Pole position belonged to Valtteri Bottas for the Sakhir Grand Prix but it was his teammate, George Russell, whose talent shone under floodlights in Bahrain. The 22-year-old Briton – standing in for a self-isolating Lewis Hamilton – put his Mercedes on the front row, denied pole by the slenderest of margins on his first drive in a competitive car. In so doing Russell laid down a marker that he should be considered as heir apparent to the seven-times world champion at Mercedes.
Bottas took pole on his final lap in Q3 with a time of 53.377sec but Russell in his wake pushed him to the limit, sweeping home just two-hundredths of a second behind. Max Verstappen’s Red Bull was in third.
Drafted in after Hamilton was diagnosed with Covid-19 on Monday, Russell, who drives for Williams but is a Mercedes junior, has come up to speed with astounding alacrity in adapting to the car and the team since he was called up by Mercedes on Tuesday night.
Russell said Hamilton had been in touch and that for now he was keeping his ambitions for Sunday in check. “Lewis dropped me a message on Friday night wishing me well and asking me to look after his car and so far so good,” he said. “It would be amazing to stand on the podium but as a racer you just want to deliver the best performance possible.”
His achievement should not be underestimated. He has had only four hours of practice to get to grips with the Mercedes, Bottas has been with the team for four years. Now in only his second season in F1, Russell’s experience thus far has been in driving the slow and difficult to handle Williams. That he should prove able to demonstrate his pace and skill immediately when given his first opportunity to mix it at the front of the grid was definitive notice of how far he may go in the sport.
The Mercedes team principal, Toto Wolff, offered praise and an interesting comparison between his incumbent world champion and his team’s debutant, who has had to wear race boots a size too small to fit into Hamilton’s car. “They’re such different characters,” he said. “Lewis has been there for a long time and is quite quiet. George is a lot more chatty, he is quite serious – you would think he was a finance guy. He settled in well, even though he doesn’t really fit into the car.
“I said to him: ‘If you end up in the first four, that’s great and if you get passed by someone and end up in fifth, that’s fine too.’ But that’s a fantastic result today.”
The British driver had never made it to the final, pressured shootout of Q3 before but he handled it nervelessly on his final run, an exceedingly tricky task on such a short lap, where the margins were tiny. Bottas already has a contract with Mercedes for 2021 but Russell, highly regarded by the team, is doing everything needed to put himself in the frame for 2022.
It is a moment of ascendancy for Russell he will relish, coming not long after his future in F1 appeared to be under threat. Only months ago rumours circulated that he was to be dropped by Williams in favour of Sergio Pérez but he has since been confirmed for 2021, a decision vindicated in Bahrain.
His achievement was all the more impressive given that the race this weekend is taking place on the outer loop configuration of the Sakhir circuit, an alternate layout to the one used at the Bahrain GP last week and one that no one has driven before. Yet Russell had its measure in short order. Bottas had the edge over his teammate across qualifying but when it really mattered at the death he was naught but a breath from the Finn.
It was the performance of a young man who has been confident and proactive in pursuing his career thus far. His first contact with Mercedes had been an unsolicited email to Wolff, in 2014. Taken on as a Mercedes junior driver in 2017, the same year he pitched for a drive at Williams by using a PowerPoint presentation, he then went on to win the GP3 series and followed it by claiming the F2 title in 2018. On Sunday he starts from the front row for the first time and having yet to score a point in F1, will doubtless believe a win is entirely within his grasp.
Charles Leclerc was a superb fourth for Ferrari, with Pérez in fifth for Racing Point and his teammate Lance Stroll in 10th. Daniil Kvyat was in sixth for AlphaTauri and his teammate Pierre Gasly in ninth. Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo was in seventh and McLaren’s Carlos Sainz in eighth.
The British-Korean driver Jack Aitken, who is making his F1 debut as a replacement for Russell at Williams, was in 18th place.
Brazil’s Pietro Fittipaldi, the grandson of the double world champion Emerson Fittipaldi, who makes his F1 debut taking over at Haas from Romain Grosjean after his accident at the Bahrain GP, was in 20th.
McLaren’s Lando Norris went out in 15th. Alexander Albon was in 12th for Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel in 13th for Ferrari. Renault’s Esteban Ocon was in 11th and Antonio Giovinazzi in 14th for Alfa Romeo.
Haas’s Kevin Magnussen was in 16th with Nicholas Latifi in 17th for Williams. Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Räikkönen was in 19th.