Russell, a Mercedes junior driver, was called up from Williams to deputise for Lewis Hamilton after the seven-time World Champion contracted COVID-19 following the first of two races at the Bahrain International Circuit.
While Hamilton was self-isolating in his hotel suite, his 22-year-old fellow Briton made a sparkling Mercedes debut. He took the lead off the start line and controlled the race until his hopes of a remarkable victory were dashed by the combination of a team pit-stop blunder and a subsequent slow puncture.
Although Leclerc would have lost his wager as Russell eventually finished ninth, the Ferrari driver was unsurprised at how his boyhood rival had grabbed his chance with both hands – especially in comparison to his temporary team-mate Valtteri Bottas.
“I think some had doubts,” said Leclerc retrospectively about Russell’s prospects at Sakhir, during an interview with Il Giornale.
“I would have bet on his victory and when I said it many laughed.
“I know George from the karts and I know how fast he is. I had him as a team-mate in 2011 and things don’t change. Even 10 years later, if you were fast you will stay fast.”
Leclerc and Russell are among the new breed of Formula 1 drivers who are expected to be the superstars of the sport when Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso have retired, the other obvious contenders being Max Verstappen and Lando Norris.
The Monegasque driver added: “We all have the talent to get good results in Formula 1, then everything will depend on many things. We have to see how we will behave when we all have a car to fight for the Championship.”
In terms of his own prospects, Leclerc’s first priority will be to ensure he remains as Ferrari’s big hope when Carlos Sainz joins the team for the 2021 season on a two-year contract.
There was no question the 23-year-old was the Scuderia’s dominant driver in 2020 ahead of Sebastian Vettel and he expects to form a productive working relationship with the Spaniard.
“I think I have understood by now the difference that can be on or off the track in the relationship with my partner,” said Leclerc. “I think Carlos sees it as I do. When we close the visor we want to be the fastest.
“I don’t know him well yet, but I think we will get along.”