George Russell could barely believe his luck after the latest twist in an eventful week was qualifying on the front row for the Sakhir Grand Prix.
Even on Monday, the 22-year-old Briton had no way of envisaging he would be driving Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes in the penultimate round of the 2020 Formula 1 season.
But the seven-time World Champion’s positive test for COVID-19, and resulting self-isolation, meant Russell was called up by Mercedes from his ‘loan’ spell at Williams to deputise – and in qualifying, he showed the decision was entirely justified.
Fastest in both Friday practice sessions on this different, shorter configuration of the Bahrain International Circuit, Russell had to play second fiddle to his temporary colleague Valtteri Bottas when it really counted.
He bagged P2 on the grid just 0.026sec down on the Finn in Q3 to lose his 100% record of outqualifying his team-mate, which had been 36-0.
Yet it was still a terrific effort from Russell, especially considering the way the last few days had played out with his sudden elevation to the seven-time World Champions with whom he is a member of their junior driver programme.
— Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team (@MercedesAMGF1) December 5, 2020
“It’s been incredibly intense with so much to learn,” Russell told Sky F1. “Getting used to the car, the seat, it just felt so different, really alien to begin with. It’s just a really different way of driving. I’ve had to unlearn what I’ve learned at Williams and relearn how to drive this car fast.
“I tried a lot of things in FP3 and it didn’t go well at all – I had a really poor session, making mistakes and trying too hard and that put me off ahead of qualifying. I wasn’t feeling it at all. I thought I might be getting knocked out in Q1 or Q2 and I would have been happy just to reach Q3.
“But I got in my groove and was really pleased to put it pretty much all together on the final lap. Obviously gutted to miss out on pole by 20 milliseconds, the blink of an eye, but if you had told me last week I would be qualifying in P2 this week I wouldn’t have believed you.
“Valtteri has pushed Lewis a huge amount in qualifying over the years. I think statistically there has only been a tenth between them and we all know how great Lewis is. Just to be right behind Valtteri, 20 milliseconds on my first attempt, coming in last minute with two days of prep, I’m pleased, and so let’s see what we can do tomorrow.”
The race will also be something very different for Russell, who is more used to fighting at the back of the pack with Williams and now has an outstanding opportunity to score his first F1 points, a podium finish or even a victory.
Of the race start, he said: “I’ll have nobody in front of me, which I’ve not experienced for a long time. It will be really tricky.
“Qualifying is what I feel most comfortable with. Tomorrow I’ll need a bit more control, a bit more finesse and I haven’t had the experience yet. I’ll give it my all and see what I can do.”
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