George Russell will replace Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes at the Sakhir Grand Prix this weekend but what are the challenges facing the young Briton? MotorsportWeek.com analyses the situation.
Getting used to the team
The human element of Formula 1 cannot be underestimated. Formula 1 drivers have close working relationships with engineers that are honed and tweaked over time. Hamilton has forged an exceptionally close bond with Pete Bonnington and his inner circle since joining Mercedes in 2013 while Russell has likewise spent two years with the same group of people at Williams. Russell has previously tested for Mercedes, and spent 2018 observing the situation as reserve driver alongside his Formula 2 duties, but this will be a new environment for both parties – for Russell in understanding how Mercedes operates and for Mercedes in having traded the most successful driver in history for one with no points to his name.
Getting on the same page in terms of understanding and communication, in a very short space of time, will be crucial. It was something identified by Valtteri Bottas during pre-season testing in 2017 when he switched to Mercedes from Williams, adapting to the small nuances that naturally exist within different organisations. Hamilton, meanwhile, was vocal early in 2016 when some engineers were swapped between the different sides of the team at Mercedes feeling, at that stage, it was an unnecessary move. Russell has been the undisputed team leader at Williams, tasked with improving the squad’s fortunes and unafraid to be constructively vocal, while at Mercedes he will be very much the junior within a World Championship-winning set-up.
Adapting to the car
Russell has spent two years competing for Williams and during that period has for large spells been lumbered with the slowest car on the grid. But over that time he and the team have made progress while Russell himself has made strides – the natural evolution that takes place through the course of a rookie and sophomore campaign. However he will now step from the FW43, itself a rapid car in the grand scheme of things, to the fastest car in Formula 1 history, the W11. Prior to qualifying Russell will have only four hours to get used to the car, understand where the limit is, and get used to the nuances that have been trialled and explored all year by Hamilton and Bottas, such as brake bias and balance preferences.
Working in his favour are a couple of elements. Firstly Russell has driven the W11’s predecessors – the W08, W09 and W10 – and is consequently not going in completely cold. It is also the ideal venue at which to make such a step. Conditions should be relatively stable – rather than the atypical Turkish grip or the rain of mainland Europe – while the Bahrain outer circuit only has a handful of corners of note, meaning Russell has fewer challenging sections to understand and, in theory, lots of laps to perfect the approach. It would be far harder if Russell was thrown in at the deep end at a street circuit, for example.
Building through qualifying
In spending two years with largely uncompetitive machinery Russell’s Saturday success has been about out-qualifying his team-mate or simply making Q2. Russell has never been bested across one lap – an extraordinary record even accounting for his methodical but unspectacular team-mates – and has made Q2 nine times this year. But this will be a different ballgame. He will now be expected to progress through Q1 and Q2 with ease, itself not a given due to the risk that the Bahrain outer layout may lead to a chaotic session, and then hook up two strong laps in Q3. When he was thrust into Red Bull mid-2016 Max Verstappen took time to get on par with Daniel Ricciardo in qualifying. It will require a new mentality and a new approach. It was something which Charles Leclerc recognised in 2019 having gone from Sauber, where making Q3 was a superb achievement, to Ferrari, when pole was the aim. Track evolution, and everything being ramped up to the max, changes the complexion of the session.
“On some tracks, it’s bigger than others, and I think most of the time when the track evolution was quite big, I was not in the best place, or not in the place I wanted to be for Q3,” said Leclerc in mid-2019, referring to the spell when he was regularly being beaten by Sebastian Vettel. “I felt quite good in Q1, Q2 was worse, Q3 was even worse. So now I just tried to analyse that to understand what I have to live with in Q1 to have the car I wanted in Q3, and it worked.”
It would be a major shock if Russell can get on part with Bottas, considering qualifying is a relative strength of the Finn, but securing a spot towards the front of the grid will undoubtedly be the target.
Getting a clean start
Wherever Russell qualifies will be largely inconsequential if he struggles to get away off the line. It has not been the smoothest element of Russell’s career, and while that has largely been down to the machinery at his disposal he has not been an innocent party. Russell, and team-mate Nicholas Latifi, both made poor starts in Bahrain, with Russell dropping from 14th to 19th before Turn 1.
“Through most of the season we’ve been making really poor starts, as a team, which is really frustrating, because we’re losing all these positions off the line,” said Russell after the race. “It’s infuriating really. Everything is undone in the space of four seconds. I lost all of those positions in the space of five or 10 seconds. It feels like I drop the clutch and the car just doesn’t launch and I’m just stood still. Or consequently I drop the clutch and we go into direct wheelspin and I’m equally just sat there. To put it into perspective, it’s one or two millimetres on the clutch paddle makes or breaks the difference. We need to understand why it’s just so sensitive for us. It happened at Mugello, it happened at Budapest, it happened here, a few races where we’ve been in good positions, we need to understand it.”
Whatever issue that is plaguing Williams will not be influential at Mercedes but making a good start will be critical – and it is no guarantee that it is straightforward in the W11. Bottas, from second on the grid, plunged to sixth at the start on Sunday.
In 2019 Russell’s Sunday afternoons consisted of watching the pack cruise away, looking out for blue flags, and occasionally battling with team-mate Robert Kubica, such was Williams’ lack of performance. It was an aspect he recognised at the start of 2020.
“It was a strange situation we found ourselves in that the cars ahead would just clear off and I’d just be racing with Robert,” he said. “It was my first year and I didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks with that car. But this year I need to be getting my elbows out a bit more as I can’t be fannying around at the back.”
Russell has been able to actually race this year, though largely with the same group of opponents, owing to Williams’ position in ‘Group C’ with Alfa Romeo and Haas. There have been mistakes, most notably on the opening lap in Styria and under the Safety Car at Imola, but part of that was Russell trying to out-perform the situation in which he found himself. Even with a faster and more competitive car Williams has still struggled in the turbulent air behind rivals, hurting Russell’s ability to actually race, with its FW43 particularly aero-sensitive. That said, such a trait has also been evident for Mercedes in recent years, with Hamilton and Bottas at times struggling to clear much slower rivals when stuck in the pack. Russell will have to adapt to a different group of opponents to which he has been used to battling, understand how the tyres will respond through the race – a key Hamilton trait in recent years – and do so with much more at stake, both in terms of overall result and post-event reputation.