An extraordinary week in Formula 1 will end with George Russell, who is yet to score a point in the sport in 36 starts, take on proven race winners Valterri Bottas and Max Verstappen at the head of the grid in Sunday evening’s Sakhir GP.
Russell, called up on Wednesday from Williams to fill F1’s most high profile seat after Lewis Hamilton tested positive for coronavirus, starts second on the grid to Mercedes regular Bottas after coming tantalisingly close – 0.026 seconds – to pole position.
Despite not comfortably fitting in a car optimised for the shorter Hamilton and Bottas – something he likened to “squeezing into a bathtub” – Russell has adapted remarkably swiftly to both the W11 and life at the front of the grid since driving it for the first time during Friday practice.
- How Sunday’s grid lines up for Sakhir GP
- Russell: What Mercedes told me ahead of qualifying
- Sky F1’s Sunday schedule for Sakhir GP and F2 title decider
But he admits Sundays 87-lap race distance is going to be a significantly bigger test. The Sakhir GP starts at 5.10pm live on Sky Sports F1, with build-up from 3.30pm.
“It’s going to be incredibly tough, Russell told Sky Sports.
“Qualifying is all about just going as flat-out as you can, the race is a bit more about finesse and knowing where to save the tyres, save the car, save the engine.
“It’s not going to be easy – these guys [Bottas and Verstappen] know what to do.”
The challenge ahead for Russell – but the big rewards on offer
Russell has spoken of needing to “readapt my driving style” to get the best out of Mercedes’ all-conquering car, pointing out that his approach to Turn One alone had to be different compared to how he was taking the braking zone and corner in his Williams at last week’s Bahrain race.
The 22-year-old said he struggled more relative to Bottas and Verstappen on race pace during Friday’s simulations on high fuel.
But the potential rewards from the first front-row starting position of his career in what stands as a one-off opportunity at Mercedes are obvious.
Russell has earned plaudits since the joining the F1 grid at the start of last season as the reigning Formula 2 champion and dominated his team-mates at Williams, first Robert Kubica in 2019 and now Nicholas Latifi this year.
But Williams have not had a competitive enough car to allow Russell to easily challenge for points finishes. There have been several near-misses – most infamously in the Emilia-Romagna GP at Imola last month, where Russell was running 10th into the closing stages put crashed behind the Safety Car.
From the front row of the grid, a points finish is now a prerequisite on his Mercedes debut. But a stunning race victory? Russell is naturally staying cautious
Asked if he would sign for a first podium appearance now, Russell replied: “Absolutely I’d take it without a doubt.
“Obviously I want to win. I’m a fighter I’m a winner, I want to win but I’m realistic and a podium would be great.”
The last driver to score their first points via a race win was Giancarlo Baghetti in 1961, although that was achieved on the Italian’s F1 debut.
Bottas, Verstappen to make experience count in Hamilton absence?
While the absence of Hamilton, winner of 11 of this season’s 15 races and 2020’s runaway champion, has opened up an unexpectedly early chance for Russell to fight at the business end of F1’s grid, it has also given the seven-time champion’s perennial rivals a bigger chance of success than normal this weekend.
Bottas has won just twice in the same car as Hamilton this year, while Verstappen’s only win came at Silverstone in August.
From the head of the grid for the 16th time in his career alongside an inexperienced team-mate, Bottas is therefore considered Sunday’s favourite.
“It’s bit of an unknown really how the racing is going to be,” said Bottas of the first race day on Bahrain’s fast but short Outer loop.
“It didn’t feel that easy to follow or pass so I’m really glad to be on the pole side and go from there. But hopefully we will see a fun race. It feels like a bit of a Mickey Mouse circuit, it’s quite bumpy and twisty.”
Yet it was Verstappen who appeared to be the quickest of the three front-runners in Friday’s race simulations.
Unlike the medium-shod Mercedes cars, the Red Bull driver also starts the race on the grippier soft tyres – which could give him an initial advantage off the line.
“I’m starting on a different tyre already, so that’s going to be interesting and from there onwards,” said Verstappen.
“Last week our long runs, they looked quite good – but then again in the race we just came a bit short, so that was, yeah, a bit of a shame but let’s see if it’s going to be any better this week on, of course, the outer layout. Hopefully it is but we’ll find out.”
Bottas and Verstappen are separated by just 12 points in second and third places respectively in the championship.
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