Why Russell's Sakhir GP Mercedes drive is much more than a cameo
Lewis Hamilton's positive test for Covid-19 has given a surprise opportunity for George Russell to prove himself in the factory Mercedes team and put his name firmly in the frame for a 2022 race seat.
With two races remaining in this year's disrupted season, Hamilton has been forced to sit out the Sakhir Grand Prix. The seven-time champion's participation in the season finale is also in question with Hamilton needing to provide a negative test before he is permitted to reenter the paddock following a 10-day isolation period.
At the end of 2021, both Valtteri Bottas and Russell will be out of contract and it is impossible to imagine comparisons between the two not being made, so what does this decision mean for the future?
How did we get here
Hamilton tested positive less than 24 hours after his imperious Bahrain Grand Prix victory, having requested a test when waking up showing Covid symptoms. All protocols were followed by both driver and team, who returned a negative result on Sunday afternoon ahead of the race.
The self-isolation period covers this weekend's second Bahrain race, labelled the Sakhir Grand Prix, meaning his team had to act fast to find a replacement.
Stoffel Vandoorne, the team's official test and reserve driver, was in Valencia during the week completing Formula E pre-season testing and was due to fly to Bahrain even before the announcement of Hamilton's illness.
Unfortunately for the Belgian former McLaren driver, the decision by Mercedes to put Russell in the seat means he will, as planned, be on reserve duty should either Bottas or, now, Russell be unable to race.
Eyebrows may have been raised with Williams' decision to allow Russell to switch to Mercedes for the upcoming race given the peculiar outer circuit layout perhaps provides the team's best chance of points before the season comes to a close.
With four braking zones and a predicted 54-second lap time, teams with stronger power units, including Williams with its Mercedes unit, are expected to perform well, while teams running the weaker Ferrari power, including Haas and Alfa Romeo, are thought to be in for a tough time.
Clarifying the position of Williams, acting team principal Simon Roberts said: "We have been working hard to ensure that an agreement could be made with Mercedes to allow him this fantastic opportunity.
"George very much remains a Williams driver and we look forward to him returning to us fresh from this experience and wish him a successful race this weekend."
What does this mean for Russell?
Realistically, the only pressure on Russell to perform this weekend will come from within. A neat weekend with, potentially, a podium would surely allow both driver and team to leave the weekend satisfied.
But Russell will, although he has not said it publicly, want so much more than this and will view this outing as his audition to secure a drive with the champion team in 2022.
Humble in his response to the announcement, Russell acknowledged: "Nobody can replace Lewis but I'll give my all for the team in his absence from the moment I step in the car.
Russell has already thanked his current team for the opportunity to fill in for his countryman and whilst doing so, promised to take knowledge of a winning operation back to Grove as the team pushes to reach the midfield battle containing Racing Point, McLaren et al.
Remember also that Russell has yet to register a point in his F1 career to date. Several chances have come and gone for the Briton this year, most notably in the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix when he crashed behind the safety car while lapping inside the top 10.
The coming weekend is an opportunity to right this wrong and a strong performance will thrust him, without a doubt, into the mix for a 2022 drive.
What does this mean for Bottas?
It is worth mentioning that any result this weekend would not result in any race seat swaps for next year as Bottas has already signed a deal for 2021 with Mercedes.
The Finn's contract, however, offers little long-term security, with Bottas well known to be on a one-year rolling deal - an arrangement which offers the German manufacturer the maximum flexibility in changing its driver roster from year to year.
Questions were asked and eyebrows raised when the team elected to retain Bottas for 2021 given the strong pace shown by Russell in his rookie year, albeit in an uncompetitive car. After all, Ferrari had promoted Charles Leclerc after just one year of racing with Alfa Romeo Sauber.
However, when joining Williams, Russell had signed a three-year deal and the then deputy team principal Claire Williams did not want to lose the talented driver ahead of time. At the time, it was an arrangement that suited, and still does suit, all parties.
For Bottas, nothing short of a perfect weekend will do this time around. The circuit plays to all the strengths of the W11 and it will likely prove difficult for even Max Verstappen to cling onto Mercedes' coattails.
Russell has never been defeated by a team-mate in qualifying. In a car Bottas is familiar with and one that Russell will spend the early portion of the weekend learning, Bottas must become the first team-mate to topple Russell in a Saturday session.
The situation is much the same in the race. Bottas cannot lose to Russell.
Losing to Hamilton, a seven-time champion seemingly at the peak of his powers, is one thing, but losing to a team-mate with minimal experience of the car, would be a devastating blow to his Mercedes career, and one that would be difficult to recover from.
To sum up the weekend for both parties, Russell has it all to gain, Bottas, however, has everything to lose.
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