Lewis Hamilton enforced absence from this weekend’s Sakhir Grand Prix has had the effect of opening up a prime seat in a championship-dominating machine and whoever gets the nod to compete in the second of the back-to-back Bahrain races will certainly recognise the opportunity.
The newly crowned champion registered a positive test for COVID-19 between the two Bahrain events, forcing him onto the sidelines for at least this weekend’s race. However, with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix little more than a week away, it’s quite possible Hamilton’s 2020 F1 season is now over.
As such, attention has turned to who will assume his coveted Mercedes seat alongside Valtteri Bottas with a handful of interesting candidates in line to fill some sizeable shoes.
As Mercedes’ official reserve driver, ex-McLaren driver Stoffel Vandoorne is arguably the most logical candidate for the ‘Silver Arrows’.
The Belgian competed in F1 for two seasons in 2017 and 2018, a stint that yielded limited success in an uncompetitive McLaren package that fell below expectations following a rapid rise through the junior ranks that included a dominant GP2 title in 2015.
Nonetheless, Mercedes snapped the Belgian up on his McLaren departure, firstly as its simulator driver before he was promoted to a reserve role. In the meantime, Vandoorne has kept himself busy headlining Mercedes’ foray into Formula E, where he finished runner-up during 2019-2020’s Season 6 with a victory in the Berlin season finale.
Known to be on his way to Bahrain as part of his reserve role, counting against Vandoorne’s candidacy is a relative lack of seat time compared with others in this list.
Perhaps the choice most will be rooting for, as the driver touted as the man most likely to succeed Hamilton in future years, Mercedes may feel compelled to use this as an opportunity to put George Russell to the test. The British driver has impressed in his two years competing with the Williams team, his arrival coinciding with a decline in form for the British outfit.
Having been earmarked as a potential replacement for Valtteri Bottas before Mercedes re-signed the Finn for 2021, Russell remains on Mercedes’ list of targets so a promotion - brief though it may be - into the W11 might be a timely opportunity for the young Briton.
Provided Williams releases him to race of course.
This season’s (unofficially) designated COVID-19 super-sub, Nico Hulkenberg has already proven impressive in selected appearances with Racing Point.
Though he may not have a prior connection with Mercedes to make him an obvious choice over the aforementioned Vandoorne and Russell , Hulkenberg has more recent experience than the former, while the latter’s availability is uncertain.
As one of Germany’s foremost F1 racers from recent years, he might prove a tempting candidate for Mercedes further up the company chain, while few would begrudge him the opportunity to finally break that podium duck, something he’d be very much in line to achieve in Hamilton’s car.
A longer shot in the sense he has been reduced to fairly minimal public duties by Mercedes since he was signed up as a reserve driver some years ago, the Mexican does at least have F1 experience under his belt… albeit minimal racing experience competing in any series for some years.