George Russell has yet to score a point in nearly two seasons in Formula One but the Briton will step into a winning car in Bahrain this weekend as Lewis Hamilton’s temporary replacement at Mercedes.
They are huge shoes to fill for the 21-year-old Williams driver, who has a long-term Mercedes contract, but Russell is ready to seize the opportunity after COVID-19 ruled out his compatriot.
Replacing the most successful driver in the history of the sport, a seven-time world champion with 11 wins to his credit already this year, at the dominant team on the grid is some challenge.
Russell has long been tipped as a future Mercedes driver — either when Hamilton retires or the team loses faith in Finnish teammate Valtteri Bottas — and now has the chance to really show what he can do.
The 2018 Formula Two champion has wrung every last bit of performance out of an uncompetitive car at backmarker Williams — boasting a 36-0 qualifying record over teammates Robert Kubica (2019) and Nicholas Latifi (2020).
Beating Bottas in qualifying will take some doing, and his every move will be under a new level of scrutiny.
The pressure will not be as great as it could have been, however, because Mercedes has already won both championships for an unprecedented seventh year in succession, so there’s nothing at stake for the team.
But it will still be there for Russell.
Mercedes will want to compare his performance to Bottas, who is fighting Red Bull’s Max Verstappen for second place in the championship, in equal machinery and in race conditions with a view to the future.
Bottas also knows there are considerable downsides for him — being punished by Hamilton on a regular basis is one thing, but losing to an up-and-coming youngster would be a far greater setback.
Mercedes had a reserve driver available in Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne, a former McLaren racer now competing in Formula E, but Russell got the nod not just as a future star, but for his current level of experience.
As Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff explained, the Briton is race-ready and knows all about the 2020 Pirelli tires and how they perform.
He also enables Mercedes to turn a negative — their star driver’s sudden absence — into a potential feel-good story about a rising talent.
“George has shown impressive form this year with Williams, playing an instrumental role in their climb up the grid,” said the Austrian.
“I am optimistic that he will deliver a strong performance alongside Valtteri, who will be a demanding reference for him.”
Russell will be the first driver to graduate from the Mercedes junior program to the works team, and also only the third Briton to drive for them in the Formula One world championship after Hamilton and the late Stirling Moss.
“I see this as a great chance to learn from the best outfit on the grid right now and to come back as an improved driver with even more energy and experience to help push Williams further up the grid,” he said.
“Obviously, nobody can replace Lewis, but I’ll give my all for the team in his absence from the moment I step in the car.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Christian Radnedge