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George Russell: Assessing a big Mercedes F1 chance at Sakhir GP with Lewis Hamilton absent

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George Russell is replacing Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes for this weekend’s Sakhir GP; Why did Mercedes choose George, what will be expected of him, and what does this mean for his F1 future? The Sky F1 pundits give their verdicts

As Lewis Hamilton cruised to the 11th Formula 1 victory of a title-winning 2020 season at Sunday’s Bahrain GP, George Russell was 12th. It equalled the second-best finish of his two-year F1 career so far, in which he has – despite admirable efforts – yet to score a point in a Williams car that has frequently been the slowest on the grid.

Less than 72 hours later, Russell was officially confirmed as the man who will step in for the absent seven-time F1 world champion at this weekend’s next Sakhir race, in a car that has not only been lauded as the fastest this season, but the fastest in the sport’s history.

A “devastated” Hamilton’s loss, with F1’s dominant force sidelined following a positive Covid-19 test, is Russell’s gain, and offers the young Englishman, just 22 years old, a huge chance – albeit at such short notice.

A chance to prove just how fast he is after two years further down the grid. A chance to score his first podium, let alone points. A chance to show to Mercedes that he can be their star of the future.

The championship may be over, and Mercedes’ drivers are playing for little more than pride at the Sakhir GP. But it could well be career-defining for Russell, as the Sky F1 team of experts explained ahead of the weekend.

“He’s been racing for two years, has George, with nothing really to show for it,” said Ted Kravitz. “Now he’s in the best car, and let’s see what he can do. It’s very exciting for Mercedes, and British motorsport.”

Anthony Davidson, a Mercedes sim driver, added: “This is the car that everyone dreams of being in: The Mercedes, the car that Lewis dominates the world in.

“It’s not good enough to be fast, and show your lap times, you have to have a bit of luck and timing on your side as well. This is George’s chance.”

Why Mercedes opted for Russell

When Mercedes confirmed Hamilton’s positive coronavirus test on Tuesday morning, immediately there were big favourites for the drive. Stoffel Vandoorne, the team’s official reserve who has been at various Grands Prix this year in case of a positive test for a Mercedes driver, was understandably a front-runner while Nico Hulkenberg – who has impressed when stepping in late notice three times at Racing Point this year – was also mooted.

But in the end, Mercedes chose Russell, the driver they have nurtured – from a Formula 2 championship to joining the F1 grid with Williams in 2019 – and the driver who has done very little wrong, and a lot right, since.

“Really this is Mercedes bringing some positive news from the body blow really which was that their lead driver and world champion Lewis Hamilton had contracted Covid-19,” explained Kravitz.

“It was not a great story for them, but they’ve really turned that negative into a very big positive, giving their development driver, a young driver, George Russell, the chance of making his Grand Prix debut in a top team like Mercedes.”

While Russell has yet to score a point in F1, that is because of the car at his disposal rather than his talent. His only real chances this year came at Mugello – when he battled fiercely with Sebastian Vettel and finished 11th – and at Imola – when he was running in the points before crashing under the Safety Car. That being the only notable error Russell has made in F1.

But Russell is still widely recognised as one of, if not the, star of F1’s future, with both Hamilton and Fernando Alonso both voicing that particular opinion. In absence of race-day results, perhaps that is because of the performances Russell has managed to produce on Saturdays.

Quite incredibly, Russell has never been out-qualified by a team-mate in F1, from 36 attempts. He has also made it into Q2 in the Williams nine times this year, eight more than Nicholas Latifi.

“George has done an excellent job in qualifying, he has absolutely excelled,” said Sky F1’s Paul Di Resta. “What we haven’t seen is how he manages with leadership, and the pressure at Mercedes. But he’s definitely in the best car.

“I think he’ll be very professional. He’s at a good age, he’s got a number of people supporting him, especially right at the top. He’s in a great position to make an impression.”

What will be expected of Russell at Sakhir GP?

Mercedes have claimed all but one pole position in F1 2020 – the exception being a wet Turkish GP – and won all but two races – with Max Verstappen’s and Pierre Gasly’s victories more down to circumstances than outright speed.

But, as Di Resta noted about Russell, who has never driven the W11 and last tested for Mercedes a year ago: “The expectation going into a seven-time world champion’s car… it’s a very decent ask.

“He’s not having a test first, what he’s doing is going straight into where Lewis has left off.”

But that doesn’t mean the pressure will be off, far from it. Particularly as he’s now been driving, and impressing, in F1 for two years, and is very highly-rated.

“There’s a clear difference between Pietro Fittipaldi jumping in for Romain Grosjean, or Jack Aitken at Williams, this weekend,” said Davidson. “There’s low expectations on those guys, while George – despite being in a bad car at the back of the grid – he comes with the expectation of having to deliver because he has delivered in a Williams before.

“Now he’ll be expected to deliver in a Mercedes.”

So, what would represent a good result for Russell this weekend?

“It’s going to be very difficult for George but he’s an expert on a Saturday, so I would reckon top four in qualifying would be a very good result for him – he should be near enough the Red Bulls,” said Kravitz. “Again, in the race, top four would be very good, although a podium would perhaps be expected in the car he’s driving.”

Di Resta added: “Honestly, when you look at it and you see what Hulkenberg did when he stood in this year, you’d expect him to line up on the front row. He could very easily qualify in P1.”

Is the pressure on Russell, or Bottas?

Russell has been chomping at the bit for a Mercedes drive ever since joining the F1 grid with Williams, but has been overlooked for a race seat in favour of Valtteri Bottas, who will start his fifth season with the team next year.

The pair will be temporary team-mates this weekend.

While Bottas hasn’t been a match for Hamilton this year, with just two victories to the champion’s 11, he will be expected to, quite comfortably, beat Russell at the Sakhir GP given his experience, and speed, in the car.

“The reference of Bottas stays for George, so it will be fascinating to see how George gets on against that known quantity in Bottas,” said Davidson.

Di Resta, suggesting that this weekend could be crucial in both drivers’ long-term Mercedes’ futures, continued: “This is where Valtteri’s got to make a stamp, because this is the fight.