Formula 1 awoke in December to the news that World Champion Lewis Hamilton will be absent from the grid after testing positive for Covid-19. It means that a driver will unexpectedly get a chance to race the fastest Formula 1 car in history in Bahrain and, potentially, Abu Dhabi. MotorsportWeek.com takes a look at the likely candidates.
Vandoorne was once regarded as the hottest prospect during his captivating 2015 GP2 season, where he dominated to take the championship by 160 points – the highest margin that still stands today, by a long way.
After making his Formula 1 debut in 2016 in Bahrain, Vandoorne’s reputation was boosted further, as he scored McLaren’s first points of the year as he subbed in for an injured Fernando Alonso.
But things for Vandoorne took a downward spiral after he joined the team full-time, and after two years of the occasional points-scoring result as McLaren struggled towards the lower end of the grid, Vandoorne departed the F1 scene.
However, during his F1 employment, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff had been ebullient about Vandoorne’s ability and vowed that he would help his career. He stuck to his word and brought the Belgian into the family, offering him the role of its F1 reserve driver and a full-time Formula E ride for 2018/19 with HWA, which would become Mercedes the following season.
Finishing runner-up in last season’s Formula E championship, Vandoorne regained face after his disastrous F1 stint. He has also been present at a number of F1 races since joining Mercedes, and was due to fly into Bahrain this weekend after testing with FE in Valencia.
It’s been a long time, over two years, since Vandoorne last danced competitively with an F1 car, leaving some question marks.
But as its official reserve he has participated in the relevant meetings, knows the team and the protocols, and would surely do a decent job in the circumstances.
Russell has been affiliated with Mercedes since 2017 and went on to win back-to-back titles in GP3 and Formula 2 under the guidance of the manufacturer.
During that spell he has acted as test and reserve driver, and sampled Mercedes’ Formula 1 machinery on several occasions, most recently in last year’s post-season Abu Dhabi gathering.
Mercedes rates Russell highly and considers him a viable long-term option – though there is the matter of his current position at Williams.
Russell signed a three-year deal with Williams in 2019 and after some uncertainty a few weeks ago his position at the team for 2021 was sealed.
Removing Russell from the Williams equation would risk upsetting the equilibrium there and may also impact the team’s own prospects as it chases ninth in the standings.
There would also be the risk of Russell having to change bubbles between events though that would not be an insurmountable hurdle given the circumstances.
It would be throwing Russell in at the deep end, considering he has never scored a point in Formula 1, though much of that is down to the cumbersome machinery with which he has been lumbered, given his unblemished qualifying record against team-mates.
Should Russell be parachuted into Mercedes then Williams has a viable stand-in option given reserve Jack Aitken is present in Bahrain on Formula 2 duties.
Hulkenberg has been dubbed the super sub of 2020 after his impressive performances with Racing Point this year, as its go-to man for when Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll contracted Covid-19.
At the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix, the German starred to qualify in third place, while at the Nurburgring he rose from the back of the grid to score four points for Racing Point amid its battle for third in the Constructors’ Championship.
His reliability as a sub has not yet been brought into question with his performances this year, however at Mercedes, the ball game is all that more intense, knowing it is almost expected to take to the circuit and claim pole position and a race victory.
While Hulkenberg has a solitary pole to his name, it is the the lacking podium that has haunted him through much of his career, as he currently holds the record for the most F1 starts without a top-three finish.
If Hulkenberg does get the call-up, and impresses, then surely it would thrust his name into firm contention for the vacant Red Bull seat that is currently being contested between Alexander Albon and Perez.
Ultimately, Hulkenberg is the most experienced of all the options, a significant asset, but has no direct involvement with Mercedes – even if he has driven its pink version three times!
Gutierrez is undoubtedly an outsider in the situation but should nonetheless be at least considered given his official capacity as Mercedes’ reserve driver.
He has spent time in the manufacturer’s simulator, has carried out demonstration runs, and has been a regular face in the paddock in recent years.
But there remain questions over his Super Licence status, a situation which arose when he emerged as a candidate to replace Sergio Perez at Silverstone.
Gutierrez has not raced in Formula 1 since 2016, when he failed to score a point at Haas, and his efforts behind the wheel have since been few and far between.
A handful of outings in IndyCar and Formula E did not merit much in the way of results and he would be exceptionally rusty given he has not raced since 2017.
Gutierrez arrived in F1 with much fanfare given his GP3 title and GP2 results but that was a decade ago, with his spells at Sauber and Haas largely unimpressive.
It would be a major surprise if Gutierrez was chosen in favour of the other alternatives.
Words by Phillip Horton and Fergal Walsh.