George Russell's highly-impressive weekend as stand-in for Lewis Hamilton continued in qualifying, getting within three-hundredths of team-mate Valtteri Bottas on pole; Bottas the race-day favorite, but Russell in position to challenge for a maiden win.
George Russell admitted he was pleased yet still a little "gutted" to come so close to taking pole position on his Mercedes debut after his superb performance subbing for Lewis Hamilton continued in Sakhir GP qualifying.
The 22-year-old took the fight for pole with team-mate Valtteri Bottas down to the wire in qualifying under the Bahrain lights, as the two Mercedes and Red Bull's Max Verstappen vied for the grid's front positions.
With the whole field separated by unusually small margins on the short 2.2-mile 'loop' track, Russell trailed Bottas by just 0.026s on the final attempts.
"Almost put it all together. It wasn't my best lap - Turn One I was really struggling, but from Turn Four it was on rails. Really impressive," said Russell to Sky Sports F1's Anthony Davidson in a SkyPad appearance in the video above to analyze his lap on Saturday night.
The Englishman, whose best qualifying result at Williams is 12th, said after qualifying: "Obviously gutted to miss out on pole by 20 milliseconds but if you told me last week I'd be qualifying P2 on the grid I wouldn't have believed you."
While Russell had never previously participated in Q3 in 36 Grand Prix, Bottas had 15 pole positions behind him going into Saturday and the vast experience of running at the front against the formidable Hamilton.
"Valtteri has been incredibly fast this year. Especially on a Saturday, he has been pushing Lewis right to the limit and I think statistically he was on average only a tenth slower than him over the last few years on a Saturday.
"So I guess on my first occasion to get within 20 milliseconds, it's less than a blink of an eye, I'm happy.
"Toto [Wolff] and James [Vowles] said to me 'you've got no expectations. 'You're jumping in at the end of the season going against Valtteri who is incredibly fast, he's been pushing Lewis, he's been with the team for four years now, this is his 17th race in this car... top four, top five, it's fine. Don't worry about it.'"
Sky F1's Anthony Davidson analyses the close duel between Mercedes' duo Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton's replacement George Russell at the Sakhir GP
Russell: I was pretty nervous ahead of qualifying
Russell has experienced a whirlwind week since finishing 12th for Williams in last Sunday's first race in Bahrain.
Called by Mercedes boss Toto Wolff in the early hours of Tuesday morning to be informed that Hamilton had contracted coronavirus and that the grid's best team wanted him to fill in for the seven-time champion, Russell had a seat fitting in the W11 on Wednesday - for which, at 6ft1 he hardly fits in comfortably - ahead of driving the car for the first time on Friday.
George Russell sits down with Sky F1's Simon Lazenby at length ahead of the Sakhir GP about his call-up and opportunity at Mercedes this weekend
Topping both practice sessions on the opening day, Russell appeared to hit his first setback on Saturday when he was only seventh in P3. Yet he was composed - and fast - from the very start of qualifying.
"It has been incredibly intense," Russell remarked. "So much to learn, getting used to the seat - everything. It felt so different and alien to begin with. It's just a really different way of driving, to be honest. Unlearning what I learned at Williams and learning how to drive this car fast.
"I tried a lot of things in FP3 and it didn't go well at all so, to be honest, I'd have been happy to just get through to Q3!"