F1 Sakhir GP talking points: Can Russell win Mercedes shootout against Bottas?

Can George Russell impress Mercedes at F1 SakhirGrand Prix

Can George Russell make the most of his chance to impress Mercedes by beating Valtteri Bottas in this weekend’s Sakhir GP?

George Russell heads into this weekend’s Sakhir Grand Prix with the potentially-career defining opportunity to drive for Mercedes, a chance he has desired since he made his Formula 1 debut last year. 

In unexpected circumstances, with world champion Lewis Hamilton ruled out of the weekend having tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, Russell has been handed the opportunity he has been craving for so long – the chance to fight at the sharp-end of the grid in race-winning machinery. 

The 22-year-old Briton now has a wonderful chance to show what he is capable of, and he will find no better prospect of ending his run of 36 grands prix without scoring a point in F1 given that he finds himself in equipment that has won 13 of the 15 grands prix this year and taken all but one of the pole positions available. 

As soon as Hamilton’s positive test was returned, Mercedes got in touch with Williams and began what Toto Wolff described as “positive and pragmatic” conversations over a short-term loan from the Grove squad for the upcoming weekend. Within 24 hours, the switch was finalised and Russell was in the process of completing a seat fit in the W11. 

Russell has demonstrated his abilities this year – reaching the second part of qualifying on nine occasions so far in arguably the slowest car in the field – but now he has the chance to prove to Mercedes that he deserves to be promoted to the team on a full-time basis in the future. 

With at least one race weekend in the W11 – and possibly two if Hamilton is ruled out of the season finale in Abu Dhabi – Russell will find himself with no better opportunity to prove his worth to Mercedes. 

The task of making a step up at such short notice should not be underestimated, with Russell’s new part-time teammate Valtteri Bottas knowing Mercedes’ 2020 challenger inside out. Russell will have to get up to speed fast if he is going to be competitive, but this is where his natural talent should shine through.

Mercedes will stress this weekend is no shootout between Russell and Bottas, and while technically it isn’t (with Bottas confirmed at Mercedes for 2021), the German manufacturer will have no better opportunity to evaluate both drivers in a direct head-to-head comparison as it weighs up its options for the future post-2021.

Even if they don’t show it, the pressure will be on both drivers; for Bottas to assert his authority over Russell early, and for the Briton to show that he is worthy of a seat at the reigning world champions. 

This weekend will finally provide an answer to the long-pondered question of what could Russell achieve in a Mercedes.

Into the unknown for F1 in Bahrain 

Adding further intrigue into what already promises to be a fascinating weekend is the prospect of an entirely new layout for the drivers to race around.

The second consecutive race in Bahrain will take place on the shorter Outer Track. It is the closest F1 has come to racing on an oval – Indianapolis aside – featuring just 11 turns and three long straights with a total distance of 3.543km. 

Qualifying laps are expected to be sub-one minute, with early simulations suggesting that a 52-53-second pole lap should be achievable. With two DRS zones, we could be in store for something of an overtaking bonanza.

The circuit layout should also suit the strengths of Renault’s 2020 package, and a big result for the French manufacturer this weekend could have major implications on the intense squabble over third place in the constructors’ championship – a much-coveted position which is currently held by McLaren. 

Fittipaldi and Aitken thrown in deep end 

The Sakhir Grand Prix will see two new debutants take to the grid in the form of Pietro Fittipaldi and Jack Aitken. 

Fittpaldi – the grandson of two-time F1 champion Emerson – is Haas’ current reserve driver and will be substituting for Romain Grosjean as the Frenchman continues to recover from the injuries sustained in his horrific, fiery crash in last weekend’s race. 

It will be a tough task for the 24-year-old Brazilian, who claimed the Formula V8 3.5 title in 2017, as he has no experience driving Haas’ latest car, the VF20. Fittipaldi previously tested the American squad’s 2018 and 2019 car, but he’ll get his first opportunity in the 2020 contender during practice on Friday. 

Formula 2 racer Aitken has been released from his contract with Campos in order to fulfil his reserve driver duties at Williams, replacing the Mercedes-bound Russell to make an unexpected grand prix debut in Bahrain. 

The British-Korean driver took part in the opening free practice session for Williams at this year’s Styrian Grand Prix, so does have some experience of driving the team’s FW43. He has also previously carried out tests for Renault. 

How will Mercedes fair at F1 Sakhir GP

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