• Chris Kato

What Does Russell's Sakhir GP Performance Say About the Car vs Driver Debate?

Who makes more of a difference, the car or the driver? That debate might've been answered at the 2020 Sakhir GP

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Sakhir, Bahrain - One of the craziest weeks in recent Formula 1 memory has come to a close as the paddock bids farewell to Bahrain after hosting two great races under the lights. The alternate track layout at Sahkir was bound to throw us some curveballs but I don't think anyone could have predicted the result of this race. First of all, a big congratulations to Sergio Perez for getting his maiden victory in Formula 1 and showing everyone on the grid why he is deserving of a seat next season. It was a race of firsts as Esteban Ocon also stood atop a F1 podium for the first time in his career and it was also Racing Point's first victory and double podium finish. But it easily could've been another driver picking up his first career victory had it not been for some awful team execution and bad luck. George Russell continued his stellar weekend in Sakhir as the lights went out and he controlled the race early on. It looked as though he was well on his way to a podium finish at the very least until the Mercedes Netflix curse struck and Russell had to settle for 9th. Regardless of the result, Russell showcased his talents all weekend long and did an amazing job filling in for seven time champion Lewis Hamilton. Because Russell was up to speed so quickly, it was business as usual for Mercedes locking out the front row of the grid and leading the race early. So if a driver that's never driven the W11 steps in on four days notice and provides a performance like that, what does that say about the car vs driver debate?

The Car Plays a Huge Factor in Success

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You need a great car in order to win Formula 1 world championships, that is no question. You could put a great driver like Hamilton in the Williams, but unfortunately he would struggle to even make it into the points due to the lack of performance. Russell's stand in role for Mercedes showed us the W11 might even be more dominant than we think. Consider that the chassis was not built for Russell, (who is much taller than Hamilton at 6'2) he hadn't driven the W11 before, and he was not very familiar with the Mercedes protocols and switches. All that taken into account, he was less than a tenth off of his teammate in qualifying (who has had 15 races worth of experience in the W11) led two practice sessions, and led the race quite comfortably for a third of the race. This says two things to me; 1, Russell is quite the young talent, and 2, Mercedes have built such a dominant car in 2020 that the driver plays a much smaller role than in years past. Now with that being said, I don't believe you could just grab any driver, stick him in the Mercedes and he would win six world championships like Hamilton. However, I do believe that if you take another elite driver like Max Verstappen or Daniel Ricciardo and put him in the W11, you could very well see a repeat of the same success. And this is not a knock on Lewis Hamilton's abilities by any stretch of the imagination. He's still one of the most talented F1 drivers ever and he's also proved in his early years with McLaren that he can win even when he doesn't have the best car. Where Hamilton excels is his supreme racecraft and his consistency which I believe is the best we've ever seen in Formula 1. This weekend did really show us how much of a difference that car actually makes however. Even in Hamilton's absence, Verstappen could only manage P3 in qualifying albeit much closer to pole thanks to the unique track layout. It's a shame we couldn't see Max's potential race pace after his crash on lap one, but we have to ask ourselves how many other top teams would be able to slot in a fill in driver and have the same success? Oddly enough, Mercedes absolutely fumbled as a team and it cost both drivers the shot at a podium but regardless the performance of the car was still there. When you have superior engine power, aerodynamics, chassis, and reliability, the driver becomes less of a factor as the car is just so much better than your opponents. We've seen time and again Verstappen drive the wheels off the RB16 in 2020 but it has only resulted in one race victory and zero pole positions. It goes to show that even a top flight driver like Max can't outdrive superior Mercedes engineering.

Where the Driver Makes the Difference

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So how much difference does the driver actually make in relation to the car he is driving? Is it 50/50? 10/90? It's tough to put an exact number on it but the right driver in your car can make all the difference in the world when fighting for race wins and world championships. In a world where milliseconds decides grid spots and track positions, talent could be the greatest asset a team could want when challenging their rivals. When asked about whether Mercedes need a star like Lewis Hamilton, I think Max Verstappen summed it up best. “Of course you do, because he will make the difference in the most crucial moments. That’s why he’s a seven-time world champion.” And that's been clear since the onset of the era of Mercedes started in 2014. Hamilton is 6-1 against his fellow Mercedes teammates and was able to overcome admirable title challenges from Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel in 2017 and 2018. When Mercedes needs another tenth in lap time, or another ten laps to prolong a tyre stint, Hamilton is able to deliver and get every inch of performance out of his car. As good as Valtteri Bottas has been in the past few seasons, he hasn't been able to maximize the best car on the grid in order to claim a world championship. This is where we see the fine margins and the differences the elite drivers can make in motorsport. It's been much tougher to appreciate these margins in the turbo-hybrid era because of the sheer dominance from Mercedes but that is no fault of anyone but the rest of the teams who have simply failed to even get close. Hopefully with the new rules coming in 2022, we can have multiple teams fighting for the world championship and then we will really see just how much of a difference a good driver can make. Mercedes wanted to test George Russell in Sakhir to see if they can lean on him to be the future of the team post Lewis Hamilton. Russell passed with flying colors and confirmed the hype that surrounded the young Brit ever since he's entered Formula 1.

In Conclusion...

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This is an interesting debate that won't end here and I don't think there is a definitive answer either way. I would like to compliment George Russell on a fantastic drive all weekend long and his incredible ability to adapt on the fly and deliver more than what his team expected. I think at the moment, only drivers like Verstappen, Ricciardo, Alonso and possibly Vettel could replicate Hamilton's success if given the superior Mercedes machinery. This race weekend left an open book to the question of, what would happen if Verstappen and Hamilton were put in the same car? Who would come out on top in that battle? We need that question answered before Lewis Hamilton retires from his illustrious career as it would be a show for the ages.

It was also quite interesting to see how close Russell was able to get to his teammate in his first weekend with the team, while Alex Albon has still struggled to get within touching distance of Verstappen at almost two seasons with the team. At any rate, Russell unfortunately wasn't able to get that maiden podium that he deserves but he could get another shot in Abu Dhabi if Hamilton is not cleared to race. Even without their superstar in the cockpit of the mighty W11, Mercedes flexed their superiority over the grid and were close to taking another race victory in 2020.

I'm very curious to know what the audience thinks about this topic. What do you think Russell's performance says about the car vs driver debate and how would you rate his Sakhir GP drive? Let us know down in the comments below!

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