With Lewis Hamilton out of this weekend’s F1 Sahkir Grand Prix in Bahrain following a positive COVID-19 test on Monday, Formula 1 has an interesting story line building.
Just ask Renault driver Daniel Ricciardo.
“Anyone can win now,” Ricciardo said. “It’s all open.”
Wow. An F1 race where more then one driver, more than one team can win? What a novel, and potentially super-entertaining idea. At least, as Ricciardo points out, there’s not anything like a championship hanging in the balance. Hamilton and Mercedes have long since put the F1 Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships in the rear-view mirrors.
This week, it’s Williams’ driver George Russell moving into Hamilton’s seat. Russell’s move to Mercedes opened up the Williams seat for Formula 2 driver Jack Aitken. In an unrelated move that adds to the intrigue of what’s turned into a potentially wild race day on Sunday, Haas reserve driver Pietro Fittipaldi is in the Haas F1 ride this week in place of injured Romain Grosjean.
Only one thing is for certain. Hamilton won’t be winning his sixth race in a row or his 11th race of the season this weekend in Bahrain.
“Obviously, it would be the worst way in the world to lose a championship because of this,” Ricciardo said. “I think 2020 has been weird enough, so I think that’s the glass half-full approach, or mindset, is that he has it wrapped up.
“As long as he hopefully has mild symptoms and it’s nothing serious, then I think (Hamilton) can be relatively OK sitting this one out. I think for the others, I think the whole grid is shaken up and George (Russell) has the opportunity to obviously have that seat and to have a go. One door closes and another opens for some.”
And not just any door just opened for Russell. When Russell got the call from Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff on Tuesday saying that Mercedes and Williams had cut a deal to put Russell into the Mercedes this week, it moved Williams from the last spot in the drivers standings—no top 10s, zero points scored this season—into the top ride in all of racing.
That puts Russell from backmarker to pacesetter overnight in the minds of some of his rivals.
“I think he can achieve a pole. I think he can achieve a win,” said McLaren’s Lando Norris. “It’s not going to be easy for him, but I know how good of a driver he is, and I’m sure everyone else does too and of course Mercedes does, as well. I’m expecting big things.
“Of course, I’m maybe slightly jealous if he gets an extremely good result, like a win. But I’ll just be happy for him and hopefully be able to fight him again.”
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, a teammate of Russell’s back in their karting days in 2011, is also on board with the idea that Russell is the driver to watch this weekend.
“Now he finally has the opportunity to race for a top team,” Leclerc said of Russell’s chances. “I don’t know for how long—will it be for one weekend or two—and I think he will show how much of a good driver he is this weekend. Having the opportunity to be fighting with probably the best car out there is a great opportunity for him and I hope he’ll do well.
“For me, a podium at least (for Russell this weekend). I have some hope of a win. I’m very optimistic, but I know he’s very good. I will bet on a win.”
Putting Russell in the favorite’s role may be a slap in the face, or at least a little disrespectful, to Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, and even AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly—the only other drivers to win in F1 this season—but drivers know that it’s hard to argue with the guy with the most horsepower. This week, that’s likely to be Russell.
“I’m very optimistic, but I know he’s very good. I will bet on a win.”
And what happens if Russell actually beats teammate Bottas this weekend? Wouldn’t that be fun?
“Many people can think that way,” Bottas, a two-time race winner in 2020, said. “You guys making that kind of thing up because I know you like to speculate things and create drama, showdowns, et cetera. But I doubt George thinks that way. I know I don’t. I think it’s a great opportunity for George, a great opportunity to learn a lot and show what he can do with the team.
“From my side, as a racing driver, you always want to be ahead of your teammate, whether it’s Lewis Hamilton or George Russell, it doesn’t matter. I have a job to do over the last two races of the season. I have my own motivations which is to try to win the remaining races and to try to maximize all the learning I can for next season.”
Russell, meanwhile, is doing his best to stay focused on the task at hand and not get caught up in other people’s expectations.
“It’s all happening so fast,” Russell said. “It’s been an intense 48 hours, very anxious on Tuesday waiting to find out if we could strike a deal with Williams. Massive thank you to them for allowing me this opportunity, and here we are. I feel strange to be back with Mercedes. Obviously, I spent two years there as a test driver, reserve driver, simulator driver, so obviously I know all the guys, which makes things a lot easier to get back into the team. I’ve got no expectations, no targets. Enjoy it and just do my best.”
Russell knows he has big racing boots to fill. And after his first fitting in the car this week, he found out those boots aren’t quite as big as he thought. In fact, Russell’s feet are a bit larger than Hamilton’s, which is making the fit into Hamilton’s cockpit a little tight around the pedals.
“I’ve got size 11 feet, and a size smaller would be be ideal,” said Russell, who is a former Mercedes reserve driver. “It’s slightly uncomfortable, but I’m sure I can endure the pain to get this opportunity. I’ve been thrown in at the last opportunity, and I haven’t driven their simulator in two years. I’ve got so much information to learn. Going up against Valtteri isn’t going to be easy. I think I’m in a good position.
“I’m not putting any additional pressure on myself. I’m going to go out there and enjoy it.”
Who’s your favorite in Bahrain this week? Let the debate begin in the comments section below.
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