George Russell has grasped the massive opportunity handed to him by taking over Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes at the Sakhir Grand Prix with a performance that has so far “impressed but not surprised” the team. 

The 22-year-old Briton was drafted into the Mercedes hot seat after seven-time world champion Hamilton tested positive for COVID-19, ruling him out of a grand prix weekend for the first time in his career. 

Russell led the way on Friday by topping both practice sessions and after slipping back in final practice on Saturday morning, he turned in a mightily impressive performance to get within 0.026s of taking pole position on his qualifying debut for Mercedes. 

It was even more impressive considering he is driving a car which does not fit him well, with Russell five inches taller than Hamilton at 6ft 1in. He has even had to wear boots that are a size smaller than his size 11 feet in order to operate the pedals properly. 

It has been a whirlwind few weeks for Russell, whose future at Williams was not long ago up in the air before he threw away the chance of a first F1 point by crashing behind the Safety Car in Imola. He then received an unexpected call-up to pilot Hamilton’s championship-winning W11 and came frustratingly close to a dream maiden F1 pole at the first attempt in front-running machinery. 

Russell’s performance in helping Mercedes to lock out the front row of the grid in Bahrain highlighted his enormous talent and star potential which had been obvious enough to the German manufacturer to sign him prior to his back-to-back title-winning triumphs in GP3 and Formula 2. 

"What is most impressive is the sheer driving,” Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff said. “Everything else around was as expected. But the driving was impressive.

"George is on the worst line, as we saw last weekend,” he added. "The cockpit is too small for him. The clutch paddles are too small for his hands and fingers. So I have the same expectations as I had for qualifying. He has confirmed what we thought of him.”

Russell’s accomplished showing has led some to say that his performance de-values what Hamilton has achieved in a car that holds a vast superiority over the rest of the field, and even suggest that Mercedes could afford to ditch Hamilton - who is out of contract and yet to sign a new deal for 2021 and beyond - altogether. 

Asked whether Mercedes still needed Hamilton given Russell’s starring debut, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who missed out on pole himself by just 0.056s, said: "Of course you do, because he will make the difference in the most crucial moments. That's why he is a seven-time world champion.”

Even Russell acknowledged this, adding: “Guys like Lewis make the difference when the pressure is on in the key moments. That's what Lewis has done so well over all the years. He's a superstar of course and if you are Toto or anyone else you want him in your car."

In reality (rather than reflecting badly on Hamilton in any way), Russell is simply demonstrating what many thought of him anyway - that he has incredible pure talent and ability behind the wheel of an F1 car which has not fully been showcased until now due to driving the worst car on the grid for two years. Hamilton himself has said he believes that Russell has the “potential to be a future champion” in F1. 

Another theory doing the rounds is that Russell’s starring performance in Bahrain could end up hurting Hamilton in the pocket. 

While Wolff has denied that this weekend will act as a ‘shoot-out’ between Russell and Valtteri Bottas over who will land a Mercedes seat for 2022, it has undoubtedly handed the former a chance to underline his potential and prove himself. 

No matter which way Mercedes attempts to sugarcoat it, anything less than a win for Bottas in today’s race would be deemed a failure, particularly if it is Russell who beats him.

And all of this leaves further question marks over the status of Hamilton’s contract talks, which have once again been put on hold until the 35-year-old returns to full health as he battles coronavirus. 

Boasting first-hand experience of negotiating top deals with stars such as Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo and most recently, Verstappen, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner expects that Wolff will use Russell's debut as a way of strengthening his bargaining position over attempts to tie Hamilton down to a renewed big-money deal by indicating that Mercedes has a far cheaper option waiting in the wings who has proven he can also do the job.

“It’s an enormous opportunity for him and one that I’m sure that he’s looking to make great use of,” Horner said during Friday’s press conference. “It benchmarks him against Valtteri.

“I’m sure Toto’s looking to use it to perhaps negotiate Lewis’s contract in some way, shape or form.”

As to be expected, Wolff was quick to rubbish the suggestion that the extra “data points” gathered from Russell’s performance this weekend could play a role in trying to drive down Hamilton’s contract demands and price. 

“We know what we have with Lewis and he knows what he has with the team,” he stressed.

“Such a situation would never be utilised as some kind of bargaining power, neither by him, nor by us – it could do both directions. I respect very much who he is, how he drives, his records, and whatever happens this week or next has no influence on our talks.”

Hamilton is viewed as a priceless commodity for Mercedes, even with the Briton closer to the end of his career than the start of it. 

The overall Hamilton package goes far deeper than simply producing the goods on track, which he does so convincingly anyway. He boasts huge commercial and marketing value earned through his remarkable achievements and success, reaching unprecedented heights for an F1 driver as a recognised global superstar. On the face of it, a strong weekend for Russell is unlikely to drastically change too much. 

But should Russell go on to deliver a win today, and continue to impress next weekend if Hamilton has to sit out again, it would create a headache for Mercedes over its options for 2022 and make negotiations for 2021 all the more intriguing.