Mercedes has yet to decide who will replace Lewis Hamilton for this weekend’s Sakhir Grand Prix, but ex-McLaren racer Stoffel Vandoorne is favourite thanks to his status as Mercedes’ Formula 1 reserve.
Vandoorne was always scheduled to travel to Bahrain once Formula E pre-season testing was completed, so nothing should be read into that specifically in the wake of Hamilton’s COVID-19 test result, and teams are not obliged to pick their designated reserves.
This means Vandoorne is currently a strong contender, rather than a certainty, for the seat.
These are the four obvious options for the seat. Although Mercedes could yet spring a surprise and pick an alternative driver, it seems Hamilton’s stand-in will be drawn from this pool.
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The 28-year-old former McLaren F1 driver is the logical choice given he is the designated reserve driver for Mercedes.
He will travel to Bahrain once Formula E pre-season testing in Valencia is complete, although this was always scheduled so does not mean he is certain to take the seat.
But he is integrated with the team and has two full seasons of experience in F1 in 2017 and 2018. He has not tested the 2020 Mercedes F1 car, though.
Vandoorne was rightly highly-rated when he came into F1 with McLaren full-time having finished an impressive 10th on his debut as stand-in for Fernando Alonso in the 2016 Bahrain Grand Prix as GP2 champion.
But after making decent progress in 2017 he struggled the following season and was replaced last year by Lando Norris.
Despite Vandoorne’s reputation taking a beating in that final season, during which he was unable to drive round the limitations of the uncompetitive McLaren in the same way Alonso did, he is still a quality driver who would relish the chance of a comeback in the best car in the field.
He has raced in Formula E for the past two seasons, initially with the HWA team that paved the way for Mercedes’ full entry and then with the works programme and was runner-up in the 2019/20 championship.
As Formula 1’s unofficial super-sub, Nico Hulkenberg has already driven a 2019 Mercedes for Racing Point this season. What would he give to race the 2020 version?
Tired pink Mercedes jokes aside, Hulkenberg performed very well in his three outings for Racing Point this year.
He scored points in both races he started, but was denied on the very first opportunity (an ultra-impressive last-minute appearance in the British GP) by a technical issue stopping him from even leaving the garage on race day.
Hulkenberg is a strong driver, he’s up to the task of racing current F1 cars, has experience in 2020 and is familiar with the Mercedes power unit if not the car.
He would also be more likely to get more out of the Mercedes on a one-off than Vandoorne because he only stopped racing F1 full-time a year ago and, as mentioned, has had three grand prix weekends this year to get back up to something approaching normal speed.
However, much like the rest of his career, it wouldn’t be surprising if Hulkenberg doesn’t quite find his stars aligning.
Though Esteban Gutierrez is a Mercedes simulator driver, he is not in realistic contention for this race as he does not currently have an active superlicence.
He raced for Sauber in 2013-14 with only one points finish – seventh in the Japanese Grand Prix in his first season – then returned for a pointless campaign in Haas’s debut season in 2016 after a year on the sidelines.
The 29-year-old has 59 starts under his belt and was a quick, but inconsistent, performer during his spell in F1.
However, his last racing outings were in IndyCar in 2017, starting seven races for the Dale Coyne Racing outfit having previously had a brief stint in Formula E.
Gutierrez would be a capable replacement and his simulator mileage would mean he is best-placed to adapt to the demands of the Mercedes W11.
Given his experience and knowledge of the team, not to mention his quality as a driver, he would do a decent job.
But he was not available when Racing Point needed a stand-in earlier this season he needs to do a 300km F1 test to reactivate his superlicence.
Mercedes might also feel he is better deployed performing his simulator role in support of the team given the unfamiliar circuit configuration and the challenge faced integrating a stand-in this weekend.
George Russell ticks several boxes for the seat in that he’s an active F1 driver, fully familiar with the Mercedes power unit, is contracted to Mercedes and is also a contender for a seat with the team in the long-term.
However, he is also contracted to Williams and while the exact details of that deal are not clear, it seems inconceivable that it would be possible to pull him from the team’s line-up unilaterally.
But it is possible that an agreement could be struck to field him, presumably dependent on Williams being adequately compensated and a stand-in driver being found.
Given the ties between Mercedes and Williams, this is not impossible.
Russell has shown prodigious pace with Williams and has never been outqualified by his team-mate.
But he has yet to score a point in F1, albeit with few opportunities given the team was dreadfully uncompetitive in 2019 and, despite being stronger this year, is not a top-10 contender on pace.
An outing for Mercedes would give the team the chance to evaluate him in comparison to Bottas and see how he fares in a more competitive car.
While he has never tested the Mercedes W11, he has driven for the team on six test days – most recently in the post-season Abu Dhabi test last December.