George Russell heads into this weekend’s Sakhir Grand Prix with the potentially-career defining opportunity to drive for Mercedes, a chance he has desired since he made his Formula 1 debut last year. 

In unexpected circumstances, with world champion Lewis Hamilton ruled out of the weekend having tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, Russell has been handed the opportunity he has been craving for so long - the chance to fight at the sharp-end of the grid in race-winning machinery. 

The 22-year-old Briton now has a wonderful chance to show what he is capable of, and he will find no better prospect of ending his run of 36 grands prix without scoring a point in F1 given that he finds himself in equipment that has won 13 of the 15 grands prix this year and taken all but one of the pole positions available. 

As soon as Hamilton’s positive test was returned, Mercedes got in touch with Williams and began what Toto Wolff described as “positive and pragmatic” conversations over a short-term loan from the Grove squad for the upcoming weekend. Within 24 hours, the switch was finalised and Russell was in the process of completing a seat fit in the W11. 

Russell has demonstrated his abilities this year - reaching the second part of qualifying on nine occasions so far in arguably the slowest car in the field - but now he has the chance to prove to Mercedes that he deserves to be promoted to the team on a full-time basis in the future. 

With at least one race weekend in the W11 - and possibly two if Hamilton is ruled out of the season finale in Abu Dhabi - Russell will find himself with no better opportunity to prove his worth to Mercedes. 

The task of making a step up at such short notice should not be underestimated, with Russell’s new part-time teammate Valtteri Bottas knowing Mercedes’ 2020 challenger inside out. Russell will have to get up to speed fast if he is going to be competitive, but this is where his natural talent should shine through.

Mercedes will stress this weekend is no shootout between Russell and Bottas, and while technically it isn’t (with Bottas confirmed at Mercedes for 2021), the German manufacturer will have no better opportunity to evaluate both drivers in a direct head-to-head comparison as it weighs up its options for the future post-2021.

Even if they don’t show it, the pressure will be on both drivers; for Bottas to assert his authority over Russell early, and for the Briton to show that he is worthy of a seat at the reigning world champions. 

This weekend will finally provide an answer to the long-pondered question of what could Russell achieve in a Mercedes.

Into the unknown for F1 in Bahrain 

Adding further intrigue into what already promises to be a fascinating weekend is the prospect of an entirely new layout for the drivers to race around.

The second consecutive race in Bahrain will take place on the shorter Outer Track. It is the closest F1 has come to racing on an oval - Indianapolis aside - featuring just 11 turns and three long straights with a total distance of 3.543km. 

Qualifying laps are expected to be sub-one minute, with early simulations suggesting that a 52-53-second pole lap should be achievable. With two DRS zones, we could be in store for something of an overtaking bonanza.

The circuit layout should also suit the strengths of Renault’s 2020 package, and a big result for the French manufacturer this weekend could have major implications on the intense squabble over third place in the constructors’ championship - a much-coveted position which is currently held by McLaren. 

Fittipaldi and Aitken thrown in deep end 

The Sakhir Grand Prix will see two new debutants take to the grid in the form of Pietro Fittipaldi and Jack Aitken. 

Fittpaldi - the grandson of two-time F1 champion Emerson - is Haas’ current reserve driver and will be substituting for Romain Grosjean as the Frenchman continues to recover from the injuries sustained in his horrific, fiery crash in last weekend’s race. 

It will be a tough task for the 24-year-old Brazilian, who claimed the Formula V8 3.5 title in 2017, as he has no experience driving Haas’ latest car, the VF20. Fittipaldi previously tested the American squad’s 2018 and 2019 car, but he’ll get his first opportunity in the 2020 contender during practice on Friday. 

Formula 2 racer Aitken has been released from his contract with Campos in order to fulfil his reserve driver duties at Williams, replacing the Mercedes-bound Russell to make an unexpected grand prix debut in Bahrain. 

The British-Korean driver took part in the opening free practice session for Williams at this year’s Styrian Grand Prix, so does have some experience of driving the team’s FW43. He has also previously carried out tests for Renault. 

The return of a Schumacher 

Amid a hectic week of F1 news and driver announcements, Mick Schumacher’s expected graduation with Haas for 2021 was confirmed. 

Schumacher, son of seven-time F1 world champion Michael, has signed a “multi-year contract” to race for the American team alongside Russian Nikita Mazepin, who was announced by Haas on Tuesday. 

The 21-year-old German said the move was “a dream come true” as he prepares to bring the famous Schumacher name back to the F1 grid for the first time since 2012 when his father raced for Mercedes. 

Schumacher’s F1 debut next year will come on the 30th anniversary of his father’s own entry to the sport at the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix. 

In the more immediate future, Schumacher’s focus will be on clinching the F2 championship crown this weekend in Bahrain. 

The Ferrari junior holds a 14-point lead over nearest rival Callum Ilott heading into the final two races of the season, with a maximum of 48 points on offer across the weekend. 

Successfully sealing the F2 title would add to the European Formula 3 championship Schumacher secured in his second year in the category back in 2018. 

When is the Sakhir GP on TV? 

Friday December 4

Free Practice 1: 1.30pm-3.00pm (4.30pm-6pm local)
Free Practice 2: 5.30pm-7.00pm (8.30pm-10.00pm local) 

Saturday December 5 

Free Practice 3: 2.00pm-3.00pm (5.00pm-6.00pm local)
Qualifying: 5.00pm-6.00pm (8.00pm-9.00pm local) 

Sunday December 6 

Race: 5.10pm start (8.10pm local) 

Sakhir GP tyre allocation 

For the Sakhir GP at the Bahrain International Circuit, Pirelli is bringing the C2 (Hard), C3 (Medium) and C4 (Soft) compounds, the same tyres as used in the Bahrain GP. 

For all of the races in the revised 2020 season, each driver will have an allocation of eight sets of the red-walled Softs, three sets of the yellow-walled Mediums, and two sets of the white-walled Hards.