George Russell does not believe that his one-off appearance for Mercedes in 2020 convinced team principal Toto Wolff of his capabilities.
Having just won his 11th race of the season at the Bahrain Grand Prix, Sir Lewis Hamilton tested positive for COVID-19 and had to miss the next race, the Sakhir Grand Prix, which took place at the same venue.
As a result, Mercedes needed to draft in a replacement for the Briton, and 2016 world champion Nico Rosberg has recently revealed that the Silver Arrows approached him first.
Ultimately though, they put Williams’ George Russell in the seat, with the young driver having out-qualified team-mates Robert Kubica and Nicholas Latifi in all of his 36 race entries to that point.
The 23-year-old very nearly took pole position from temporary team-mate Valtteri Bottas, with Mercedes locking out the front row in an immensely impressive qualifying for Russell.
He would then take the lead from the Finn on the opening lap of the race, and twice looked as though he was on course to win his maiden grand prix with Mercedes.
However, a tyre mix-up at a pit stop followed by a slow puncture resulted in a heart-breaking ninth-placed finish.
What was in no doubt was Russell’s exceptional ability which, for the first time, had been put to the test in a top car.
For all intents and purposes, he passed the test with flying colours, and attracted plenty of praise from the F1 paddock and fans alike.
Following his first points in Budapest and his first podium in Spa last season with Williams, Russell has been promoted to Mercedes to replace Bottas in 2022, who will now join Alfa Romeo.
Russell says he believes that his stand-in appearance for Hamilton in Bahrain proved a lot of people wrong.
“I guess Bahrain was the key moment that if there were any doubters, the doubts were gone,” Russell said in an interview with the Motor Sport Magazine Podcast.
He is grateful to Wolff for giving him the opportunity to prove himself in Bahrain just over a year ago, and stressed that it is the Austrian who decides whether or not he is ready for a new challenge.
“The key people who would have made the difference in my career, Toto…he ultimately is the one who has the final say.
“He believed in me and he had faith in me, even when I was finishing last every single weekend. So for me, that race obviously potentially proved a point to so many others but at the end of the day, it’s Toto who makes the decision,” he explained.
While the world of F1 was shocked and revelling in the delights of Russell’s outstanding performance that night, the new Mercedes driver reckons that this surprise did not reflect onto the Mercedes team principal, who was already well aware of his talents.
“Because he followed my career so closely, I guess he believed he knew what I was capable of,” Russell said.
“So that race probably didn’t really change anything in his mind whatsoever, but to the outside world so many others may have thought ‘okay, it’s clear why he wants to go down that route’.”
“But I guess for everyone that was a stand-out race and a pretty crazy one when I look back at it.”
Speaking on his signing to Mercedes this year, Russell is excited to showcase his skills alongside Hamilton in 2022.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to again progress myself as a driver and see how I fare,” he added.
Russell out-qualified his Williams team-mates 57 times in 59 races, and he has been replaced at the team by British-Thai driver Alex Albon, who was dropped by Red Bull at the end of 2020.
The British outfit have retained Nicholas Latifi alongside Albon for 2022.