Russell’s big chance comes at a strange track: Five Sakhir GP talking points

2020 Sakhir Grand Prix

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It’s the penultimate race of the 2020 season and both championships settled, so is this going to be a quiet one?

After the extraordinary events of the last few days, not a chance.

Russell at Mercedes

George Russell will step in for Lewis Hamilton, following the latter’s Covid-19 diagnosis. The Mercedes junior has driven the factory teams’ cars in previous years and works with the team on the simulator, however, especially under the pandemic restrictions his contact time will have been fairly minimal by necessity.

To some extent, the pressure is off Russell; after 36 race starts without a point, at Williams, he’s likely to get his best-ever result in the Mercedes regardless of what happens. For Valtteri Bottas, however, the sudden and unexpected presence of the other driver in contention for his seat means he needs to comprehensively beat Russell or risk his reputation.

If Russell, in an unfamiliar car, manages to maintain his unbroken record of out-qualifying his team mates, that would be particularly bad news for Bottas.

Aitken and Fittipaldi get their chances

Jack Aitken, Williams, Albert Park, Melbourne, 2020
Aitken will be back in the Williams – this time to race

Pietro Fittipaldi, Haas, Circuit de Catalunya
F1’s fourth Fittipaldi tested for Haas last year
Pietro Fittipaldi will fill in for injured Romain Grosjean at Haas, following his serious crash during the Bahrain Grand Prix. Haas’ test driver since last 2018, he drove their 2019 car multiple times and is familiar with the team environment. Whether he will be able to make anything of the Haas around this unusual, outer circuit remains to be seen, however.

Russell’s promotion has had a domino effect, leaving Williams with a seat to fill. Jack Aitken will therefore miss the final F2 weekend to step into the car. A poor performance by Aitken would be easily explained by Williams’ current car – which neither regular driver has scored a point in, after all – but with a strange circuit layout and several swaps, there’s a real chance for a hero moment.

Aitken and Fittipaldi are both, essentially, unknown quantities – although Aitken has run first practice sessions this year, in the specific car he’ll be stepping into, neither has ever participated in a full grand prix event and it is unlikely that either is auditioning for a 2022 race seat. Until relatively recently, though, a debut in a backmarker team could be a chance to prove your talent so either has very little to lose and a lot of respect to gain from a strong performance.

A track like no other

Bahrain Outer Circuit
Short Outer circuit could produce a strange race
The Sakhir Grand Prix may not be the best venue to benchmark new drivers, as the shorter Outer circuit which will be used for this weekend’s race is almost unlike any other track Formula 1 goes to.

With only four real corners to speak of, this is the closest F1 has come to racing on an oval for a few decades. The 3.543km track is shorter than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

There’s little point worrying about corner stability if there are no corners and although modern cars have shown they can flatten even some iconic corners, like Eau Rouge, without having to brake it will put high demands on sheer power, likely favourite power units over aero.

Russell somewhat prophetically declared the event was “definitely going to be bonkers” when he was asked about it in Turkey. Of course back then he didn’t know he’d be driving for the team which is favourite to win.

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Safety back in the spotlight

The FIA’s Grosjean crash investigation has begun
The FIA has revealed the first details of its investigation into Grosjean’s crash today. While finding are not sure until the end of next month at the earliest, several details from the crash have already prompted fresh debate over key areas of safety.

The performance of Grosjean’s halo and the bravery of the recovery team have been rightly praised. However the manner in which the barrier deformed when Grosjean struck it, and the fact the car was able to catch fire, aroused concern from drivers.

The same section of track Grosjean crashed at will be used again this weekend, and it remains to be seen if the safety structures in that area will be altered ahead of the event.

Third place still disputed

Red Bull’s double podium secured them second place in the constructors’ title at the Bahrain Grand Prix but the scrap between McLaren, Racing Point and Renault for third goes on.

Racing Point’s double non-finish last weekend played into McLaren’s hands and they currently lead the fight by 17 points. High power demands on the outer circuit, however, could put that back into Racing Point’s advantage if they can avoid reliability issues damaging their score again.

Renault remain just about in contention, 27 points back from McLaren. It might need something dramatic to put them back in the running. But drama is something the first race in Bahrain certainly wasn’t short of.

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Over to you

What are you expecting from this weekend’s race following Sunday’s drama and Hamilton’s unexpected absence? Have your say below.

And don’t forget to enter your predictions for this weekend’s race. You can edit your predictions until the start of qualifying:

Main image: George Russell via Twitter

2020 Sakhir Grand Prix

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Author information

Hazel Southwell
Hazel is a freelance journalist who roams the paddocks of Formula E, covering the technical and emotional elements of electric racing. Usually found at...

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31 comments on “Russell’s big chance comes at a strange track: Five Sakhir GP talking points”

  1. I agree the man in pressure here is Bottas, for the fear of losing reputation.

    He will be hoping Russell is not a quick learner.

    1. They are both under pressure. Bottas can relax a bit, by relying on his experience with the team.

      But anything but a comprehensive domination over George will be a major upset. And George has 0 points for a reason, always when he was about to score something went wrong.

      1. George is under pressure, but really not any more than any driver debuting for a big team. The good thing is there’s no real expectations there. He’s not expected to get pole (probably not even front row), he’s not expected to win the race. He’s just expected to show up, be professional, show the team he’s worth working with.

        Bottas on the other hand, is constantly under some pressure to perform and earn his seat. If he wasn’t, they wouldn’t keep putting him under short 1-year-deals. Obviously he’s not their long term plan, while George is, in this rare direct comparison, he has an opportunity to earn points in keeping his seat over George. So yeah, there’s a lot of pressure there to not mess up. To not have a spin on the first lap. To not ruin his tires in a stint. To win the race, and to get Pole.

  2. Russell will need to learn the DAS usage and ways to keep the tyres up to the optimum temperature. I expect a Mercedes walk over this weekend given that this is a power track with Bottas the favorite for pole. One thing Russell can take is that Bottas did not have a good weekend on Bahrain on a track I expected him to be competitive against Hamilton. Of course, this was made worse by the early pit stop he made due to the puncture. If Red Bull somehow get a chance to win, they better take advantage of it. They threw away Turkey and last weekend, when they had the chance to pressurize Mercedes, they had a 5 second pit stop. If Red Bull want to give themselves some positivity for next year, they better capitalize on these situations cause I give them 0 shot of winning against Mercedes regardless of the car performances.

  3. I feel like Renault may be a dark horse this weekend. Their car runs best on tracks not requiring too much downforce. I feel Ricciardo on podium is a realistic possibility.

    1. Bottas is clear favourite to win, unless Russell can get up to speed in one weekend which would be very impressive. But after that I think it’s all up for grabs. Both Racing Points, Renaults, McLarens, Verstappen and probably Russell could be in contention for the podium. And due to such a short lap, I could see 1 or 2 tenths covering all those cars in qualifying.

      1. @keithedin 1 or 2 tenths are maybe a tad over-optimistic. Perhaps less than a second, but within half of a second, even for a lap this short is quite hard to achieve.

        1. @jerejj Yeah maybe a little. But in Monza less than 2 tenths covered 3rd to 7th. Sakhir will a shorter lap by over 20 seconds, and with only 4 breaking zones I understand, which I think will narrow the gaps between drivers since there are not many places to lose or gain time. I can easily see traffic and timing of runs being the deciding factor between a lot of these cars.

    2. We’ll see after first practice – Ricciardo will definitely be wearing size zero.

  4. I think a key factor in determining Russell’s competitiveness on this track, particularly v Bottas, will be getting the right feel for the braking. Not sure how different it will be in “feel” compared to the Williams but I imagine that if he is able to find confidence in the sweet spot, there’s no reason why he can’t mount a serious challenge for pole.

    1. If he really is as good as we think he is, he should be on Bottas pace within 1 race weekend.

  5. One thing we do know, every race this season not won by Lewis in recent times proved to be fun to watch.

    1. How about Turkey? Was it not fun?

      1. No @rockgod (great name BTW!) @jureo didn’t say “only” races not won by lewis were fun.

      2. someone or something
        3rd December 2020, 16:43

        @rockgod
        I think you need to brush up on your propositional logic, mate.

  6. I’m expecting Russell to do well in Qually (baring overconfidence or mishaps) but to struggle a bit in the race.

    The short and frantic Qually sessions shouldn’t feel massively different to him I don’t think.
    Yes it’s a faster, better car but the mindset shouldn’t be too different for that hour so I’m expecting a top 5 spot for him without too much drama.

    The race though might be a different thing altogether.
    Maintaining the higher performance necessary whilst under pressure from a higher level of competition (both cars and drivers) for a full race distance is going to be a hard test for the guy.

    I’m loving that he has this golden chance to finally get some (spectacular?) points and can’t wait to listen in over the weekend.
    ( not working this Saturday for a change so I get an extra day of F1 this week :) )

  7. Also, one for the stats. Have we seen instances of more than 3 driver changes between consecutive races of the same F1 season?
    There were 3 changes from the 2017 Japanese to 2017 US GP where Palmer, Sainz and Gasly were replaced by Sainz, Kvyat, Hartley respectively. There were also 3 changes from the 2004 Italian to 2004 Chinese Grand Prix when Trulli, Pizzonia, Pantano were replaced by Villenuvue, Ralf Schumacher and Glock respectively.

    Have there been instances of more drivers switching seats mid season between 2 consecutive races?

    1. Off the top of my head I can think of Japan 1994 where we saw five driver swaps – Johnny Herbert moved from Ligier to Bennetton and Franck Lagorce took Herbert’s vacant seat. Meanwhile JJ Lehto moved to Sauber, Taki Inoue made his debut for Simtek and Mika Salo joined Lotus.

      1. Yeah, was expecting 1994 to come here. Crazy season.

        Coincidentally, that is the last season where the eventual world champion did not participate in all the races.

  8. I predict a blue flag fest in the race. I reckon the first lapping to take place around lap five or by lap ten at the very latest, and this is without early neutralization (full SC) nor anyone pitting early on for front wing damage or puncture. In spite of this possible downside, good to try something more unusual for F1’s standards, a lap that is a little longer in length than Monaco, but more than a handful of seconds lower-numbered lap time thanks to a considerably higher lap average speed.
    3rd in the WCC: It’s Mclaren’s to lose as clawing back a gap of 17 points (for RP), and 27 (for Renault) with only two races to go will be difficult under normal circumstances, although things can change quickly. It only takes a double DNF for Mclaren and, for example, both RPs in the top five.
    Out of the Russell-Fittipaldi-Aitken trio, the latter is the only one who has driven the relevant team’s current car to any extent, albeit only for a single FP1 back in Austria II, but better than nothing. I can foresee a back row of the grid consisting of both Aitken and P. Fittipaldi in this order with Russell at least third, but more likely second given the car advantage over Red Bull, or even on pole if everything goes perfectly well for him.

  9. Blue flag rules should be abolished for this race tbh

    1. @paeschli No, the same rules have to apply everywhere.

  10. A few above have mentioned the blue flags for this race. I think it would be an absolute no-brainer to ban blue flags, not just for this race, but for all races. One of the main reasons why some people are for reverse grids is because it would force the fastest teams/drivers to have to overtake more, but banning blue flags would make the top drivers have to overtake a lot during the race. Obviously some backmarkers would move out the way anyway, but not all would. Think how exciting it would be if the leader was unable to pass some backmarkers and was caught by second place, and there would be nothing unfair about it as the second driver would also have to try and pass the backmarkers. Blue flags also wreck the backmarkers’ races (although sometimes 4th place is a backmarker), and banning them would partly solve that problem. GET RID OF BLUE FLAGS!!!

    1. The only rule worse than blue flags is the Q2 tyre rule.

    2. @f1frog I agree with you on the Q2 tyre rule, but not blue flags. I’ve pointed out the following before on this site, but axing this specific flag would only create problems in the long-term and not to the benefit of anyone as it’d give a realistic chance for drivers to deliberately try and directly impact, for example, or battle for a race win or even a championship by letting some through more easily than others, which wouldn’t really have anything to do with sporting equity.

      1. I understand what you mean but I think that these are professionals and they would not try to mess up someone’s race just because they are friends with that driver’s rival. The only time that might happen would be with someone like Alpha Tauri helping Red Bull, or Alfa Romeo helping Ferrari. If they were blocking to the point that it would be illegal if it was for position, then penalties would be enforced. If it is only minor blocking, that would of course be scummy and unfair, but I don’t think it would make a huge difference (Hamilton could get past an Alfa Romeo very quickly if he was starting from the back, so lapping would be no different. I think it would a most lose a driver a few seconds, but it would be worth it to see overtaking become so much more important a skill in Formula 1.

        1. @f1frog there have been times when some of the Toro Rosso drivers did face questions over whether they were slower to release a driver for a rival team when being lapped as opposed to how quickly they did pull over for Red Bull drivers – blocking could be fairly subtle and still have a noticeable impact.

          In the past, there were definitely examples of drivers who would deliberately try and sabotage the races of other drivers when being lapped, or could also be an outright liability when being lapped. Arnoux, quite famously, had a severe grudge against Prost and it was well known that he would do everything he could to spoil Prost’s races whenever Prost tried to lap him – indeed, Arnoux had such a reputation for taking out drivers trying to lap him that Berger once even intentionally managed to get Arnoux to take him out of a race (the 1988 Australian GP – it’s a complex story).

          You might say they are professionals, but equally they are also driven by the same emotions and irrationalities as anyone else and people don’t always act in such a benevolent way.

  11. Greatly looking forward to this weekend!

    One thing I’m curious to find out…Russell’s had some pretty poor starts off the grid this season. That includes last week, and in particular the one in Mugello that probably cost him points. So…is it the Williams or is it him? Will it affect his run for glory?

  12. I think qualifying will be an enjoyable ‘mess’ to watch. The track is so short that mistakes are amplified and margins will be very narrow, drivers will be on top of each other through all the sessions, and finally the slipstream effect will be powerful, and with that comes the winners and losers lottery as drivers and teams try to optimise track position.

  13. I think a big talking point will be fuel. Less corners means less recovery means less deployment.

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