Williams driver George Russell steps up to the Mercedes AMG F1 team in place of Lewis Hamilton for this weekend’s Sakhir Grand Prix.
As such, Mercedes was able to negotiate a loan that will see Russell step into Hamilton’s vacated W11 and team up with Valtteri Bottas.
This ‘non-shootout shootout’ won’t be as decisive as the gunfight of the metaphor. While Bottas is likely to win in literal terms, it’s possible for both drivers to prevail in their own way, but you can guarantee that Russell will be heading into this weekend expecting to make a big impact no matter how difficult it is.
But the upside for Bottas is negligible, even if it is a chance to demonstrate he can lead the team in the absence of Hamilton. Russell, by contrast, can stake a big claim for a 2022 seat.
But he could also weaken his case. Toto Wolff will doubtless explain time and again this weekend that Russell is not on trial and this weekend won’t decide his future. While it’s not the only factor that will be taken into consideration, it cannot fail to be crucial in making a decision for the 2022 line-up.
For Russell, results are one thing but what is critical is the underlying performance trends that the team will analyse in depth. That is where he will really make his case.
In F1, every weekend is a chance for drivers to enhance their reputations, so do not doubt how determined Russell is to make an impression and deliver an outstanding result, no matter how difficult it might be. And don’t for one minute believe Bottas isn’t aware of what could be at stake.
Sunday will present an entirely new challenge to Russell in F1 – the expectation that he will score points for the first time and bring to an end his sequence of 36 races without a point. It’s also a chance to exorcise the notion that he’s a ‘choker’, an unfair judgement based on a very small sample of races where he might have scored for Williams.
Clearly, he must avoid the spectacular blunder he made at Imola when he crashed under the safety car while trying to maintain tyre temperature and lost a likely ninth place. As a one-off, that’s a forgivable lapse but a repeat would be a disaster for his reputation. But the challenge will be more subtle than that.
Russell has never been up against a team-mate of the quality of Bottas in F1. While Nicholas Latifi has made quietly effective progress alongside him this year and has put in some decent race drives, Robert Kubica was never really a serious threat on pace even if Russell did hand him a point last year at Hockenheim by sliding off the track briefly late on. Bottas is a different proposition to both.
But we do know Bottas is not infallible in races – at least, not when measured up against Hamilton, whose mastery of the myriad challenges presented in race situations is peerless. While his team-mate will be expected to win, Russell’s priority will be to ensure that he’s in position to complete a one-two if possible. That means no mistakes, good tyre management, deploying pace at key moments around pitstops and consistency.
It’s difficult to judge exactly how strong Russell is over a race distance. Generally, he has looked on top of the race-day challenges but while he’s been at the front of the ‘Class C’ group of three teams at the back seven times in 15 races this season in qualifying, he’s only finished there twice – most recently in Bahrain last weekend after passing Antonio Giovinazzi on what proved to be the final racing lap.
Critical to his hopes will be his performance at the start and on first laps. This has been an area of weakness for him over the past two seasons, although both drivers have had difficulties getting the Williams off the line given the narrow window for nailing the clutch operation and throttle levels without suffering wheelspin or bogging down a little.
There’s every chance Russell will be battling with other cars at least on the first lap, which gives him the opportunity to show his wheel-to-wheel prowess. Arguably, this is the aspect of his game that most needs to be proved – but he does have plenty of examples of racing well at the front on his way to F1.
That first lap will define the kind of race he has. If Mercedes can run one-two at the end of lap one, it will be a simpler question of holding onto it. If Russell is behind other cars, he needs to clear them and recover, assuming the car, as expected, has the pace to do so. And to do that, he will need to be on top of the tyre management and the dynamic tools at his disposal, and unleash pace and overtaking moves when needed.
Russell knows he might only have one shot at this so the pressure will be on, so how he handles the psychological challenges will also be essential.
While a strong finish even outside the top two would still be a good job for a stand-in on race day, Russell will push himself not to accept simply a solid result. The key is that he doesn’t over-reach given the steep learning curve.
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THE NEXT RACE 2021
|02:00 - 03:30||Free practice 1|
|06:00 - 07:30||Free practice 2|
|04:00 - 05:00||Free practice 3|
|07:00 - 07:18||Qualifying|
|06:10 - 08:10||Race|