The F1 Sakhir GP is certainly going to be a bit of an unknown, not just in track terms, but also with all the shuffle which happened since Bahrain GP.
The biggest news story as F1 fans awoke on Wednesday morning was that of a driver change at Williams, which saw a COVID-positive Lewis Hamilton be replaced by Williams’ George Russell, whose seat would be filled by Jack Aitken, the team’s reserve.
A change that had been announced Tuesday, with Pietro Fittipaldi filling Romain Grosjean’s vacated Haas seat, means three drivers lining up for the Sakhir GP on Sunday will be either making F1 debuts, or debuting at a new team as is the case with Russell, who gets his first chance in a frontrunning team.
Despite unfortunate circumstances surrounding all three of their respective cameos, there is great anticipation of what the three promising drivers might be able to achieve, and on Thursday of the Sakhir GP weekend, it was a major topic of discussion, as they spoke to media including Racefans.net, Motorsport Network, F1, Motorsport Week and more.
Here’s what was said by Aitken, Russell, and Fittipaldi ahead of their respective appearances:
Russell on how he got the seat: “It’s all happened so fast – it’s been an intense 48 hours. I got a phone call from Toto at 2am on Tuesday morning. I was actually in the bathroom in the moment which was slightly awkward. I answered the phone, he said ‘George, are you in the bathroom?’, I said ‘Sorry, I am in the bathroom’. He said ‘Unfortunately Lewis has caught Covid, he’s doing well, he’s healthy and feels fine which is most important but we want you to drive’. I said ‘Right, OK’.
“Obviously a bit of a sleepless night. We just sort of made it happen throughout the following day. And I counted yesterday, I had 64 phone calls on Tuesday – pinging between so many different people. I’m glad we got there in the end. I need to say a massive thank you to them for allowing me this opportunity. And here we are, it feels strange to be back with Mercedes as obviously I spent two years there as test/reserve/simulator driver, so I know all of the guys, which makes things a lot easier to get back into the team.
“I’m just being bombarded with information at the moment to learn and get ready for the weekend ahead. This is not the way I envisioned my first opportunity in a Mercedes race car. Obviously, incredibly odd circumstances. This year has just been mental on all accounts, not just for me. There are much greater problems going on in the world. But just from a personal perspective in terms of my career it’s been up, down, left, right, centre and it’s just another twist to a tale, lets say.
“It still seems a bit surreal, and I’m sure in years to come I’ll look back on 2020 and say ‘what an unbelievable year’. A lot of effort went into making this deal happen. And I really appreciate what they’ve done logistically, to get some helmets painted in the course of 24 hours, suits made and flown over from Italy to the UK to Bahrain. There’s so many things that have had to happen in the course of such a short period of time. Knowing they were willing to do that means a lot to me.”
Russell on his expectations for the “difficult” race weekend ahead: “It’s going to be incredibly difficult. Valtteri has been pushing Lewis a huge amount over the years. I know it’s not going to be an easy task coming in. Any driver when you’re in the groove, you’re integrated into the team – I know the level I was at Williams, just having spent two years in the same car with my same engineers, same mechanics and, changing suddenly is [tough]. So many new things to learn, so I’ve got no expectations, no targets. Just build up to it over Friday, learn as much as I can. Enjoy it. And just do my best.”
Russell on how this race could influence his future once his Williams contract is expired: “One race doesn’t define a driver’s capabilities or the decision-making for something that’s over 12 months away. So from my side that is not even in the back of my mind. I’m going to go out there, enjoy it, learn as much as I can. Because obviously I have a job to do back on my return to Williams which is to try and push that team forwards as well, to maximize that learning from Valtteri, the team, whoever.
“In terms of the future, that’ll be judged over the course of the season and what’s happened in the past as well, not just one or maybe two races. From my side I think there’s no pressure. I’m being thrown in at the last opportunity. I haven’t driven their simulator in two years. My seat is three years old. I’ve got so much information to learn and going up against Valtteri isn’t going to be easy.”
Russell on the snugly-fitting W11 cockpit: “It definitely was a tight squeeze. My size 11 feet were a struggle, so I’m having to wear size smaller shoe than would be ideal. So that’s slightly uncomfortable. But I’m sure I can endure the pain to get this opportunity. I spoke with Bono, he said: ‘I’m sure we can make some mods to your body!’ Ha, not too sure, that’s what I was thinking. But no, it’s all good.”
Aitken on his call up to Williams: “Such was my impatience that I actually contacted the team and said, ‘OK, so what’s going on?’ That was on Tuesday afternoon. They just said ‘We’re assessing the situation, we’ll get back to you, just sit tight’. So I sat tight for several hours. Eventually it stretched out overnight and in the morning on Wednesday confirmation came through and it was announced half an hour later or something.
“So it all happened quite quickly. I’m just going to approach the weekend as I always do. I’m not really thinking too far ahead in the future at this stage. It’s more just tackling what’s ahead of us this weekend. So I think I’ve got everything I need to do a really good job and I’m just going to focus on that for now. The goal for the team hasn’t changed. We want to be trying to get up into the fight with the midfield runners and hopefully, if there’s a bit of chaos and luck, maybe some points. So we’re all going to be pushing for that, same as always.”
Fittipaldi on his news: “I’m not driving for the best team but for me it’s an amazing group of people. I think the group of people we have at Haas, they’ve been helping me a lot, the engineers, mechanics, I’ve known them for two years. Kevin as well, Romain, they’ve been very supportive and open with me because they know it’s my first race, it’s going to be difficult with all the procedural stuff in F1. But the team has been amazing, that’s a huge plus for me, that helps out a lot.
“The most difficult thing at first I think is maybe physically. I don’t know how this track will be physically, it’s a shorter track, longer straights, fewer corners but heavy braking zones. But the team has been doing a great job in helping me as well as Kevin, it’s been great to have his as my team mate. Romain as well, I’ve been speaking to him, he’s been very supportive. It wasn’t always for sure but I’m one of the reserve drivers for the team. I wasn’t really asking Guenther, after Romain’s accident, the team was focused on Romain, I was as well, on his health.
“On Monday Guenther called me over to the track and told me I had the drive. Guenther has always been a man of his word, he’s always been very straightforward with me, that’s why I love working with him and why I consider him a great team boss. I appreciate that from him, when the opportunity came, now I was just like ‘Focus, get ready to drive on Friday’.
“It’s a great feeling for sure, I’ve been dreaming of racing in F1 since I started racing. I was four years old when I started karting, so it’s surreal. Obviously it’s not under the best circumstances, my debut, with Romain having his crash, but he’s very lucky coming out with… obviously he burned his hands and hurt his foot but very lucky to come out of that the way he did, it’s really a miracle.”
The move for Russell, meanwhile, was discussed up and down the paddock, especially with his teammate Valtteri Bottas, who didn’t feel as bad but the Finn admitted that if he were to be beaten by the Brit, it wouldn’t look nice for sure. Additionally, the ‘Twitch Quartart’ also had a say with Lando Norris, Charles Leclerc and Alexander Albon rallying behind.
Bottas on fights and future: “Many people can think that way and also you guys making that thing up, because I know that you like to speculate on these things and create drama, showdowns, etc. But I doubt George thinks that way, at least I don’t. I think it’s a great opportunity for George, a great opportunity to learn a lot and to show what he can do with the team.
“For my side, as a racing driver, of course, you always want to be ahead of your F1 teammate, weather if it’s Lewis Hamilton or George Russell or anyone else, it doesn’t matter. I have a job to do as well, for the last two races of the season, I have my own motivations, which is trying to win the remaining races – that’s, obviously, the only goal – and try to maximize all the learnings I can for next year to end the season on a positive way. That could probably help me at the start of next year.
“I have a contract for next year, I have clear targets for myself for next year, the team as well, so from my side it’s pretty simple. No pressure from my side. When I heard the knew I could fully relate to George, as I started with Williams as well and my first opportunity, then, outside from Williams was to race for Mercedes as well. I think I know, at least a bit, how it feels and I think I know that kind of feeling and approach going into the first race with the team.
“I think I don’t need to advise George, he’s obviously had some time in F1, with the current spec of cars and doing a great job at Williams. He knows most of the team pretty well, so, for sure, that helps. We are a big, smart and really united team, so there’s a lot of support, to get up to speed and George knows how to drive. And whether he beats me, I haven’t really thought about it and it’s difficult to know what to expect from George in terms of performance.
“He knows the team well, but also it’s a different car that he has been testing and lots of new things. And also… I don’t really know what to say to that question. I haven’t thought [about] it in that sense and if I have to give some kind of answer I say if he beats me, yeah for sure it wouldn’t look so good on me if I have a normal race and if he beats me fair and square. So obviously I will try to avoid that. But I am not a person who thinks on that side of things. I try to turn things into a motivation and through positive thinking. That’s my mindset for this weekend.”
Moving on to Norris, he added: “We’re good mates, get along well, and it’s nice to see a mate get a top seat like that. He has big boots to fill, from a seven-time world champion, I wish him all the best, it’ll be a big challenge for him. I think he can achieve a pole, I think he can achieve a win. I think if there’s any weekend Mercedes maybe have a smaller advantage than any other weekend it’s probably here, so he’s taken a step up into the team at probably one of the toughest weekends of the year in terms of their advantage they have. It’s not going to be easy for him but I know how good of a driver he is, I’m sure everyone else does, and of course Mercedes do. I’m expecting big things.”
Leclerc: “For George, it’s an amazing opportunity, I’ve known him for a lot of years. We were team-mates, me, Alex and George back in 2011 in karting. Now he finally has the opportunity to race for a top F1 team, I don’t know for how long, if it’s only one weekend or two. I think he will show how much of a good driver he is this weekend. For me, [I’d expect] a podium at least, but I have some hopes of a win. It’s very optimistic, but I know he is very good. I would bet on a win.”
Albon: “I’m excited for him. I think he will show everyone what he can do. Obviously, it’s exciting for the younger generation I guess and I have no doubts he’s going to do a good job.”
Stoffel Vandoorne left hurt by no chance:
While the three above rejoiced for getting the chance, Mercedes’ reserve Vandoorne was left disappointed by the snub from the German manufacturer, despite doing all the hard work all-season long, traveling to the races as a back-up.
It was the first direct put down by Mercedes after losing out to Nico Hulkenberg twice when Racing Point needed a replacement. Vandoorne did not shy away from showcasing his disappointment, while understanding the call taken by the team for Russell.
Here’s his statement:
— Stoffel Vandoorne (@svandoorne) December 3, 2020
Romain Grosjean visits Bahrain circuit to meet Haas, marshals:
It was a surprise visit from Haas’ Grosjean on Thursday at Bahrain with his wife Marion, where they met the whole F1 team for the first time since the incident. There was lot of embracing in the American outfit’s garage and outside it as well.
In fact, Grosjean met Alan van der Merwe and Dr. Ian Roberts along with two firefighters Joby Mathew and Thaer Ali Taher, one of whom was on scene with the extinguisher from across the circuit – the two were also recognised by the Government.
Grosjean thanked everyone and also met the whole Bahrain crew present at the circuit for a cheerful moment along with FIA Race Director, Michael Masi. It is not clear, though, if the Frenchman will be in the garage for the whole weekend.
So heartwarming ❤️❤️
— Haas F1 Team (@HaasF1Team) December 3, 2020
— Haas F1 Team (@HaasF1Team) December 3, 2020
The Real Heroes 🙌
— Haas F1 Team (@HaasF1Team) December 3, 2020
— Bahrain Int. Circuit (@BAH_Int_Circuit) December 3, 2020
Straight in the feels. Wish I could give all four of them a hug. pic.twitter.com/PKm26unGM6
— Junaid #JB17 (@JunaidSamodien_) December 3, 2020
Hugs all round 🤗
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 3, 2020
Here’s more shots from F1 Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Formula1/posts/1958383214318651
Here’s video of Romain Grosjean entering the paddock: https://twitter.com/F1/status/1334523475696955394
Here’s the video of Romain Grosjean meeting the firefighters: https://twitter.com/F1/status/1334563299627700224
Here’s details on how FIA will investigate the incident
Here’s last from Romain Grosjean on crash, return
Here’s what Romain Grosjean spoke with French TV