George Russell proved he has what it takes as he emphatically announced his arrival as the sport’s newest champion-in-waiting at the Sakhir Grand Prix.
The Briton may not have won, following a tyre mix-up and a late puncture, snatching a maiden Formula One win from his grasp and handing it instead to Racing Point’ Sergio Perez.
But the ease with which the 22-year-old dominated, not just the race, but the weekend as a whole only confirmed what his potential had already hint.
George Russell was “gutted” to come so close to winning the Sakhir Grand Prix. Subbing for Lewis Hamilton who had tested positive for COVID-19, Russell switched from Williams to Mercedes. He qualified second and took the lead from new teammate Valtteri Bottas.
A messy pitstop by Mercedes and then a deflating tyre ruined the race for Russell who ended up finishing ninth.
“It’s not going to be his last attempt to win a race, it’s just the beginning of a fairytale,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said afterwards. “It didn’t work out today, but I would say a new star is born.”
Russell is a Mercedes protégée, so what are the chances of him ending up as a teammate to Hamilton?
“He is a Williams driver and he is signed up to Williams,” Wolff said. “Our driver line-up is Valtteri and Lewis, so I don’t see this as a realistic situation at this moment in time.
But I can understand that it would be an interesting situation to have them both in the team, and maybe a bit of a wild ride for all of us if it happens in the future.”
Bottas has a Mercedes contract for 2021, so the soonest that Russell could make a fulltime move to Mercedes would be 2022.
Hamilton has yet to sign a new contract for 2021 and beyond. He and Wolff wanted to get the drivers’ and constructors’ championships settled before beginning negotiations. And the pandemic intervened as well.
“Lewis has been with the team eight years,” Wolff said. “We have had great success in the past; he is a team member. I said it already before the (Sakhir Grand Prix) weekend: none of the events this weekend will interfere or change any of our negotiations.
I think that wouldn’t be fair against Lewis or Valtteri, as it could have gone the other way round, a race weekend where George would not have done so well.”
Sooner or later Russell will end up racing for Mercedes. But when will that be? The Hamilton/ Bottas combination is a powerful, peaceful and successful one, but eventually it will come to an end.
“We will need to see what the future holds,” Wolff mused. “To be honest, I haven’t made up my mind what that means for us.”
In the meantime, Russell will be over-performing in the uncompetitive Williams to prove that he is worthy of the promotion to Mercedes.
Inevitably, the uninformed will look at Russell’s assured performance and say that it proves Hamilton is only winning so much because he is in the best car. But it would be a misunderstanding to think that this reflects badly on Hamilton. That is looking at the picture the wrong way around; the only reflection is on Russell’s quality and potential.
Asked whether Mercedes needed Hamilton, who is yet to agree a new contract for 2021 and beyond, Verstappen said: “Of course you do, because he will make the difference in the most crucial moments. That’s why he is a seven-time world champion.”
Russell himself said: “Guys like Lewis make the difference when the pressure is on in the key moments. That’s what Lewis has done so well over all the years. He’s a superstar of course and if you are Toto or anyone else you want him in your car.”
To those inside F1, it was obvious Russell was a top talent from the moment he came into the sport.
McLaren’s Carlos Sainz said: “Independent of the car, the drivers know who is particularly quick and we would all put George in that list of being particularly quick over one lap. He did a very good job.
“I was always going to put George very close to Valtteri in my predictions, and it just shows what F1 is missing by having the cars two seconds apart.
“It’s a shame that a guy who is [normally] fighting in P15, you put him in a car and he is just off pole. F1 could create an incredible show if you could level the field a bit more.
“It is missing out on getting the grid more compressed and having the driver make more of a difference.”
GEORGE RUSSELL CHAMPION WAITING
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