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Mercedes team manager Toto Wolf said he was impressed, but not surprised by the performance of George Russell, who played for Lewis Hamilton in the Saheer Grand Prix.
The 22-year-old Briton arrived within 0.026 seconds of making his Mercedes debut, confirming the status he already enjoyed in many minds as the star of the future of Formula 1.
And as befits a rider with such clear talent, Russell admitted that he was so close and so far from beating teammate Walteri Bottas to take pole position on the Bahrain circuit.
In some ways intimacy makes it really disappointing, Russell said, but if you had told me four days ago that I would be in P2 this weekend, I would have thought you would take my pants off.
Several days out of breath
It’s been a hurricane for Russell for days. Hamilton woke up Monday morning after winning the Grand Prix of Bahrain with the symptoms of Covid. He tested positive and the repeat test confirmed the result.
On Tuesday, at 2:00, Wolf Russell called and told him he wanted to take him in the car. That night, the deal to free him from Williams was almost complete and since Wednesday Russell has been working with the team in full collaboration.
Friday’s training went well. Russell led both sessions, although it’s clear that Bottas had a slight rhythm advantage, but he just didn’t show it on the dirty day.
But Russell described his last training session as unfortunate, too strong and flawed. He was only seventh at that speed. This upset him, and Wolf wanted to calm him down for a meeting that was really important.
They sat down to lunch with Chief Strategist James Wools for the night qualifying round. Woolff’s idea was to relieve his protégé of some of the weight he thought he was feeling.
Wolf told Russell that the teams expect him to be in the top four or five and that lap time will be short due to the short duration of the lap.
It’s important to say what our expectations are, Wolf said. This relieved the pressure he had put on himself.
Although he is satisfied with P2, Russell has tweeted: I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t miss a pole in just 20 milliseconds!
It worked. Russell fell 0.256 seconds to the Bottas in the first qualifying session. But there was a 0.016 second break between them in the second shooting, then a small break in the top 10.
Russell knew the Pole was within reach and what really disappointed him was the first corner where, as he said, he fought all weekend.
Walter’s taking up a lot of my time, Russell said. But after that, from the fourth corner, I felt good and the car was on schedule and had the real driving fun. Turn One has really let me down and I’m sure I’ll look at the data and I’ll be upset.
It was a matter of confidence in the brakes of a very fast car that he had never driven before Friday morning. In fact, Russell placed eighth in qualifying in sector one and second in the next two, but lost to Bottas in sector two and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in sector three. Compared to sectors two and three, Botswana’s lead was only 0.004 seconds.
Shoulder boots and shoes
Wolf has supported Russell’s career since 2017. He always thought he was fast, and said Russell had really thought about starting his first weekend with Mercedes.
He drove more than 6,500 kilometres in tests for the world champions, but didn’t spin a single wheel of the 2020 car, not even in the simulator, before entering the track on Friday morning.
The team knows Russell well, and vice versa, but Wolf said that the most impressive thing is driving. Everything else went according to plan. But the driving was spectacular.
And that he doesn’t fit in at all, not even with a car. 6 foot 1 inch Russell is 5 inches above Hamilton. He wears shoes that are too small to operate the pedals. Because he didn’t have time to make a new chair for him, he’s been using one for a year. He’s suffering from all this.
He says it’s not perfect. I have severe bruising and pain. It’s gonna be a tough race. Last night I had ice on my shoulders to reduce the swelling and my knees and toes hurt.
Wolff takes the same approach to race expectations as in qualifying, pointing out that Russell will be starting on the dirty and less trailer side of the grid, with which Botswana lost a few places at the start of the race in Bahrain last week.
George doesn’t push at all, Wolf says. He has nothing to lose, and Ferstappen won’t be happy to have a new child around for him.
George is on the worst of the line, as we saw last weekend. The cabin is too small for him. The clutch knives are too small for his hands and fingers. So I have the same expectations as when I graduated. He confirmed what we thought of him.
Mercedes needs Hamilton now?
The unknowns will certainly look at Russell’s confident performance and say that it proves that Hamilton only wins because he is in the best car. But it would be a misunderstanding to think this is bad for Hamilton. This is a false vision of the image; the only reflection is Russell’s quality and potential.
To the question whether Mercedes Hamilton, which had not yet agreed to a new contract for 2021 and beyond, answered Ferstappen : Of course, because it will change the situation at the most critical moments. That’s why he’s world champion seven times.
Russell himself said that guys like Lewis make a difference when they bring in the key moments. That’s what Lewis has done so well over the years. She’s definitely a superstar, and if you’re Toto or anyone else, you want it in your car.
For those who were in Formula 1, it was clear that Russell was the best talent since his arrival in the sport.
Russell has not yet scored points in F1 and Bottas looks forward to his tenth victory in his career.
Carlos Saines of McLaren said… : It doesn’t matter which car, the drivers know who’s very fast, and we’d all put George on that list very quickly in one lap. He did very well.
I’ve always wanted George to be very close to Walter in my predictions, and it only shows that the F1 is missing when a car is two seconds apart.
It is a pity that the man who [normally] fights in a P15 was put in a car and just walked out of the bar. F1 can be an incredible spectacle if you can even increase the odds a little more.
The other side of the medal is to press the grid and let the typist do more.
A moment of relaxation for Hamilton
Save all that thought for Hamilton, who was isolated in his hotel room in Bahrain until Wednesday after his coronavirus diagnosis, not feeling as well as Wolf had said, looking (or perhaps not) at someone else sitting in his car, not knowing if he would recover and test negative during the last race in Abu Dhabi next weekend.
The last time I spoke to him was a few days ago, Wolf told me it might be Thursday. We’ve corresponded every day since then. I tried to leave him alone because Covid-19 isn’t fun. I think it’s good, because with Covid-19, we’d all be in a foreign country.
Lewis is a very competitive man and the driver wants to sit in his car and not see anyone else driving.
I don’t know how he’s going to organize his weekend, but it’s not a pleasant experience for a professional athlete. But it’s not a mistake he made. He didn’t do anything wrong. These things happen. The championship has been won, but it may not be worth understanding.