Points, Penalties, and Pain - The Sakhir Grand Prix in George Russell’s (Too Small) Shoes
Needless to say, the Sakhir Grand Prix made for an eventful weekend full of surprises and disappointments. Lewis Hamilton sent fans into confusion when he was diagnosed with COVID 19, and the Mercedes and Williams teams into a swirl of negotiations. The F1 community was flooded with rumours and suggestions for Hamilton’s replacement, and it ultimately resulted in Williams’ George Russell taking up the mantle. Many were delighted with this outcome, and huge pressure was steeped onto Russell’s shoulders heading into the Sakhir Grand Prix. He was also carrying two labels into the weekend; the 2019 rookie yet to score a point, and having never been out-qualified by his teammate since the start of his F1 career. With the driver now in a championship-winning car alongside Valterri Bottas, both seemed set to change.
At just over 4 inches taller than Hamilton (11 cm to be precise), Russell and the Mercedes engineers faced the uphill slope of making sure he fit into the car. Onboard videos made it clear just how unsuited he was (size-wise) for the car, with his helmet positioned far higher than temporary teammate Bottas. Russell also mentioned that he had to wear a smaller pair of shoes, that the steering wheel paddles were too small, and that he was left battered and bruised after the Friday and Saturday sessions. He and the team in the garage spent the weekend tirelessly adjusting the car to fit him, with Russell saying he left ”the track at three, four A.M. and I think the guys were there until probably sunrise maybe.”
But the Brit spurred on fans’ hopes, taking P1 in both of Friday’s free practice sessions, P7 in FP3, and qualifying in P2 a sheer 26 milliseconds behind Bottas on Saturday. His outlook looked positive, and victory was very much in the cards for his maiden race with Mercedes. A flying start and absolute domination saw Russell running well ahead of the pack, and the two virtual and first actual safety car sessions had little impact on his impressive lead. But a double-stack blunder during the second safety car saw the two Mercedes tumble down the standings. Russell was called in first and was accidentally fitted with Bottas’ set of new front tyres, which forced him to make a second pitstop to prevent a disqualification. Bottas was held up not only behind Russell but also with his own change, as the crew took off his tyres, realised they didn’t have enough and ultimately put his old set of hard tyres back on. It was later concluded that there had been an issue with the radio between the pit wall and the pit crew. While Russell fortunately avoided a disqualification, the team was fined €20,000 for the incident. Andrew Shovlin, engineering director for Mercedes said, “so it's something that's been there in the system. And it was awfully unfortunate for the drivers and desperately unfortunate for George that we found that.”
This fiasco only sent Bottas and Russell to P4 and P5 respectively, but their misfortune continued. Bottas was unable to defend effectively as he was on used tyres, sliding him down to P8, and a puncture meant that Russell had to pit a fourth time on lap 78 in what was meant to be a one-stop, 87 lap long race. Russell was sent to a frustrating P15 but with quick overtakes and determination, ultimately crossed the line in P9 with the fastest lap as well.
Viewers were understandably frustrated at this complete upheaval of the results given the consistent performance of the Mercedes drivers all weekend, and while the podium finishers had great drives, (notably Sergio Perez after his heartbreaking end to what was meant to be a podium finish at the Bahrain GP) most were upset at what could have been a trophy for Russell. His disappointment after the race was clear, both with his demeanour and words in his post-race radio message and interviews. But after that drive, many were hinting at the fact that Russell could become Mercedes’ next world champion, with fellow drivers commenting on his weekend, and even team principal Toto Wolff was generous with his praise in interviews, touting “…the way he kept it all together, attacked without any mistakes, lapped and overtook the cars was brilliant.”
With fellow 2019 rookie drivers Lando Norris and Alexander Albon respectively driving for McLaren and Red Bull, teams sitting P4 and P2 in the constructors’ championship, fans have been hungry for George to get his chance to shine. But after this stellar performance, notwithstanding the blunder the team made, rest assured that George Russell remains in the sights of Toto Wolff, and there is no lack of hope that in the near future, this one-off sight of George in Mercedes black and green will become a well-deserved fact.
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