The three changes to the Formula 1 driver line-up for this weekend’s Sakhir Grand Prix create a whole load of new challenges – and not just for those stepping into different seats.
Here’s our round-up of the drivers who can’t afford for something to go wrong this weekend, and why.
There’s a perception – not universal, but common – that anyone could win in the Mercedes and Valtteri Bottas is there just as Lewis Hamilton’s back-up rather than as one of the fastest drivers on the grid.
Should a Hamilton stand-in be able to climb straight into his car and challenge or even eclipse Bottas, then that perception would grow stronger.
Bottas, with the advantage of being the incumbent, familiar with the car, its systems and the team, has to comfortably outperform George Russell.
Anything less would not be good for Bottas’ standing. – Mark Hughes
With just a few days’ notice, you have to step into a car you haven’t driven before, your Formula 1 destiny as at stake and you’ll be expected to run near the front end of the grand prix grid, which you’ve only ever seen while having blue flags waved at you. Oh, and you have to fill in for statistically the greatest F1 driver in history. Look up pressure in the dictionary, and it might well present that exact scenario.
While Mercedes will do everything it can do downplay expectations and Russell will be his usual unflappable self outside the cockpit, this is as high-stakes as it gets. Russell has regularly been linked to a race seat with Mercedes and with Valtteri Bottas only confirmed to the end of next season, the battle for the drive is effectively live this weekend. There’s a clear chance to lodge a strong claim for the drive for Russell, but he must also deal with the reality that a bad weekend can only count against him.
While he doesn’t need to win to make a success of this weekend, he also can’t afford to drop the ball. That means he must thread the needle and ensure he attacks in a constructive way, but does not overstep the mark, while ensuring he maximises every opportunity.
In a way, this is a microcosm of what a driver must do when fighting for the world championship. With the eyes of the world on him and his whole future potentially in the balance, Russell needs to deliver his best. And given how good he is despite the meaningless record that he has never scored a point, there’s every chance he will stand up to the pressure superbly. But it won’t be easy. – Edd Straw
Twice this year – in Hungary and Spain – Max Verstappen has managed to beat Bottas on merit at races in which Bottas did not have a problem.
It’s suddenly much more feasible for Verstappen to finish off the season with a victory or even two than it was just a couple of days ago.
If he could beat Bottas (and Hamilton’s stand-in Russell) in Sakhir and Abu Dhabi – if Hamilton’s lay-off is prolonged – he will have trebled his seasonal victory score.
Hamilton’s absence provides a rare opportunity for Verstappen and he will be sorely disappointed if he cannot capitalise.
It’s difficult to call if the pressure on him to deliver will be greater from himself or the Red Bull team. – MH
In some ways you’d argue Jack Aitken isn’t under any pressure at all.
He’s got nothing to lose and he’s not staking his claim for a Formula 1 drive in 2021 or, really, any time in the future.
But this is an excellent opportunity for two reasons: his prospects of future employment with an F1 team, and putting himself in the shop window for other categories.
Aitken does not have to be on a hiding to nothing stepping into the Williams but he will need to get up to speed quickly otherwise he risks being comfortably outperformed by regular driver Nicholas Latifi – who has a solid but far from stellar reputation.
Within F1, and especially Williams, Aitken will do himself an enormous service with a respectable, professional performance. He can make himself more valuable to Williams by correlating his simulator work with some real-world experience, and by learning a lot from what is a fantastic opportunity to elevate himself as a driver.
There’s a career to be made being part of an F1 team’s development crew, and while it may not be glamorous it’s an important role and profitable career path.
But also, coming off the back of a difficult Formula 2 season, this is also a chance for Aitken to make potential suitors outside of F1 aware of who he is and what he’s capable of.
Aitken’s highly unlikely to step in and repeat Russell’s qualifying heroics and even a points near-miss seems out of reach. But that doesn’t mean he cannot boost his reputation – or harm it. – Scott Mitchell
On paper, Alex Albon did what he was supposed to do in the Bahrain Grand Prix. He qualified on the second row alongside Verstappen, and was in position to pick up the pieces to claim a podium finish.
But the real story was this: the gap between the Red Bulls in qualifying was a chasm, and Albon was lucky none of the midfield runners slotted into it as they have done so many times already this year.
And the car that dropped out of the top three late on to hand him a podium finish wasn’t one that should have been ahead of him in the first place – it was Sergio Perez’s Racing Point.
Russell filling in for Hamilton at Mercedes this weekend adds another complication to Albon’s high-stakes conclusion to 2020. The bar is no longer set at fourth place for the second Red Bull. Albon needs to qualify and race in the top three, ideally getting much closer to the coattails of Verstappen than he did last week.
Yes, Russell will have a car advantage this weekend, but it’s also a car he’s not driven. Albon has had all year in a Red Bull that can be tricky to drive, but he should be more comfortable than Russell will get over the course of three practice sessions.
If Russell beats Albon fair and square this weekend, then Mercedes knows more than a year in advance that it already has another number two that’s ready to slot in at a higher level than what Red Bull has right now. – Glenn Freeman
It would be understandable if you’d forgotten that it’s not just Russell who has a long-term Mercedes development deal and that Esteban Ocon is on its books too and in theory a candidate for the team’s post-Hamilton future.
Admittedly Ocon’s Renault deal means Mercedes can’t touch him for the duration of those two years, so it was never likely that he’d be the one plucked from the midfield into Hamilton’s seat this weekend.
But even if it was a straight fight, you’d have picked Russell over him based on 2020 form.
Though Russell has had his costly slip-ups, he’s dragged some incredible qualifying performances out of the Williams and outclassed team-mate Nicholas Latifi.
Ocon has been on the opposite end of such a scenario at the hands of Renault team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, and it’s done perceptions of his potential no good at all.
There’s the possibility though that Russell’s weekend could go horribly wrong and give Mercedes real cause to doubt its long-term commitment to him. Then Ocon’s future position gets stronger.
Even if Russell excels, Ocon has to be at his best this weekend for maximum ‘remember me?’ value. This would not be a good time to be outqualified by Ricciardo or asked to move aside for the sister Renault in the race yet again. – Matt Beer
WHAT ABOUT THE HAAS LINE-UP?
In reality, there’s very little pressure here. No one was expecting Pietro Fittipaldi to be getting an F1 chance anytime soon just a week ago, and anything he can achieve is a bonus – especially as the Haas could well be the slowest car of all this weekend due to the Ferrari/Mercedes engine power balance.
And if Fittipaldi pulls off something remarkable and outperforms Kevin Magnussen, then that’s not too damaging for Magnussen’s career prospects as he’s heading out of F1 – probably to sportscars – anyway.