Russell heard of Mercedes call up in the toilet
George Russell says he first heard that he might be replacing Lewis Hamilton was a call he took “in the bathroom.” The Williams driver who is a Mercedes junior driver is replacing the seven-times champion this weekend after he tested positive for Coronavirus after winning in Bahrain last weekend.
His deal to compete in the race that will take place on the Bahrain International Circuit’s high-speed, short ‘outer loop’ layout was announced the day after Hamilton’s positive test was revealed on Tuesday.
When asked when he first became aware he might be switching teams for this weekend’s race, Russell said: “I got a phone call from Toto at 2 am on Tuesday morning. I was actually in the bathroom at the moment. Which was slightly awkward.”
“So I answered the phone and he said: ‘George, you in the bathroom?’. [I replied:] ‘Sorry, I’m in the bathroom’. He said: ‘Unfortunately, Lewis has caught COVID. He’s doing well, he’s healthy and feels fine, which is most important, but we want you to drive’. [I went:] ‘Right, ok’”
Russell says he had a bit of sleepless night, before a busy Tuesday and Wednesday when he was trying to sort things out. He admitted he was nervous as Mercedes tried to get a deal together for a loan deal.
The Englishman is grateful for the opportunity and admitted its strange to be back with Mercedes, where he is getting bombarded with information. Russell says Mercedes has not set him targets, but he wants to do his best, but it would be incredibly difficult.
He added “Valtteri has been pushing Lewis a huge amount over the years. I know it’s not going to be an easy task coming in. Any driver when you’re in the groove, you’re integrated into the team – I know the level I was at Williams, just having spent two years in the same car with my same engineers, same mechanics and, changing suddenly is [tough].”
Wouldn’t look good to be beaten by Russell
Valtteri Bottas admits “it wouldn’t look so good on me,” if he is beaten by George Russell at the Sakhir Grand Prix. Russell will be making his debut for Mercedes this weekend after Lewis Hamilton tested positive for coronavirus.
Russell is making his F1 race debut for the manufacturer, where he has been a junior driver since 2017, after being allowed to make the short-term switch by his regular F1 employer, Williams.
When asked what it might do for his future career prospects if he fails to beat his new teammate this weekend, Bottas replied, “I haven’t really thought about it and it’s difficult to know what to expect from George in terms of performance. He knows the team well, but also it’s a different car that he has been testing and lots of new things. And also… I don’t really know what to say to that question.”
Bottas says that he hasn’t thought about the message if he is beaten by Russell, but admitted it wouldn’t look good if he has a normal race and is beaten by the Englishman on track.
There has been some speculation that this weekend that this could decide the 2022 line up, if Hamilton signs a new three-year deal as expected, Bottas says it the media “making that kind of thing up”.
He added “I think it’s a great opportunity for George, a great opportunity to learn a lot and to show what we can do with the team. From my side, as a racing driver, of course, you always want to be ahead of your teammate – whether it’s Lewis Hamilton or George Russell or anyone else, it doesn’t matter.”
Bottas says his own aim for this weekend was doing the best he can, maximising what he has learned this year.
Barrier modified following Grosjean crash
The barrier at Turn Three where Romain Grosjean crashed in Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix has been modified with the addition of a tyre wall. This weekends race will take place on the Outer Circuit, which still features the corner where the Haas driver crashed on the opening lap.
The layout for this weekend’s race retains the opening three corners, including the section of track where Grosjean crashed, but then leaves the usual layout at Turn Four, cuts out the infield, and re-joins at Turn Thirteen of the normal track.
The Armco barrier was temporally replaced by concrete blocks to allow the race to restart. But now the barriers have been repaired and two rows of tyres have been added to absorb and dissipate energy and protect the integrity of the barrier in a repeat, have been added.
The existing tyre barrier at what becomes Turn Nine has been extended as well as the kerbs between Eight and Nine being removed to reduce the risk of cars becoming airborne in the event of an accident.
An FIA statement said the changes were made “following a review of the recent Bahrain FIA Formula One World Championship event.”
Feared Grosjean was dead – Leclerc
Charles Leclerc says he feared that Romain Grosjean was killed in the immediate aftermath of the Haas drivers crash in Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix. The Frenchman escaped with burns to his hands from a 137mph accident in which the car became lodged in the barriers.
Ferrari’s Leclerc said: “I saw the crash in my mirrors, was aware straight away that it was extremely serious and I thought the worst straight away.” He said the minutes before he found out Grosjean had escaped “felt like hours”.
In his first interview since the race with BBC News, the Ferrari driver said, “I have to be honest, I didn’t have much hope only watching it in the mirrors, and I was extremely worried on the (car-to-pit) radio.”
“Unfortunately, there was no news until I got back into the pits and got out of the car to finally know he was out, which I couldn’t really believe, especially because coming into Turn Nine, I saw the flames and the fire.”
Leclerc’s career has been set with tragedy, his godfather Jules Bianchi suffered fatal head injuries following a crash at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, and close friend Antoine Hurbert was killed after crashing at Eau Rouge in last years F2 Belgian Grand Prix.
Leclerc said in the hour before the re-start in Bahrain on Sunday he tried to put the incident out of his mind by focusing on the race ahead. He said, “I just put myself in my bubble as I always do and tried to focus on my own thing. There are a lot of things you need to have in mind before an F1 race, which is the strategy, how you want to attack in the first laps and all these things.
“I was just focusing on those things to achieve the best result, trying to not think about the crash any more, mostly because I knew Romain was out of the car and fine to the extent he could walk by himself to the ambulance.”
Leclerc says he has been in touch with Grosjean, who will watch this weekends race from the pit lane, as he targets a return next weekend in Abu Dhabi.
Leclerc said: “I sent him two messages. The first one, I don’t think he saw it because probably he received thousands of messages and the second one he replied, probably because he could write again, as I have seen on social media that they took off his bandages.”
McLaren “cannot get carried away”
McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl has warned his team “cannot get carried away” after a strong Bahrain Grand Prix result provided a huge boost for the constructors’ championship.
Both Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz managed to turn a disappointing qualifying where they started ninth and fifteenth, into fourth and fifth, scoring valuable points. While Renault could only manage seventh and ninth, with Racing Point failing to score points.
With two races to go McLaren are seventeen points ahead of Racing Point, while Renault are a further ten behind with Ferrari twelve further behind. Sergio Perez’s late retirement and Renault being in the lower end of the top ten, has spread out the midfield battle for third to thirty points between third and seventh.
Following last weekends race Seidl told Autosport “Obviously the outcome is great for us, for this battle in the constructors’ championship. At the same time, we’re also aware that we benefited from the bad luck Checo had.”
“But we also had races like this in this year, it is simply part of the competition we are in. It’s important to not get carried away with the result, we just need one bad race or a DNF and it can switch back quickly.”
Seidl stressed that the team has found performance with its recent aerodynamic package. He added, “First of all it’s encouraging to see that the car was performing like that, and it seems that it’s down to all the upgrades that we bought over the last four or five races.”
But warned the team could not get carried away and needed to focus on themselves to keep the reliability healthy while trying to extract more from the car this weekend in terms of performance.
Norris, who currently sits seventh place in the drivers’ championship, admitted the result last weekend was a “big day” for him and McLaren but that he remained cautious for the remaining two races this season.
The Englishman added “We were lucky with the Racing Point [Perez] not finishing in the end, he was on for a podium, so fair play to him. But they were way too quick for us, 21 seconds or 22 seconds ahead at the time. They have good pace, and they have through the majority of the year.”
Haas taking a risk with Mazepin
Haas team principal Gunther Steiner says the team is willing to take the risk that Nikita Mazepin fails to officially qualify for an FIA super licence if he has a poor weekend at the Formula Two Sakhir Grand Prix.
The Russian driver was announced as one of the team’s race drivers for 2021, despite not yet being officially eligible for a super licence. To secure his super licence he must be seventh in the driver’s championship, he is currently third in a very tight championship.
He could be pushed to eighth if he has a bad weekend and those behind him score big points. when Mazepin’s Haas deal was discussed and eventually agreed over recent weeks, it was far from certain that he would qualify automatically.
Haas in effect has taken a gamble that he would have a strong end to the season across the two Bahrain weekends. The team are hoping that the leeway that the FIA has built into the rules to help drivers who may have been disadvantaged by COVID disrupting 2020, although it is not clear how that would apply to Mazepin.
Speaking to Motorsport.com, Steiner said, “Obviously we spoke with FIA when we started the conversations about it, how this would work. I don’t think we have got this problem anymore. There is still a mathematical possibility that he doesn’t get one, but it is slim, you know. I think I’ll take that risk.”
“I’ve taken bigger risks than that one. “So, in the end, I think we get one, but we played around a few scenarios, what could be done, what should be done, but I think it’s difficult. The best is always to get it by the points.” Steiner appears confident that Mazepin can get the results he needs, and went out there with the aim of securing the points on the track.
Mazepin, who first tested an F1 car with Force India as long ago as 2016, insists that he is prepared for the step up after a strong year in F2. He said, “I feel ready for F1. I’m 21 years old. I had quite a few seasons in single-seaters now. And I believe that faster cars do suit my driving style.”
“And regarding the F2 championship, I think it’s been quite a challenging year. When I went to race with Hitech Grand Prix, they hadn’t existed in F2 previously.
Alonso allowed to take part in ‘young drivers test’
Fernando Alonso has been given the green light to make his official F1 return in the post-season Abu Dhabi ‘young drivers test’ later this month. The announcement has divided the paddock which is designed for drivers with no more than two F1 starts.
But having made their case to the FIA, which under the regulations of the test could approve an appearance by a driver who did not meet the rookie criteria, Renault has won out. Alonso’s last appearance in an official F1 test was in April 2019.
Alonso will share running in the current RS20 car with test driver Guanyu Zhou, who has never raced in F1. Renault F1 managing director Cyril Abiteboul, said “We would like to thank the FIA and F1 for their acceptance of our test plans, made in recognition of our commitment to young drivers throughout junior motorsport.”
“To Fernando’s own dedication to furthering the careers of young talents. For Fernando, this will be the next step in his return. He has worked tirelessly to make sure he is as ready as he possibly can be for 2021.” Abiteboul says the two times champion wants to contribute fully to the sport and fans who have missed him over the last two years.
Speaking about Zhou, Abiteboul added, “Zhou has experienced the benefit of the Renault Sport Academy, having joined its ranks last year. He has worked hard and made a genuine contribution to the performance of the team through his work in the simulator and test programme. I am delighted he can drive the R.S.20 to complement his journey so far.”
The two-time champion has driven the RS20 but in running limited to 100km on demonstration tyres in a filming day at Barcelona in October. He also did some running in Abu Dhabi last week.
New tyres will not be vetoed
Pirelli is pushing ahead with its plans to introduce a new tyre design for 2021, despite criticism from Formula One drivers. Mario Isola, Pirelli’s motorsport boss, told BBC News introducing the tyre was “the right decision” for next season.
During FP2 last weekend the drivers complained that the new tyres were slower, heavier and had worse handling than the 2020 tyres. Isola said the tyres were needed because of the tyre failures this year, some which have been caused by extreme loads generated by F1 cars.
The incident in which world champion Lewis Hamilton finished the British Grand Prix on three wheels after a front tyre collapsed on the final lap. In that first race at Silverstone, Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas and McLaren’s Carlos Sainz suffered the same failure.
Following the test last week, Hamilton, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel all said after trying the new tyres in Bahrain they hoped they would not be used again, and a number of other drivers expressed their dissatisfaction.
But Isola said the idea was to “improve the level of integrity” of the tyres amid the expectation of faster cars next year, rather than improving performance, and that the new design was “the right way to go”.
Isola added “I need to understand first of all which are the main elements that are being criticised by the drivers. I would be very happy to talk to each of them to understand where we should touch something on the specification to make a tyre that is more in line with their specification, but it’s very late.”
The Weekend Ahead
This weekend most of the focus is going to be on George Russell, he has been called up from Williams replacing Lewis Hamilton. For Russell this is a huge opportunity to showcase his talent, he was so close to scoring points at Imola before crashing out.
I think Mercedes will be happy with a top-five, given the circumstances I think they will try not to put too much pressure on him, with no targets being set. Russell is obviously a racing driver and he will want to go for a win or a podium after Imola he deserves points. This Outer Circuit is one where Mercedes are going to be the favourites but not having Hamilton is a big disappointment.
We mustn’t forget Jack Aitken and Pietro Fittipaldi making their race debut, but it is going to be difficult as they are unlikely to make an impact because Williams and Haas are running in the lower half of the field.
Red Bull are Mercedes closest challengers, but the layout of the circuit is going to disadvantage them. I think depending on how Russell adapts and if Valtteri Bottas wins, second and third is good for them. Unless Russell is able to deliver at the same level as Bottas.
The battle we continue to watch is McLaren, Renault and Racing Point, they are fighting for third and this race is appearing to be difficult for Ferrari as we saw last week. Ferrari and the teams they supply will struggle on the long straights. The middle sector is going to be their best hope.
You can join us for LIVE coverage of this weekend’s Sakhir Grand Prix via Twitter @FormulaOneVault with FP1 16:15 local / 13:15 GMT and race coverage on Sunday, 19:40/16:40 lights out 20:10 / 17:10