situation at that moment of time.
“But I can understand that it would be an interesting situation to have them both in the team and maybe a bit of wild ride for all of us. Maybe it will happen in the future.”
It’s hard to imagine a situation where Russell isn’t offered the drive in 2022, but again Wolff is unwilling to commit at this stage.
“George has always been a Mercedes driver and he’s a Williams driver now, and they can be proud of what he’s done today.
“Now we will need to see what the future holds. To be honest, I haven’t made up my mind what that means for us.”
Of course, Mercedes does not need to commit to anything just yet. A lot will depend on the duration of Hamilton’s next contract and the team is safe in the knowledge that it retains Russell on a long-term development deal that should prevent rival teams from swooping in.
It now seems to be a case of when and not if Russell gets the call up, but whenever it comes Mercedes now knows he’s 100 percent ready.