George Russell is one of F1’s most promising stars in the making. The young Briton is one of the few to have won back-to-back, on their way to F1, both the GP3 and F2 championships. He has always been regarded by many, as a seed of a champion. Sadly, the drivers’ market in force in F1 has put him since 2019, in a Williams — the least competitive car of the field.
Two seasons spent at the back end of the field have led some to doubt Russell’s talent, as the young Briton failed to score a single point, even when he had the rare chance to do so, like an uncharacteristic error in Imola. One common admission was that F1’s future lay in Verstappen and Leclerc’s rivalry, as Russell failed to live up to the expectations placed on him.
However, the unexpected and unfortunate news of Lewis Hamilton testing positive for COVID-19 gave Russell a once in a lifetime chance to climb in a competitive car right in the middle of an ongoing season to prove himself. And the 22-year old duly delivered. He came only 0.026 seconds short to the pole of Valtteri Bottas, and for 59 laps, led the Sakhir GP in what looked a very controlled and commanding way. So what went wrong?
By Russell’s own admission, he lost the race twice, but his team Mercedes were keen to take the full blame, as Toto Wolff — Mercedes’ team principal — qualified their mishap as a "collossal fuck up". Looking thoroughly at the sequence of the events, two factors caused the Briton’s downfall:
The radio miscommunication
According to the race direction’s note, Russell’s car was fitted with front tyres that were originally allocated to Bottas’. This was caused by a radio communication technical issue wherein the pit wall’s communication to the pit crew. Russell was entering the pits prior to — and not after — Bottas. That communication failed to be received by Russell's pit crew because at the same time, he transmitted over the top of that message. This resulted in Bottas’ front tyres accidentally going onto Russell’s car, as the cars were “double stacked” at the time.
How can communications be transmitted over the top? Well, as operated, the driver radio channel works on a toggle switch, and blocks all other communication on the team radio from going through, and that’s the reason why engineers often remind their drivers to turn off the radio after they have finished talking. So it is understood that the correct tyre instructions were probably not relayed, even though the team thought they were.
Following that mishap, Russell had no other option but to make another stop, and emerged 5th behind Bottas. He was then forced to perform a recovery drive to take his lost positions back. One has to wonder if that driving over the edge didn’t cause him to run over debris that may have caused the puncture that followed.
When interrogated about his opinion on Russell’s puncture after the race, Toto Wolff theorized:
"The slow puncture probably came from him having to run off the line so many times in order to overtake"
"As for the race win? I don't know. I think our planner said he would catch up to Sergio and maybe DRS would have helped us, but I'm not sure”
Wolff’s point of view suggests that due to having to push a bit more to make up positions, Russell’s driving led to the unfortunate puncture. It may be far fetched, as it is barely impossible for any driver to avoid a puncture. But in the end, guesses are all we have left when trying to understand how everything went wrong although it all looked so promising.
Ultimately, the absence of a win will not take away the outstanding impression George Russell left after the Bahrain GP. The young Briton cemented his bid as a legitimate candidate for a Mercedes drive from 2022, and a potential world champion in the making.