If the 2020 F1 World Championship could be described in one word it would be ‘unprecedented’

From a delayed July start date, to an exhaustive race schedule, to masked drivers on the podium... F1 in 2020 will be remembered for a number of reasons mostly circling back to one word: Coronavirus.

So perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a shock that - in sight of the final finish line of what has been a year of wildly varying emotions - COVID-19 has thrown one final (we hope) curveball by striking down Lewis Hamilton and forcing him out of at least one race. 

 

 

It means that Hamilton will - for the very first time in a career spanning 266 grands prix - be forced into an alien situation of watching an F1 race on the sofa.

Nevertheless, while there is never exactly a ‘good’ time per se to catch a virus, the moment is - shall we say - fortuitous in that it comes just after his title win. So what would have been a disaster three weeks ago has instead morphed into a fascinating premise of who could - and should - replace him for at least the Sakhir Grand Prix.

In short, an opportunity is here, there is nothing to lose and it is for this reason Mercedes should be doing everything in its power to have George Russell in ‘all black’ this weekend.

Will Mercedes opportunity knock for George Russell?

Within seconds of Mercedes’ statement dropping on Tuesday, the Mercedes F1 Media WhatsApp group was buzzing with journalists asking the inevitable ‘who will replace him?’ query. The powers that be were giving nothing away, though there were some eye-rolling pranky social posts that cruelly preyed on a very alert media pool.

It’s to be expected though. After all, this isn’t your average vacant seat - it’s the car that has won all but two races this season between Hamilton (11) and Valtteri Bottas (2).

Such is its dominance right now, it isn’t a stretch to assume that almost anyone on the grid today has a great shot at the podium - or even a win - if they were given the chance to step foot inside the W11.

Unusually, it is a driver on the grid that could well be that person with Russell quickly emerging as the ‘people’s choice’ to get the nod… ironically, it’s also one of only two drivers on the grid yet to score a point in F1.

However, that factoid is more a reflection of Williams’ downfall which might have been steeper had it not been for Russell, who is broadly considered to be out-performing his machinery in a manner that reminds many of Fernando Alonso’s 2002 exploits in a Minardi… and we all know what happened with Alonso.

Regardless of whether Hamilton’s F1 career still has one, two, eight or twenty-five seasons left in it, he will be an immensely hard act to follow for even the greatest drivers of the day. And yet, it is Russell deemed the driver most likely to do so.

Being British and taken under Mercedes’ junior wing, the comparisons to Hamilton are a touch lazy but still valid. To date, Russell has ensured all of that media management training was money well spent by batting away frequent questions over whether he thinks he is the ‘next Hamilton’, pointing out his priority is to focus on the here and now.

Well, the here and now could well be right now amid talk that Toto Wolff has been knocking on Simon Roberts’ door to negotiate a release for the youngster. A few races ago, had ‘the Wolff’ been at the door of erstwhile boss Claire Williams, the answer probably would have been no, but under a new ownership that might well see the benefits of delegating its star driver to the star team, we’re none the wiser.

If so, that turns the onus onto Russell himself and the implications such a situation may create. First and foremost, Russell is an active racer - unlike other drivers considered in line for the role - and is armed with a solid base of experience now. If this does go ahead though, his transition from the Williams to the Mercedes might well be the equivalent of going from a Ford Fiesta to, well, a Mercedes - in short, it would be challenging and fascinating.

The implications of Russell vs Bottas

To an extent, Mercedes almost owes Russell the opportunity, not that saying this carries any tangible weight.

Indeed, Russell’s route from GP3 to F2 to F1 was as seamless as it was successful but in Mercedes’ grand plans it came too quickly, leaving his career in something of a holding pattern while we wait for the team to do the unthinkable by not playing it safe and switching up the driver line-up.

In fact, if Mercedes was ever going to throw a bit of caution to the wind, now is the time to do it with both titles wrapped up.

But in all seriousness, while it is Bottas’ solidly successful role in Mercedes’ ultimate quest for the constructors’ title that is earning him a stay of execution, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone at Mercedes who wouldn’t be curious to see whether Russell - given the opportunity - would ramp things up a bit.

Which brings us to Bottas himself and the implications of having Russell come on board alongside him in what would be a thinly veiled direct comparison to determine their futures beyond 2021. It would be a head-to-head without much preparation, but the pressure is on Bottas because not only does he have to out-pace Russell, he’d need to do it convincingly. 

So, in summary Russell has earned a shot, Mercedes (arguably) owes Russell an opportunity, Mercedes’ rather flaccid junior programme could use a win and it would provide a unique opportunity for comparison.

And if that wasn’t enough for media savvy Mercedes, let’s just say Stoffel Vandoorne wouldn’t exactly guarantee them the same avalanche of publicity…

 

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