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F1: Mercedes' domino effect or how George Russell won his first F1 race three times but not at the end.

Publication: 
Bryan Edwards
chiefofficersnet

It's the ultimate dream for motor racing fans and for a driver paying his dues in a tail-end-charlie team, even more so: the call comes from the boss of the most dominant team the sport has ever seen which is seemingly getting better and better. How do you fancy a drive this weekend? a voice at the other end of whatever is the modern equivalent of the line. Of course you say "yes." Sure, their car is designed to be the fastest in practice and to win from the front; sure their pitstops aren't as fast as you are used do; sure it's the same engine as has been helping you trudge around trying not to get lapped but the package it's in and the team around it are, somehow, in a different league and no one in your present team knows why - for sure, it's not dedication and sacrifice.

So, of course you say yes. Welcome to the week when George Russel's dreams came true - then were dashed in a series of critical errors by the Mercedes team and a couple of bits of bad luck.

When Lewis Hamilton tested positive for CoVid-19 on Tuesday 1 December, in some respects it didn't matter. Of course on a human level, it's worrying but he'd won his seventh world championship, his team had won its seventh; he'd broken so many records it's difficult to keep count and there was another one, 100 something or other, in sight if he did something or other in the final two races. But the isolation restrictions meant that became impossible - and so was his participation in the second race of the Bahrain / Sakhir double header. That left the Mercedes team with an interesting problem. Hamilton's car (actually the very car, not a replica) needed a bum on its seat. There was a safe pair of hands - Stoffel Van Doorne - who failed to distinguish himself as part of the McLaren team but has since acquitted himself very well in various other series and is one of Mercedes' reserve drivers; Van Doorne has been in the Mercedes CoVid-19 bubble at every race this year, precisely to avoid the chaos that afflicted Racing Point (why do my fingers still type Force... before I catch them and correct myself) when Perez tested positive earlier in the year.

But... in the Mercedes young driver stable, George Russell, F3 and F2 champion ahead of Lando Norris and Alex Albon, was languishing, uncomplaining, in a seat at Williams. He, not Van Doorne, is the future of Mercedes. With nothing to lose from a team perspective, why not boost Russell, give him a boost, let him see that Mercedes still has faith him, recognise that he's done a remarkable job is a Williams that just won't go as fast as it should. What could possibly go wrong?

The first thing was that Russell is significantly larger than Hamilton: his feet don't fit in the footwell. The answer? Crush his size 11s into size 10 boots. After all, he's not going to complain about anything. Cockpit too small? Bodge a seat. Fingers too big for Hamilton's finger tip controls? Just be cautious, A few pinchpoints and pressure spots are a price worth paying - just put icepacks on them after every session. Three days to forget everything about the Williams and to learn all about the Mercedes? Reprogramme the steering wheel so things are where he'd expect to find them. Friday. Go on lad, Get out there and have a bit of a run around.

An hour and a half later, jaws were on the floor. No one expected him to be slow but no one expected him to top the time sheets. In Free Practice One and Free Practice Two.

Saturday: Free Practice Three: let's play around with things and see what difference they make. Bottas took his first fastest session. Russell was wallowing. But he still had a smile on his face. Just set it up like FP1 and 2.

Qualifying: as turmoil ran up and down the field, Bottas came out on top. What a difference it makes not having Hamilton: Bottas was almost muted. If he beats Hamilton, he's on top of the world. If he's beaten by Hamilton, it's usually by a tiny margin, sometimes less than a tenth of a second. Russell was less than a tenth, a lot less than a tenth, only a quarter of a tenth, behind him. Bottas might have had a glimpse of the future and he really, really does not like it. He's got a contract until the end of 2021 and Russell has one with Williams until the same time. There's a synergy there. But, it's OK, Bottas might have thought. Russell hasn't been at the front of the field since he joined F1 almost two years ago; and I'm on pole and he's not a demon starter. I'll get to the first corner in front and then just keep him behind; he'll be my buffer against Verstappen.

The best laid plans of mice and Bottas.

Russell timed his getaway perfectly, kept his boot in, made perfect gear changes, put his car in the right place on the track. Bottas seemed wrong footed. He got the back end loose in the second corner, got in a muddle with LeClerc, Verstappen and Perez who, behind him, somehow conspired to destroy their chances to capitalise on Hamilton's absence. Meanwhile, Russell set off, the hare to a snarling pack that had, mostly, lost its teeth.

Then out came the safety car. In the earlier melé Perez had been hit by LeClerc whose front wheel was hanging off so he went straight on; immediately behind them, Verstappen, having watched the developing mayhem, braked early and had plenty of time to work out where the two colliding cars were going; he decided to run wide to avoid a collision. He ran straight onto gravel, too fast to get grip, and hit the wall hard. Perez, meantime, carried on and went back to the pits to get a new front wing and to change tyres.

Starting behind the safety car is a rare skill: Bottas tucked in behind for the seven laps it took to clean the stricken Ferrari and Red Bull away. As the safety car prepared, the whole field, including Bottas, began to swerve wildly, trying to get heat into the tyres. All except one. Russell just prepared his line and worked out where to hoof it. After all, when you've stepped up from the Williams, the Mercedes is superior: he'd already got far more grip and downforce than he could ever have hoped for. Off he went.

And so the race went on: Bottas in second, drifting further and further back. Russell "phoning home" only for specific instructions. "Tell me when you want me to push," he said. And he asked to be reminded to go into the Mercedes box when at pit stop time. Bottas, more than 8 seconds behind, started a slow, tenth by tenth, recovery. Russell just said "Is he using the kerbs - I've got a tenth, a tenth and a half in hand if I do that."

Then bizarre things started to happen. In the Williams, Russell's temporary replacement, Max Aitken, had a wobbly and knocked off his front wing. It bounced onto the track and, because the Sakhir track is so short, there was no chance for the marshals to dash out to pick it up. During that, Mercedes called in both cars, late, and stacked them.

Something went wrong with the comms: Russell got Bottas' new front tyres, and his own new back tyres. That's a major breach of the rules. When Bottas pulled up, the man with the front left wheel gun realised he'd got the wrong tyre. The team quickly put the tyres back on that they had just taken off.

Then they called Russell, told him he'd got "a mixed set of tyres" and he'd have to come back in for rectification. So he did, got a new set and pulled back out right at the back of the field. Meanwhile Perez had picked himself up from last and was at the front, managing his tyres brilliantly.

A pit stop if very costly on the near micro-circuit that is Sakhir's outer track: it's a 54 second, ish, lap and a pitstop takes about 25 seconds if there are no problems. That's half a lap. As Martin Brundle pointed out, the whole Sakhir track is about the same length as a single sector at Spa.

Russell blasted back up the field, with a podium almost certain and a good chance of a win, at least on pure pace.

Then he got another call: a slow puncture on the left rear. The cause is not known but how ironic would it be if it were the result of a shard of carbon fibre from his own Williams in the hands of Aitken. Another pit stop, now at the end of the race with the cars bunched up. He fell almost to the back again.

And again, he just pressed his size eleven feet, crushed into size ten boots, against the pedals and drove everyone of the remaining laps with his skills turned up to 11. A series of dazzling overtaking moves pulled him up to eighth and the additional point for fastest lap. It's his first points in Formula One. But it could have so easily been 26 which would have put him

The last word to Toto Wolff: "His racing was unbelievable, he got off the starting line with the best reaction time in a car that isn't built for him in a car that is much too small, with paddles that didn't fit his hands and he got into the lead and drove a brilliant race, and could have won twice. "

If only Mercedes hadn't chosen that day to have, as Wolff put it, "a collosal **** up."

And the dream isn't necessarily over: " “If the [CoVid-19] test is negative, then it's [Lewis’] car and then he will for sure drive a brilliant race. And if the test is [positive] then George is in the car.”

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