By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Both Williams Racing and Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team made the news waves Wednesday morning following their announcements that George Russell will fill-in for Lewis Hamilton (COVID-19) at this weekend’s Sakhir Grand Prix.
With Russell taking over Formula One’s most coveted ride, it gave Williams reserved driver Jack Aitken an opportunity to make his grand prix debut this weekend as well.
Those decisions were mutually agreed upon, something Team Principal and CEO of Mercedes Toto Wolff took time of thanking Williams because it wouldn’t have been made possible without their blessings.
“First and foremost, I wish to thank our loyal partners at Williams for their collaboration and open-mindedness in making it possible for George to race for Mercedes this weekend,” said Wolff. “The conversations with the team at Williams were positive and pragmatic, and those were the key factors in reaching an agreement.”
After 15 rounds, Williams remain the only F1 team yet to score a single point and hope to avoid finishing last for the third straight year as they trail ninth-place Haas F1 Team (who’ll also be without one of their regular drivers) by three points.
Despite being asked a lot on his Mercedes debut, Russell is prepared to see how it’ll go down at Bahrain’s outer circuit.
“Firstly, I want to say a huge thank you to everybody at Williams for giving me this opportunity. I might be wearing a different race suit this weekend, but I’m a Williams driver and I’ll be cheering my team on every step of the way,” Russell thanking his current team he’s competed in each of his 36 previous grand prix starts.
“I see this as a great chance to learn from the best outfit on the grid right now and to come back as an improved driver, with even more energy and experience to help push Williams further up the grid. A big thank you also to Mercedes for putting their faith in me.”
Acting Team Principal for Williams Simon Roberts described the team’s partnership with Mercedes isn’t a secret and allowed Russell to drive for the seven-time constructor’s champions.
“We have been working hard to ensure that an agreement could be made with Mercedes to allow him this fantastic opportunity,” said Roberts. “George very much remains a Williams driver and we look forward to him returning to us fresh from this experience and wish him a successful race this weekend.”
While the story will focus on Russell, people can’t ignore the grand opportunity for Aitken, who’s practiced in the FW43 at the Styrian Grand Prix earlier in the season. Otherwise, he’s been competing in Formula 2 where he’s scored two podiums and eight points finishes.
The 25-year-old Brit said he’s absolutely over the moon of making his F1 race debut and also thrilled for his fellow Brit (Russell) getting a shot with Mercedes.
“I really mean it when I say I’ve felt very much at home here since I joined Williams earlier this year, so to get my chance to help the team try to achieve that elusive points finish is an extremely satisfying occasion to say the least,” said Aitken.
“I’ll be doing all I can to prepare in the coming days, but truthfully, I feel like I have been ready since Melbourne. I also want to wish Lewis well in his recovery, and good luck to George getting the chance to drive the Mercedes this weekend.”
Despite the bizarre circumstances, Roberts said that while communication with Aitken has been limited, he’s looking forward seeing what he can do as they hope Sunday will be the night they can score their first set of points.
“We are also thrilled this means we are able to give another British talent in Jack Aitken the opportunity to make his Formula One race debut. Jack joined Williams at the start of this season, and despite COVID-19 restrictions meaning we haven’t been able to interact with him as much as we would like, he has quickly become a much-liked member of the team,” Roberts on Aitken.
“We look forward to seeing him build on his previous experience driving the car in practice, to see what he can do in a qualifying and race situation.”
The question that now pops up is will this Sunday be the night the 2018 Formula 2 champion get that long elusive top-10 result?
That question won’t be answered until the 87-lap race unfolds, but Russell’s transition from the bottom team to now getting an opportunity with the sport’s top team will be something to watch, according to Wolff.
“It will not be a straightforward task for George to make the transition from the Williams to the W11, but he is race-ready and has detailed understanding of the 2020 tyres and how they perform on this generation of cars,” said Wolff.
“George has shown impressive form this year with Williams, playing an instrumental role in their climb up the grid, and I am optimistic that he will deliver a strong performance alongside Valtteri, who will be a demanding reference for him.”
Furthermore, Wednesday’s announcement marked a milestone for Wolff because a member of the junior program (since 2017) will be representing one of the team’s cars for the first time.
However, the mindset doesn’t change as Wolff hopes both deliver stellar results on what’s been a difficult week without the seven-time world champion in the paddock.
“We have a job to do this weekend, and the full focus of our sporting efforts will be behind Valtteri (Bottas) and George in order to maximise our points score as a team. But, of course, our thoughts are also with Lewis, and we will be supporting him as much as we can to make a rapid recovery during his period of self-isolation,” Wolff concluded.
Russell knows it’ll be real tough taking over Hamilton, who has dominated this season 11 wins, 10 poles and locking up a seventh world championship at Istanbul last month, hoping he’ll recover as Mercedes will determine their driver lineup for the finale at Abu Dhabi at a later date.
“Obviously, nobody can replace Lewis, but I’ll give my all for the team in his absence from the moment I step in the car,” said Russell. “Most importantly, I wish him a speedy recovery. I’m really looking forward to the opportunity and can’t wait to get out on track this week.”
As for Hamilton, he posted on social media Tuesday about his latest condition after testing positive for COVID-19 the day prior.
“I’m gutted not to be able to race this weekend, but my priority is to follow the protocols and advice to protect others. I’m really lucky that I feel OK with only mild symptoms and will do my best to stay fit and healthy,” said Hamilton, who won last Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix.
“Please look after yourselves out there, you can never be too careful. These are worrying times for everyone and we need to make sure we are looking after ourselves and each other. Stay positive.”