• George Russell was poised to win the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix.
• A blunder in the pits and a puncture cost him a shot at victory.
• Russell could have another shot at winning a race this coming weekend in Abu Dhabi.
• For more motoring stories, go to www.Wheels24.co.za
It was something no one could have foreseen: George Russell losing out on his maiden win in Formula 1 due to an error on the mighty Mercedes-AMG team's side. Taking advantage of a 'free' pit stop and fitting a set of fresh tyres to both its drivers on lap 61 of 87, the team somehow got it wrong and fitted Valtteri Bottas' tyres to Russell's car. A lap later, Russell returned to the pits for the team to fit the right tyres to his car.
The most challenging part of comprehending was how Mercedes, who ran away with this year's championship in every facet, could have made such a monumental error.
Right on the button
Having qualified in second place for the Sakhir Grand Prix, just 0.026 seconds behind Bottas in first, Russell was poised to make the most of the opportunity given to him. The Williams driver was drafted in as a substitute for Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes after the 2020 champion caught Covid-19. Russell had big shoes to fill but was on the pace throughout the three practice sessions leading up to qualifying. Merc's decision to bring in their future driver has paid off. And it did.
When the race got underway, Russell shot past Bottas and into the lead. He would maintain that lead and be on his merry way with great comfort. Even after the first round of pit stops, Russell was still in the lead.
But on lap 61, Russell's replacement at Williams, Jack Aitken, spun after coming out of the final corner and lost his front wing after knocking into the wall. This brought out the safety car and several drivers, including Russell and Bottas, to visit the pits for a set of fresh tyres. The team double-stacked both drivers, but the pit crew fitted Bottas' front tyres to Russell's car. And Bottas, in the confusion, rejoined the race on the same set of tyres entered the pits with. Russell had to pit again the very next lap to have the right tyres fitted to his car, and he rejoined the race in fifth place - behind Sergio Perez (Racing Point), Esteban Ocon (Renault), Lance Stroll (Racing Point), and Bottas.
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Sadly for Russell, his race would go from bad to worse. When the safety car returned to the pits and the race resumed, Russell made quick work of the three drivers ahead of him and set about dispatching Perez. Suddenly, a call came over Russell's radio informing him that he had a slow puncture on his left rear tyre. Again Russell had to make a pit stop, which saw him rejoin the race well out of the top 10.
But because he was driving the most superior car on this year's grid - in fact, the fastest car in F1 history - he could fight his way up to ninth place and score a bonus point for setting the fastest lap of the race. Russell registered the first (three) points of his F1 career, but he lost out on a sure win. Through no fault of his own, Russell was at the receiving end of one of the worst weekends the Mercedes team had ever had.
Toto Wolff, Mercedes team boss, said after the race that a radio failure caused the confusion on the tyres. Sky Sports F1 quotes him as saying: "One of the tyre crews didn't hear the call. We had a radio failure in the garage, and when the car came in, they didn't know that we had to change the tyres or the wrong tyres, and this is why we exited with the wrong set of tyres. Technical failures happen, that wasn't any human error."
Had Mercedes gotten Russell's tyre call right, the driver would have been out on track with the correct set of tyres. This would have seen him 1) lead the race and 2) possibly avoid him getting a puncture. If Hamilton is not able to compete at the season finale this coming weekend, Russell will be standing in again for the stricken driver. Hopefully, then, he'll have a weekend to remember.