Even as the vagaries of sport go, George Russell endured what might be considered an unseemly level of misfortune at the Sakhir Grand Prix. The 22-year-old, driving his first race in a competitive car, had the win in the palm of his hand before he fell to two undeserved blows so crushing it was impossible not to feel the young man’s heartbreak. Yet the import of his performance for Mercedes was not diminished at all. Victory was denied but Formula One is now unanimous in the belief that Russell will go on to take the flag and possibly more.
The Mercedes team principal, Toto Wolff, is a calm operator. He can be emotional but is not given to hyperbole. Having worked with Lewis Hamilton since 2013, his assessment should not be taken lightly.
“We learned that George Russell is somebody to count on in the future, he has all the potential and all the ingredients that a future star needs,” Wolff said. “I feel for George. We didn’t want to set expectations high but he over-delivered and over-delivered and over-delivered.”
Russell, in only his second season in F1, was replacing Hamilton at Mercedes in Bahrain. With the world champion having contracted Covid-19, the man from King’s Lynn had the greatest opportunity of his career. The skill with which he seized it was exceptional.
Ross Brawn, who worked with Michael Schumacher at Benetton and Ferrari when he won his seven world titles, acknowledged it. “There is now no doubt that he’s F1 world-champion material,” he said. “He didn’t make any mistakes in a challenging situation. He drove impeccably until he had the win taken away. Any doubts anyone had, will be gone. Clearly he’s exceptional.”
Russell has driven for Williams since 2019, the slowest car on the grid and a handful to control. Coming up to speed with new machinery and a new team is considered a tough task in any circumstance, but Russell’s talent shone through. In qualifying he had hoped to be within two tenths of a second of his teammate Valtteri Bottas, who has been at Mercedes for four years. He was beaten to pole by the Finn by two-hundredths of a second, a performance bettered only by his race on Sunday.
Taking the lead through the first corner he went on to dominate at the front. He was composed and controlled and at one point he was more than eight seconds clear of Bottas. He had done everything right but was to be denied, first by a rare Mercedes pit error that saw him fitted with the wrong tyres and then, when on a bravura comeback from fifth, by a puncture.
Afterwards he was left briefly in tears, ashen-faced as he came to terms with what had happened. Yet his performance had still spoken volumes and was all the more impressive given the physical limitations he was facing.
Russell was not only stepping into Hamilton’s shoes but his seat, and he is five inches taller than the world champion. He has had to wear race boots a size too small, the clutch paddles are too small for his hands and fingers and he was using a seat moulded for him a year ago. He admitted the price he was paying, in being bruised and sore, that he was using ice to reduce the swelling and his knees and toes in particular were suffering.
Wolff pointedly noted just how much more Russell was having to do. “His racing was unbelievable,” he said. “He got off the starting line with the best reaction time in a car that isn’t built for him, in a car that is much too small, with paddles that didn’t fit his hands, and he got into the lead and drove a brilliant race, and could have won twice.”
That it was a painful experience cannot be denied but shortly afterwards Russell was composed, dismissing his travails and looking only forward – a technique Hamilton has honed to perfection in recent years.
Russell grew up as a fan of the world champion and knows he suffered a similarly devastating race when his chance to win the title in 2007 fell apart in a gravel trap at Shanghai. Hamilton emerged stronger and Russell, who longs to join or ultimately take over upon from him at Mercedes, will do too. Future wins seem assured and they will overshadow the pain of Sakhir.