Without Hamilton, self-isolating after testing positive for Covid-19 following his victory in the Bahrain GP on Sunday, and on the rapid outer track at the Bahrain International Circuit, the opening 90 minutes was an enthralling session.
The 3.543km layout offered a different challenge for the drivers compared to the main grand prix venue that has been used over the years, and it was Russell who held the upper hand over new team-mate Valtteri Bottas.
Switching from Williams, with whom Russell has languished towards the rear of the field over the past two seasons, the W11 will have felt like night-and-day difference to the 22-year-old.
Following numerous sighter laps to become accustomed to a car he said he has had to squeeze into given the difference in build between himself and Hamilton, Russell grew into the session.
Even after the Briton had been deposed by Red Bull's Max Verstappen from the top of the timesheet after an hour, he responded superbly to post the best time of 54.546 seconds, and completed the most laps alongside Renault's Esteban Ocon with 49.
Although early days in the weekend, that will have served as a major tonic for Russell who finished 0.176s clear of Verstappen, with Bottas fourth and 0.322s down as Alex Albon in his Red Bull also managed to split the Mercedes pair, just over a quarter of a second adrift.
Bottas noticeably struggled with front-left locking on a number of occasions into turn one, leading to him complaining about the issue over the team radio.
Appreciably on such a short circuit, with the new middle sector the interesting part given its bumpy nature, the top 10 drivers were covered by a second, while it was also naturally busy with 20 cars on track on occasion across its two miles.
AlphaTauri pair Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly were the best of the rest, with the Russian 0.465s down and the Frenchman a further 0.155s behind his team-mate.
Rookie newcomers Pietro Fittipaldi and Jack Aitken brought up the rear, while they also made the odd mistake on their F1 debuts.
Aitken spun at one stage, although was not alone in that respect as Albon did likewise midway through, while Fittipaldi badly flat-spotted a set of soft tyres.
Fittipaldi, standing in at Haas for Romain Grosjean following the Frenchman's horrific accident on lap one of the Bahrain GP, was 19th and 2.531s adrift, followed by Aitken in the Williams as Russell's stand-in, with the Briton a further tenth of a second back.
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