Filling in for Lewis Hamilton, George Russell paces Friday practices for the Sakhir GP

F1 season opener Bahrain
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SAKHIR, Bahrain — George Russell, the replacement Formula One driver for Lewis Hamilton this weekend, set the fastest time Friday in both practice sessions for the Sakhir Grand Prix.

Russell, given his chance with Mercedes after Hamilton tested positive for COVID-19, completed a lap of the desert track under floodlights in 54.546 seconds during the first session. Driving the No. 63 instead of Hamilton’s familiar No. 44, Russell’s time was 0.176 seconds faster than Red Bull driver Max Verstappen and 0.265 ahead of Alexander Albon.

In the latter session, Russell was 0.128 seconds ahead of Verstappen and 0.153 seconds ahead of Sergio Perez in third.

Hamilton, who already has clinched his seventh championship, is self-isolating for 10 days and could also miss the year’s final race in Abu Dhabi next weekend.

Russell, 22, has bigger feet than Hamilton and had to squeeze into Size 10 racing boots rather than his usual Size 11.

Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas, who is fighting to hold off Verstappen for second in the championship, was fourth quickest, 0.322 behind Russell.

Drivers are again racing at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, but on a smaller, high-speed outer track.

Russell has been touted as the future of Formula One by Hamilton, and has the opportunity to showcase his talent in Sunday’s race.

“It means a huge amount to me that Mercedes gave me this opportunity, a lot of effort went into making this deal happen,” Russell said at a news conference Thursday. “I’m not putting any additional pressure on myself. No targets (set) or expectations from Mercedes.”

Russell was told by Mercedes’ head of motorsport Toto Wolff that he was replacing Hamilton in rather unusual circumstances.

“I got a phone call from Toto at 2 a.m. I was in the bathroom, which was slightly awkward,” Russell said. “Toto told me ‘We want you to drive.’ Obviously a bit of a sleepless night. I had 64 phone calls on Tuesday.”

Two weeks ago, Hamilton heaped praise on Russell, whose failure to score a point in 36 career races so far is more related to driving an uncompetitive Williams than a lack of ability.

“He really is the future,” Hamilton said. “I have no doubt that he has the potential to be a future champion.”

He has shown glimpses of his potential speed in beating teammates Nicholas Latifi and Robert Kubica 36-0 in qualifying over this season and last.

Highly rated at Mercedes having come through its junior program, Russell was reportedly under consideration to replace Valtteri Bottas this season, but Williams would not release him.

Russell’s move creates added pressure on Bottas, who has again been dominated by Hamilton this season and is fighting to hold off Red Bull’s Max Verstappen for second in the championship.

Hamilton has won 11 races and taken 10 pole positions; Bottas has two wins and four poles. The Finnish driver, prone to making mistakes under pressure, trails Hamilton by 131 points and leads Verstappen by only 12 — even though Verstappen has a slower car.

Now he faces the grim prospect of being beaten by someone who never has raced in a Mercedes F1 car.

“If he beats me, for sure it wouldn’t look so good,” Bottas, who already has re-signed for next season, said Thursday.