George Russell has described his chance to race for Mercedes as Lewis Hamilton’s replacement at the Sakhir Grand Prix as an almost surreal end to an unbelievable year.
The 22-year-old will be at the wheel of the season’s dominant car in Bahrain on Sunday, having spent two seasons driving for Williams in the slowest ride on the grid. The scrutiny will be intense but Russell appears to be taking it in his stride, right down to having to squeeze into a smaller pair of race boots.
Russell is in his second season in F1 and the British driver, who is a member of the Mercedes junior driver programme, was chosen by the team to replace Hamilton after he was diagnosed with Covid-19 on Monday. Russell said he had taken the call from the Mercedes chief, Toto Wolff, at 2am on Tuesday, after which followed a whirlwind of preparations.
He was clearly in excellent cheer as he prepared for the biggest race of his career and the chance to stamp his name on a future drive with Mercedes. Russell has had to liaise with Hamilton’s race engineer, Peter Bonnington. He is four inches taller than Hamilton, which meant there were adaptations to be made from the off.
“It was a tight squeeze [getting into the car], my size 11 feet were a struggle so I am having to wear a size smaller now,” Russell said. “It’s slightly uncomfortable but I am sure I can endure the pain to get this opportunity. I spoke with Bono and he said: ‘I am sure we can make some mods … to your body’.”
Russell has acquitted himself well in the past two seasons in a Williams that is off the pace and a handful to drive. He has out-qualified his teammates in every grand prix since his debut and repeatedly wrung more from the car than it deserved.
Yet only months ago his future was in doubt, when rumours circulated that he was to be dropped by Williams in favour of Sergio Peréz. He has since been confirmed for 2021. Then after a season of barely putting a foot wrong, he was in a position to score the first points of his career at Imola when an error saw him crash out of the race behind the safety car.
With the Mercedes call coming on top, taking it all in was proving some task, he said. “This is not how I envisioned my first opportunity in a Mercedes race car, obviously it is very odd circumstances. This year has been mental on all accounts, not just for me – there are much greater problems going on in the world – but from a personal perspective in terms of my career it has been up, down, left, right, centre and this has been another twist in the tale. It still seems a bit surreal and in years to come I will look back on 2020 and say: ‘What an unbelievable year.’”
He and Mercedes have had to come up to speed fast to ensure he is able to take to the track in first practice on Friday. Russell has yet to speak to Hamilton but expects to over the weekend. He will have to learn to work with a new crew and learn the intricacies of a new car, while going up against Valtteri Bottas, who is in his fourth year with Mercedes.
“There is no pressure,” he said. “I am being thrown in at the last opportunity. I haven’t driven their simulator in two years and my seat is three years old. I have got so much information to learn and going up against Valtteri is not going to be easy.
“So I am in a good position, I am not putting additional pressure on myself. I am going to go out there and enjoy it, there are no targets, no expectations from Mercedes, because you can’t judge somebody off the back of one race.”
• The image on this article was changed on 4 December 2020 to one of George Russell. Because a picture was supplied with a mistaken caption, an earlier version used one of Jack Aitken.