Russell was drafted in by the World Champions from Williams for the penultimate race of the 2020 season to cover for Lewis Hamilton, who was suffering from COVID-19.
And rather than merely being a capable substitute, the Briton grabbed his chance with both hands, leading for most of the 87 laps until a pit-stop blunder by the team followed by a slow puncture eventually scuppered his hopes of a remarkable victory.
Nevertheless, it was a drive that Ricciardo – who finished four places above Russell in fifth position for Renault – thought had elevated the 22-year-old above some of the others among the current crop of emerging young F1 talents who are aiming to reach the sport’s pinnacle.
“It’s hard to know how good they are until they step up towards the front of the grid – not only to see if they are fast enough but also if they can handle the pressure of being up at the front,” said Ricciardo on the In The Fast Lane podcast.
“George didn’t need to get pole [in Bahrain] to kind of prove he’s got the talent, but he was so close. I think the more impressive thing for him was to get a good start, get into the lead and control a big part of that race. That’s where he really earned his stripes.
“I think he proved that yes, the car is amazing and whatnot, but he proved he is certainly the real deal. He’s one of those younger kids that I think has now proven himself.”
Another up-and-coming driver who impressed Ricciardo this year was Pierre Gasly, surprise winner of the Italian Grand Prix as he rebuilt his career with AlphaTauri following the setback when he was dropped by Red Bull after only half a season with the team.
“It’s hard to put one of Gasly and Russell in front of the other, I think they both had really strong seasons,” said the Australian.
“Gasly won a crazy race but he [also] qualified fourth in some others and he’s been there – especially being, in a way, kind of spat out of the Red Bull system. He’s still in it, but it felt like he was as good as out of it.
“It definitely took a bit of mental resilience from him and it’s not easy when you’ve got the media and everyone saying you’re not good enough, so hats off to him for making it a really strong year.”