Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton’s late stand-in George Russell ended his first day atop the timesheets with the fastest time for Mercedes in Friday practice for the Sakhir Grand Prix.
The 22-year-old, put into Hamilton’s seat after his fellow Briton tested positive for COVID-19, could not have asked for a better start to his debut with the world champions after lapping fastest in both of the day’s two sessions.
Russell headed Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in both.
He also finished ahead of team mate Valtteri Bottas, who was nursing damage to his Mercedes in the opening 90 minutes and had a lap time, which would have been faster than Russell’s best, deleted for exceeding track limits in the second session.
The Finn ended the two sessions fourth and 11th, respectively.
“I’ve found it good,” Russell, whose 54.546 seconds benchmark from the opening session stood as the fastest time of the day, told Formula One TV.
“I’m working with the best in the business and I’m learning so much every single lap I’m in the car.
“I do think the lap times are a little bit deceiving at the moment and aren’t a true representation of the pace,” he said, adding he would have been a tenth-and-a-half slower than Bottas had the Finn’s lap time not been deleted.
This weekend is being seen as something of a shootout between Russell and Bottas for a 2022 seat at Mercedes.
The world champions have denied that is the case.
But Russell, who is a Mercedes-backed driver and has been placed at engine customer Williams to learn the ropes, has done his chances of one day driving for the German marque’s works team no harm with his performance so far.
Verstappen’s team mate Alexander Albon set the third-fastest time of the day, which again came in the opening 90 minutes.
But the British-born Thai driver, who is driving for his seat, slipped to fifth in the second session.
Sergio Perez in the Racing Point ended the day third instead, ahead of Renault’s Esteban Ocon and Albon.
Daniil Kvyat was sixth for AlphaTauri with Lance Stroll in the other Racing Point seventh.
Daniel Ricciardo was eighth for Renault.
AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly and Carlos Sainz, who reported a problem changing gears in his McLaren, rounded out the top 10.
Formula One this weekend is racing around the shorter outer layout of the Bahrain International Circuit that hosted last Sunday’s race.
Friday’s practice session also featured two rookies who are making their Formula One debuts.
Pietro Fittipaldi is standing in for the injured Romain Grosjean at Haas while Formula Two racer Jack Aitken is replacing Russell at Williams.
They finished at the bottom of the timesheets, with only Charles Leclerc, who suffered a driveshaft failure on his Ferrari and did not set a time, behind them in the second session.
Formula One champions Mercedes are not treating this weekend’s Sakhir Grand Prix as a shootout between team regular Valtteri Bottas and super-sub George Russell, team principal Toto Wolff said on Friday.
Russell, a 22-year-old who is in only his second season in Formula One, has been called up to stand in for Lewis Hamilton after the seven-times world champion tested positive for COVID-19.
The highly-rated Briton, who has impressed at engine customer Williams, is seen as a talent of the future and tipped to one day drive for the main Mercedes team.
That has led to speculation that Russell’s temporary promotion, likely to carry over into the season finale in Abu Dhabi if Hamilton doesn’t return, could be a way for Mercedes to evaluate him directly against Bottas for a seat in 2022.
“There is no shootout,” Wolff told reporters via video conference on Friday.
“If George does well, it’s an indication that one day he’s going to be in a good car and hopefully race for victories and world championships.”
Bottas has won two races to Hamilton’s 11 this season but has pushed the Briton hard in qualifying.
The Finn will be out of contract at Mercedes at the end of next year which could open up at least one seat at the world champions for 2022.
Hamilton, out of contract at the end of this year is yet to sign an extension. However, that is expected to be a formality.
Russell, who will be staying at Williams next year, did his chances of driving for the main Mercedes team in the future no harm on Friday when he topped both practice sessions.
However, Wolff said Mercedes wouldn’t decide its 2022 line up based on just that.
“We know that we race next year with Lewis and Valtteri,” said the Austrian.
“Where we are in 2022 is all going to depend how our own season in 2021 is going to go and not by George’s performance on a oval in Bahrain and on a season final in Abu Dhabi.
“We have total trust in Valtteri and loyalty as we have always had, and that is our position.”