Tuesday morning brought the news that most wanted to hear. After serving a four-year apprenticeship with the dominant force in Formula One, and grinding it out at the back of the field in an effort to prove his worth on the grid, George Russell got the 2am phone call.
It was Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal, with the news that Lewis Hamilton had tested positive for Covid-19 and that they wanted him to step up and fill his seat at this weekend’s Sakhir Grand Prix. The news emerged publicly throughout the day, before Russell’s promotion from Williams to Mercedes was confirmed the following morning in news that very few begrudged, given the high regard that the 2018 Formula Two champion is held in.
However, one of those people who will not have been too pleased to read the news come Wednesday morning was one of the two drivers currently tasked with the privilege of driving F1’s fastest car of all time. Valtteri Bottas will go into this weekend’s penultimate race of the season with very little to gain and an awful lot to lose.
Bottas’s championship hopes this season unravelled as quickly as the W11 fended off its championship rivals. It was not entirely his fault, with his run of bad luck suggesting he has walked under every ladder, smashed every mirror and crossed every black cat possible.
“If I would make a list of all the unlucky events that are happening in the races during this year it is quite a long list,” Bottas admitted this week. “I mean, should I cry or should I laugh?”
Having gone up against an opponent the calibre of Hamilton - who seems to be in the form of his life at the age of 35 - Bottas’s struggles this season can be somewhat taken with a pinch of salt. There is no shame in losing out to a seven-time world champion and the greatest driver of this generation, and as long as the Finn is able to showcase his talent when the chips are in his favour and be competitive enough to maintain Mercedes’s grip on the world championship, then there is little to worry about for the likes of Wolff and the rest of the team back in Brackley.
But what if a driver from the back of the grid manages to upset the odds and beat Bottas in his very first outing for the team? The fact that Russell only got the call up on Tuesday - and hasn’t even driven the W11 in the Mercedes simulator due to his Williams commitments - can only stack the chips higher in Bottas’s favour. That makes him a clear favourite for this weekend’s race on the power-dependent ‘outer loop’, but it also significantly increases the risk.
“If he beats me, for sure it wouldn’t look so good on me if I had a normal race fair and square, so I try to avoid that,” admitted Bottas.
“But I'm not a person who thinks like that, I try to turn things into motivation and positive thinking and that’s my mindset for this weekend.”
Russell has moved quickly to ease the pressure on his shoulders. “There have been no targets expected of me by Mercedes because you can’t judge somebody off one race. I'm going to go out there, enjoy it and learn as much as I can.
“I have a job to do on my return to Williams and try and push that team forward. I need to take this opportunity with both hands and maximise the learning. The future will be judged over the course of a season, and what’s happened in the past, not just one or maybe two races.”
That’s certainly true of Russell’s position, but not when it comes to Bottas. The Finn is contacted through to the end of 2021 with Mercedes, but with Hamilton’s future - both short- and long-term - unclear, along with Wolff’s, a driver reshuffle based on the evidence of an impressive showing from the 22-year-old Briton this weekend could well come into the reckoning as F1’s new regulations arrive.
It has often been asked what Formula One will look like without Lewis Hamilton once he has moved on: this weekend, we’ll learn if the future is something to look forward to.
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