Williams driver George Russell replaces Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes this weekend in what is being seen as the ultimate job interview for a full-time drive with the world champions in 2022. His first competitive track session went well, with second on the grid, but how close was it to being even better?
When Formula One works on night-race timings, meals move with the sessions, so it’s completely normal for breakfast to be eaten at midday, lunch in the evening and dinner around midnight. So at 7 p.m. on Saturday evening in Bahrain, George Russell sat down for “lunch” with Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff and the team’s chief strategist James Vowles.
He had just finished his final practice session for Sunday’s Sakhir Grand Prix and by all accounts it had been a bit of an eye-opener. After topping both practice sessions on Friday, he finished Saturday’s hour-long session down in seventh place and nearly 0.4s off teammate Valtteri Bottas, who was fastest overall.
It was clear Bottas hadn’t been on top form during Friday practice due to car damage and some work focusing on next year, but by the final practice session on Saturday he was starting to hit his stride and pull a gap to his new teammate.
Russell, meanwhile, had got a bit lost. With a new car underneath him this weekend, he had started to explore setup tweaks and driving styles, but both the car and the stopwatch were not reacting as he’d hoped. All of a sudden, the size of the task at hand was starting to become clear and the pace of his teammate was looking daunting.
“Maybe I was over analysing it,” Russell admitted after qualifying on Saturday night. “Yesterday, I just jumped in and drove the car and it worked, but today I was trying to gain a little bit here and a little bit there and then I’m thinking about it too much and trying too hard to get more out of it. I got out of FP3 and said, ‘I need a lie down now, relax, breathe, just jump in the car and drive it'”.
Wolff sensed the tension in his driver after the practice session and took the opportunity to reset expectations.
“We had a good chat over lunch with James Vowles and it was really to take all pressure off,” he said. “I said to him, if you end up in the first four positions, on the second row of the grid, that’s always a fantastic result.
“If a McLaren or Ferrari jumps you and you are P5 it’s equally great, nothing more is expected.
“I felt he was walking off after that with a bit more easiness.”
The pep talk worked and when it mattered in the final session of qualifying, Russell secured second place on the grid with a lap time just 0.023s off Bottas on pole.
The short lap distance of the outer layout in Bahrain meant lap times were always going to be remarkably close, but even displayed as a percentage, Russell’s pace was within 0.049 percent of Bottas’ time. To put that in perspective, the closest Mercedes’ regular drivers Lewis Hamilton and Bottas have been in terms of a percentage all year was at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix in August when Hamilton was 0.074 percent off the pace of Bottas at Silverstone.
No matter which way you frame it, Russell was remarkably quick in his first competitive session in the car and tantalisingly close to pole position.
How good was Bottas’ lap?
Of course, Russell’s performance — like every driver on the grid — is only relative to his teammate’s. Bottas’ form appears to have dropped from its midsummer peak in recent races, so was this a case of Russell getting close to Bottas at his best or another average display from the Finn?
It’s clear that Bottas did not hook a clean lap in the final session of qualifying. His best time was set on his second of three runs in Q3, and his final attempt, which would usually be the fastest, was a 0.008s slower than Russell’s last and fastest lap.
However, if you were to piece together Bottas’ fastest three sectors from his final two attempts, he had a potential fastest lap of 53.31, which would have been 0.093s clear of Russell’s best lap.
It’s also worth noting that Bottas did not benefit from a slipstream from a car in front, which was a clear bonus for some drivers. It was the Finn’s turn to choose whether he went out on track in front or behind his teammate (a choice Mercedes alternates between its drivers at each race weekend) so he could have opted to go second and get a tow from Russell if he wanted.
As it turned out, he opted for a clear track in front of him and probably lost a small amount of time punching a hole in the air on the straights as a result.
In short, Bottas’ lap was clearly not as good as it could have been.
“I’m slightly disappointed with myself,” Bottas said after the session. “I didn’t improve my lap time in the end, but I was also the only car without any tow.
“The lap was not that great, so I couldn’t improve on the last run.
“Of course, I’m really happy to be on pole and in the end that’s how it is on a track like this, you cannot make big differences, so the gaps are really small, as you can see.
“But I have to say George did a really good job, he was building up to it, I could see the progress in qualifying, so I’m really happy for us, as a team, that we can be one-two on the grid. It’s another big achievement for us.”
Could Russell’s lap have been better?
Hamilton often says there is no such thing as the perfect lap, so arguably it’s possible to improve on any qualifying lap in the history of Formula One.
But in Russell’s case there were two clear areas where he lost out, and both could have been enough to secure pole position on their own had they been rectified.
But before we get stuck into the minute details of a 53 second lap, it should be noted that — when viewed in the correct context of his first weekend in the car — second place on the grid was an almighty achievement for the 22-year-old.
The first mistake came at the first corner, which had been a problem for Russell throughout practice.
“Turn 1 was my most limiting corner and I have been struggling there all week,” he told Sky Sports as he analysed his lap after the session. “I had a bit of understeer right at the apex before I had a snap of oversteer right on the exit.
“That little bit cost me [he said as the snap of oversteer was visible on screen], that was pole position right there.”
The problem stemmed from the differences between the handling characteristics of the Williams, which Russell drove all last week at the Bahrain Grand Prix and is among the slowest cars on the grid, and the Mercedes, which is the best car on the grid.
Although the circuit layout is different this week, the first corner is completely unchanged from the Bahrain Grand Prix and Russell was struggling to make the most of the immense performance the Mercedes has to offer.
“The driving style I was doing in the Williams last week, where I was strong last week in the Williams, was not working, and it was very different to Valtteri, very different to what Lewis was doing,” he said. “I think the Mercedes just has so much more grip and so much more front end on the entry phase that could allow me to carry a bit more speed but it was difficult.
“It’s just a very different way to drive the car. I’ve been so impressed with the engineers I’m working with, how they’ve tried to show me how to improve.
“The standard of that team is absolutely incredible. They’ve really helped me to improve on the small things. Still not there yet, obviously, it’s a strange track, only a day in the car but yeah, happy.”
The second factor was the slipstream mentioned earlier. As the second car on track, Russell had the potential to benefit from Bottas, but as he completed his outlap he left too large a gap to his teammate to see the full benefit of a tow.
“I probably did leave too much to be honest,” he said. “I was actually looking into my mirrors at the final corner of the outlap, I thought Max [Verstappen behind] was going to dive down the inside of me into the last corner to try to sneak ahead of me, so I was I think 40milliseconds down into Turn One.
“I think the wind must have changed, so obviously it would have affected Valtteri as well. So arguably if I was maybe two seconds closer [to Bottas] I could have got free lap time.
“Ifs and buts, carrots and nuts eh?”
The biggest challenge is still to come
As impressive as Russell’s qualifying performance was, his biggest challenge will be the 87 laps of the Sakhir Grand Prix on Sunday night. Starting on the dirty side of the grid, he will struggle to maintain position and also faces the challenge of a clutch paddle on the steering wheel that is too small for his fingers, making consistent clean starts very hard to achieve.
Mercedes has done everything it can to make him comfortable in the car, but at 6’2″ Russell sits awkwardly in a cockpit that is designed to fit snugly around Hamilton, who is 5’9″. What’s more, so that his size 11 feet don’t catch in the footwell, he is wearing shoes that are too small for him so that they squash his toes into becoming size 10s.
There’s little doubt that he will emerge from Sunday’s race battered and bruised from a physical point of view.
Fortunately for Russell, he has taken some of the pressure off by making an impression in qualifying. Anything from this point forward, whether it be a points finish, a podium or a win, would simply be a massive bonus.
“For George it is easier because there is no pressure at all and nothing to lose,” Wolff added.
“Really, I have the same expectation that I had for him in qualifying — he has confirmed what we thought of him.
“We are impressed, but not surprised.”