George Russell will make his long-awaited full-time bow for Mercedes in Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix. The Englishman has been linked with the seat for three years now and, at long last, he will take the second seat at the Silver Arrows alongside Lewis Hamilton.
The only catch is: it's not actually his debut for the team. Perhaps in footballing terms, you would call it his "full debut".
Russell, who drove for Williams across the past three seasons, filled in for a COVID-stricken Lewis Hamilton at the modified Bahrain track in December 2020.
It is somewhat fitting, therefore, that his full debut will take place at the same track that he came so close to claiming a maiden F1 win at. There is plenty we can learn from that first race, as to how close Russell will be to his seven-times champion teammate Hamilton.
George Russell: Englishman returns to Mercedes in Bahrain
24-year-old George Russell is among the most exciting prospects in Formula 1. His incredible form in an ailing Williams team over the past three seasons has been a major cause for hype, but question marks still surround him.
Perhaps he is unfortunate with the opportunities he has gotten. He is in the same age bracket as Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, and Lando Norris. Verstappen is now a world champion, Leclerc has two race wins and nine poles, and Norris has five podiums and a pole position.
Russell has one podium finish to show for his three years at Williams. There's no doubt that the car from Williams has held Russell back for the past few years, and we got a flavour of what he can do in a winning car at the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix.
Immediately, Russell looked quick, posting competitive times in practice that put it up to his new teammate Valtteri Bottas. By the time qualifying came around, Russell did an impressive job to put his Mercedes on the front row, just behind Bottas in first.
Perhaps the most eye-catching part of Russell's run to P2 in quali was the fact he seemed disappointed with the result.
So, around came race day.
Sakhir 2020 may well go down in history as one of the most unique races in Formula 1 history. Taking place on a shortened, oval-like version of the Bahrain International Circuit, it was the second race in as many weeks in Sakhir.
The driver lineup was also bizarre. Just three weeks after sealing the 2020 title, Lewis Hamilton was missing with COVID. Russell's step up from Williams necessitated rookie Jack Aitken to step in in his place. Another rookie, Pietro Fittipaldi, stood in for Romain Grosjean at Haas, who was out after his dramatic fireball crash the previous week.
Russell made a sensational start to take the lead from Bottas at the first corner and shot off into the lead down to turn four.
At turn four, the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc piled into Sergio Perez, forcing Leclerc and Max Verstappen off track and into retirement, and Perez down to last of the remaining runners.
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 6, 2020
The effect of that first lap was that Russell was left in the lead of his first race in a frontrunning car. The most unique race in F1 history had somehow just gotten even more unique. With Sebastian Vettel and Alex Albon out of sorts, Valtteri Bottas was the only man in a frontrunning car left in contention for the race win - and he was left falling behind his rookie teammate.
As the race entered its final stages, Russell was not only leading, but was doing so in dominant fashion. Despite racing in his fourth season for Mercedes, Bottas was way off the pace of the newcomer to the team, and Russell was on course for an iconic race win when disaster struck at the pitstops.
The safety car came out due to debris from Jack Aitken's stricken Williams car on the pit straight. With Mercedes hoping to double stack their drivers (pit them one after another), Russell was first into the box - but his team mistakenly fitted him with a set of Bottas' tyres. Realising their error, they then released Bottas without changing his tyres.
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 7, 2020
The change required Mercedes to call Russell in for a second time to fit the correct tyres. Such was the dominant lead he had built up, he still only dropped to fifth, despite two stops in the space of two laps.
He came out of the safety car period just behind his teammate Bottas, and there came Russell's most iconic moment in the black of Mercedes. With the Finn going wide at turn four, Russell used a cut back to sweep around the outside of his more experienced teammate and push back towards a podium place.
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 6, 2020
There would ultimately be more heartbreak for Russell, as a slow puncture necessitated another late stop. Despite his best efforts, and the fastest lap of the race, Russell ultimately finished P8 to claim his first points in F1 - scant consolation having been within sight of a maiden race win.
The disappointment from Russell was plain to hear from his radio messages at the chequered flag.
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 6, 2020
So, what does Sakhir 2020 teach us to expect from George Russell at Mercedes full-time?
Obviously, it's a different prospect being up against Lewis Hamilton, but Sakhir 2020 shows us that Russell will have no fear in facing down against a more experienced foe at Mercedes. If he was fearless in that December 2020 race, he will certainly be with that experience under his belt.
Furthermore, Russell showed that he does not take long to adapt to new surroundings or an unfamiliar car. He immediately made the most of the immense pace of the W11 car and, with his tendency to drive well on Saturdays, it wouldn't be out of the question that he could outqualify Hamilton in Bahrain this weekend.
In classic George Russell fashion, however, a bout of rotten luck prevented him from achieving his full potential. The Englishman threw away plenty of opportunities to claim crucial points for Williams during his three years with the team and, though all of the factors in Sakhir 2020 were external, they nonetheless stopped him from claiming an even better result.
Russell is a hugely exciting prospect, and he has joined Mercedes at the right time. Changing regulations, uncertainty over the pecking order, and his ever-improving consistency make his partnership with Lewis Hamilton one of the most intriguing storylines of the season.
In all honesty, his performance in the Mercedes remains one of the best of the past few years. Very few drives come to mind to beat it - off the top of my head, Hamilton's win in Brazil last year, and Perez's win in that same Sakhir race are the only contenders that would top it (but don't hold me to that).
You can't expect him to drive that well week-in-week-out in his first full season with Mercedes but, if he can drive close to that level all season, the seven-times world champion in the other Merc might just be looking anxiously over his shoulder.