Russell did manage to score his first points in Formula 1 after finishing ninth
A fairytale victory for George Russell on his debut for Mercedes slipped through his fingers in an agonising manner, but there was no doubting the power of the message he sent at the Sakhir Grand Prix.
Standing in for Lewis Hamilton after the world champion contracted coronavirus, the 22-year-old Briton excelled from the moment he went out on track in Bahrain, and would have won had it not been for a bizarre pit-lane mix-up from the normally flawless Mercedes team.
Even after that demoted him to fifth place, he might still have pulled it off, only for a puncture to cut short his pursuit of Racing Point’s Sergio Perez, who took a brilliant maiden victory.
The pain was etched all over Russell’s face afterwards, but there was satisfaction, too, and he said he would wake up on Monday morning with his “head held high”.
He was “gutted” to lose the victory twice, he said, and had “cried a little” but was also “incredibly proud” of the job he had done, and had “loved” racing at the front – including the “nice” overtake he pulled on team-mate Valtteri Bottas as he set about recovering the places he had lost in his pit stop.
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff, who took the gamble to negotiate a release for Russell from his Williams team for this race, was more than satisfied.
Wolff said: “He has all the potential and all the ingredients that a future star needs.”
Exceeding his own expectations
The quality of Russell’s performance needs a little context, for those who might be tempted to think it was simply proof that the Mercedes is the best car and anyone can win in it.
It is the best car, and many drivers could, but that’s not really the point.
Russell had two days to prepare for his drive in the Mercedes. The car did not fit him. He is five inches (14cm) taller than Hamilton, he had to wear boots that were one size too small to fit his size 11 feet in the cockpit and operate the pedals, he needed ice on bruises at the end of every day in the car, and he was using Hamilton’s gear change and clutch paddles, which were too small for his fingers.
And yet he qualified just 0.026 seconds off Bottas, who has been driving the car all year, beat the Finn off the line and led the race commandingly until a radio malfunction led to Bottas’s front tyres being fitted to Russell’s car at a pit stop under a safety car.
“To be honest,” Russell said, “I believe in myself but I was being realistic. I was not expecting to be on Valtteri’s pace.
“I thought if was within 0.2secs I would be really pleased with that because I know how much of a rhythm I have had with Williams and how I have got stronger and stronger from understanding the car and my engineers understanding how to set the car up for me. And the progress I’ve made since Australia 2019 has been leaps and bounds.
“I have been on good wave in the past few races and I thought I could come in and do a good job, but I thought 0.2secs would be a good result and would be fair. He has been in this car for 16 races in a row. I am really proud of the job we have been able to achieve.”
‘George is someone to count on for the future’
Russell worked closely with Pete Bonnington, Lewis Hamilton’s race engineer, across the weekend
Russell paid tribute to Hamilton’s race engineer Peter Bonnington and the team around him for “getting me there”, and added: “Halfway into the race, I had an eight-second lead over Valtteri and I thought, ‘this is too good to be true.’ And it turned out it was too good to be true.
“It would have been a fairytale to get the victory. We did deserve that today. It was a really well executed race and one small error changed the whole dynamics.”
“I feel for George,” Wolff said. “We didn’t want to set expectations high but he over-delivered and over-delivered and over-delivered.
“His racing was unbelievable, he got off the starting line with the best reaction time in a car that isn’t built for him in a car that is much too small, with paddles that didn’t fit his hands and he got into the lead and drove a brilliant race, and could have won twice.
“So this is not a sad day. It is a day when we learn as a team. When we are in a tough fight in the championship, I wouldn’t want the radio to fail. And we learned George Russell is someone to count on in the future.”
A bad weekend for Bottas
It seems inevitable after this that Russell’s future must surely be at Mercedes before too long. In that sense, if this was a good weekend for Russell, it was a bad one for Bottas.
To be fair to the Finn, he was coming back at Russell as the second stint of the race unfolded, before the safety car that led to Mercedes’ pit error, but afterwards he had the air of a man who knows time may be running out.
Bottas has a contract for next year but not beyond, and many people viewed this race as a showdown between him and Russell for a seat alongside Hamilton in 2022, even if Wolff denied it was any such thing.
Bottas said: “For sure, if you don’t know things, I might have looked like a complete fool and that’s not nice. It will be very easy for people to say that. A new guy who comes in and leads the guy who has been in the team for years.
“The people who know know the performance and how the end result could have been. [But] not an ideal weekend.”
Bottas started on pole at Sakhir but was passed by Russell at the start
Asked about that decision for 2022, Wolff insisted: “To be honest, I haven’t made up my mind now what that means for us.”
And he gave an intriguing answer to a question as to whether there was any chance Russell might even be brought in alongside Hamilton next year.
“He is a Williams driver and our drive line-up is Valtteri and Lewis so I don’t see it being a realistic situation at this moment in time,” Wolff said, “but I can understand it would be an interesting situation to have them both in the team and maybe a bit of wild ride for all of us and maybe we’ll have that in the future.”
Even Russell seemed to suggest the idea of him at Mercedes in 2021 was not completely off the table.
“Hopefully I have given Toto a headache not just for 2022, maybe sooner,” he said.
The Hamilton question
The immediate question as to what happens for the season finale in Abu Dhabi this weekend is more clear cut.
If Hamilton has recovered from Covid and tests negative, he will be in the car. If not, it will be Russell again.
Hamilton does not yet have a contract for 2021, but Wolff said Russell’s starring performance would have no bearing on those negotiations.
“They are two different things,” Wolff said. “We have had great success with Lewis. He is a team member and none of the events this weekend will interfere or change any of our negotiations.
“It wouldn’t be fair against him or us because it could have gone the other way around. It could have been a race weekend where George wouldn’t have been on pace and I don’t think he would say, ‘Well, hold on a minute this is an advantage for me.’ Our relationship goes much beyond that.”
And Wolff has short shrift for those unversed in F1 who might say Russell’s performance is an indication that Hamilton has enjoyed so much success only because he is in the best car.
“Lewis Hamilton wins so much because he is the best driver in the best car at the moment,” Wolff said, “and we are very humble about it because it is not a given that 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 we have a negative influence when the car doesn’t work well.
“It is never one alone. It is never the driver that makes all the difference and it is never the car that makes all the difference. It is the combination.
“Lewis is still the benchmark. He is the best driver out there. He has proven that with his multiple records and we mustn’t be carried away at this stage by a phenomenal drive from a new kid who has a bright future in F1.”
Russell did manage to score his first points in Formula 1 after finishing ninth