When George Russell received a phone call at 2am on Monday night from Toto Wolff, the Mercedes Team Principal, nobody would have predicted the events that unfolded over the course of the week. The seven-time world champion, Lewis Hamilton, had just tested positive for COVID-19, and Wolff was looking for a replacement driver for the weekend’s Sakhir Grand Prix.
Having won the 2018 Formula 2 Championship for ART, the Norfolk-born 22-year-old was given one of the two seats at Williams for 2019 and is now wrapping up his second season in Formula 1. However, for the last two seasons, Williams has comfortably been the worst team on the grid, leaving Russell without a single point in his F1 career as he has failed to manage a top ten finish. As a member of the Mercedes driver development program, he had been a test and reserve driver for the team during the 2018 season, but until now he never had the opportunity to race as a Mercedes driver. With the team already securing their seventh consecutive Constructors’ Championship this season, Wolff evidently saw an opportunity to give Russell some experience with the fastest car in F1.
Williams is a team with a rich history in Formula 1, but their season has been turbulent to say the least. As privateers, their budget has often been a fraction of the top teams, and they have struggled to get anywhere near the heights they reached in the 80s and 90s when they won nine Constructors’ Championships, and seven Drivers’ Championships with seven different drivers including legends such as Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost. This year, Team Principal Frank Williams sold the ownership of the team to Dorilton Capital, bowing out at the memorable Italian Grand Prix back in September. So, with Mercedes calling Russell to prize him away from a troubled team, who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to go from the worst car on the grid to the best?
Russell’s dream weekend in Bahrain began as well as he could have hoped for, setting the fastest time in both practice sessions on Friday at the shortest circuit on the F1 calendar, giving interview after interview praising the car, the team, and showing his graciousness at being given this shot. Saturday went slightly less smoothly, finishing seventh fastest in the final practice session, although despite not managing the fastest lap in any of the three qualifying sessions, he reached second place behind his new teammate, Valtteri Bottas. Having outqualified his Williams’ teammates at 36 races in a row, this was the first time Russell was going to start behind his teammate in Formula 1, but from second on the grid, he wouldn’t have cared.
Going into the race on Sunday, British hopes were high. Hamilton had been on a five-race win streak, and in his absence, Russell was hoping to take the car to a sixth consecutive victory. And after only the first corner of the race, he managed to take the lead from Bottas, signaling his intention from the get-go. Two of his closest rivals for the race victory, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, were forced into retirement on the opening lap, after an incident involving Racing Point’s Sergio Pérez that gave him damage and sent him back to last place. Thus, his only real challenger for the win was going to be Bottas, whom he built up a three-second lead over in the first half of the race, making a pit stop for new tyres on lap 46 out of 87, what should have been his only stop of the race.
Nobody would have expected it from the Mercedes team, who consistently execute a fantastic strategy that allowed them to claim wins in thirteen of the first fifteen races this season, but they were about to ruin the race for both Russell and Bottas. Following a mistake from Russell’s replacement driver at Williams, Jack Aitken, debris was all over the track at the final corner and yellow flags were waved, giving the drivers a good chance to make another pit stop. On lap 63, Mercedes opted to bring both cars in for new tyres, however Russell was accidentally given one of Bottas’ tyres. Bottas then came in, and the pit crew realised that their tyre was missing, eventually sending Bottas back out on his old tyres after he was stationary for 27 seconds, about ten times longer than average. Russell was forced to stop again on the next lap to take off the wrong tyre, coming out in fifth place, just behind Bottas who was now fourth.
This was now the chance for Russell to really show his mettle. After all, he is a man with a point to prove, as Lewis Hamilton is yet to sign a contract for 2021, with many speculating his retirement is on the horizon at the age of 35. If he could recover from fifth to win the race, how could Wolff and Mercedes refuse to acknowledge his ability as a potential world champion of the future?
Russell executed a swift overtake of Bottas at high speed, as the latter struggled for pace on his worn out tyres, and began chasing to regain a podium position. Russell moved up to second place by lap 73, hunting down Pérez who had found his way into first place from the back of the pack, while Bottas was now languishing down in ninth place. Could Russell become a Formula 1 race winner, at the expense of Pérez, a driver with a decade of F1 experience, without a seat for the 2021 season, chasing his own first ever victory to prove his worth to other teams? The pace that Russell had showed over the weekend certainly indicated that he had a real chance to regain the lead.
Yet, Lady Luck was to step in again just five laps later to turn Russell’s dream weekend into a nightmare, as he suffered a puncture and was forced to stop for the fourth time in the race. With all the cars bunched up again after the yellow flag at lap 61, Russell dropped from second to fourteenth during his pit stop, and just like that, the entire race was snatched brutally from his grasp. How could it have gone this badly for someone who had driven so well for the entire race?
Russell fought back to ninth place by the end, giving him his first two points in F1 and banishing this year’s demons of the Tuscan Grand Prix, where he slipped from ninth to eleventh in the final laps, and Imola, where he crashed out of the race behind the safety car while running in tenth place. With the fastest lap of the race also secured, he won an additional point, but that will be of little comfort when he should have been a new race winner. This is especially true on a week where Pérez achieved his first victory, Renault’s Esteban Ocon achieved his first ever podium with a second-place finish, and Pérez’s teammate Lance Stroll rounded off the podium with only his third ever top three finish. The images of Russell’s heartbreak following the race will be palpable to many, a real summation of bemusement from a man with so much public backing.
So, what went wrong for Russell to have lost out by such a margin? It seems that a radio miscommunication between the Mercedes pit crew caused the first error with the wrong set of tyres being given to Russell, and by the time Bottas’ side of the garage realised, it was far too late. The puncture that Russell suffered soon after is simply a bad slice of luck that every driver has faced, with Verstappen most recently being forced to retire from second place at Imola after a fantastic drive with only thirteen laps remaining. Perhaps, if the puncture had happened before the late safety car period, the gap to the pack was substantial enough that Russell could have re-entered in second place behind Bottas and secured a strong finish or even the race win.
Regardless of the outcome of the Sakhir Grand Prix, everyone in the paddock saw how well Russell drove all weekend, and that he had the pace to win on Sunday. It was a rare error from the Mercedes team that curtailed the race result for both drivers, and Russell’s hesitation in fully criticising the team over the radio post-race is testament to his character and professionalism. He may yet get a second chance as a Mercedes driver this weekend at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, subject to Hamilton’s COVID testing, but even if Hamilton is back on Friday, one would think that this is not the last time we see George Russell in a Mercedes car. He will know as much as anyone that in Formula 1, luck goes around and comes around.