Long before he climbed into ART’s Formula 2 car to race in Bahrain a week ago, George Russell reckoned he was more than ready for an F1 race seat after driving a Force India in FP1 at the Brazilian Grand Prix meeting last November. Judging by his showing that Friday, he’s right.
However you cut and sliced it, he got the job done when they gave him the chance to drive that morning at Interlagos.
He’d never seen the circuit before apart from in a simulator, and he wasn’t familiar with the VJM10. But you wouldn’t have known any of that from his performance in that session.
He drove Sergio Perez’s car, against the continuingly impressive Esteban Ocon, a fellow Mercedes Junior driver, and he looked completely comfortable. No locked wheels or big sideways twitches. Just smooth, confident progress.
After the usual bit of aero testing, he got down to work on a set of soft-compound Pirellis. As Ocon lapped in 1m 11.317s for ninth place, Russell opened with 1m 13.321s for 14th, then trimmed that to 1m 12.746s, just before Ocon improved to 1m 11.045s. Then Russell did 1m 12.340s, by the halfway mark.
On supersofts, Ocon did 1m 10.712s for 11th, as Russell used a similar set for 1m 11.633s and then 1m 11.359s. Six-tenths off his team mate looked good.
Then the Frenchman trimmed down to 1m 10.454s to increase the gap, before the Englishman’s final run yielded 1m 11.047s. Back to six-tenths. Again, impressive, especially as he had yet to put a wheel wrong.
So was he surprised, or satisfied?
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he admits. “I hadn’t seen the circuit or the car before, and that was a big step up, so I’d say I was quite satisfied with my performance.
“We started off doing the usual aero running, then they gave me three push laps on a set of soft tyres. On the supersofts your quickest lap comes on the first or the second there, so I only really had four proper laps overall. So I thought that a gap of six-tenths was quite respectable.”
He indulges in understatement, this 19 year-old Briton.
He says he lost the time to Ocon in the two high-speed corners.
“I left a margin because I was still learning the track and the car,” he explains. “Interlagos has a lot of undulations and blind corners, so it was a little difficult to get my rhythm. But I learned a lot, and there were a lot of positives.”
To be honest, to an observer there weren’t any real negatives.
“No, not really,” he agrees. “I came into the session naturally wanting to do a good job, but I had some built-in excuses, I suppose, the not knowing the track or the car. But I’m not a driver who looks for excuses.
“I knew that when we got to Abu Dhabi I wouldn’t have any, because I would know the car by then, even though I’d probably only done 12 proper laps in it, and I already know the track.”
Indicating how calm young drivers are these days, he says that he didn’t really feel any pressure that Brazilian weekend.
“I don’t see it like that. I knew what the car could do. I’d watched videos of the Force India in action and I’d seen the telemetry.
“You hit 330 km/h heading into Turn 1, and brake in 65 metres. I knew that was possible, I just had to get that into my psyche. In the GP3 car it would probably have been 270 km/h and 100 metres, but in the F1 car you just have to do it, and not brake until you get to 65 metres. You have to brake when you are 35 metres later and going 50 km/h faster…”
But he did that each lap, without making any mistakes. Again, the word impressive springs to mind.
Perhaps it helped that Mercedes were not using that run as a comparative test between him and Ocon. That sort of pressure will almost certainly come later in his career, but on that occasion Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda simply wanted him to have a similar programme rather than comparing their two young chargers lap for lap. So that was how he approached it.
“Mercedes weren’t expecting me to jump in and be quicker, but I wanted to prove that I could fulfil what they were looking for,” he summarised simply.
By that stage of 2017 he had driven a 2015 Mercedes W06 for two days in a private test at Portimao, and done two days in Budapest in the W08 in the Young Driver Test after the Hungarian GP. That latter occasion wasn’t about doing qualifying laps on the softest tyres as part of his learning curve, but rather a case of treating him like one of the race drivers conducting a development test programme aimed at helping them to win World Championships, to see how consistent he could be while trying out new components. So he wasn’t required to be pushing the car the whole time.
Sometimes that can be just as hard for a young driver as having to push really hard. But Mercedes were very satisfied with the result, without needing him to set the timing screens on fire.
In both Hungaroring and Interlagos, he says he had no physical issues, which goes to show that young drivers are also pretty fit these days.
“Again, you don’t know fully what to expect,” he suggests. “The two days in Hungary were very tough, and I was trying to rest my neck for the second day. But, actually, it was okay. I had been working hard in the gym since the previous December just to be ready for those two days if they happened.”
They are also very committed…
“My two targets for 2017 were to win the GP3 Championship, and to be fit enough to allow myself to get the job done in Budapest if it came up. I was confident and happy that I had the speed.”
Tick both boxes, then.
“You can train in the gym but driving the car is where you really find it, as your body adapts to the forces. It’s not easy for young drivers trying to get there. It was a bit harder lap for lap there in Interlagos because there are a lot of left-handed corners. Turn 3 is a very high loading, around 2g, and Turns 4 and 5 likewise, at maybe 3g, and then there’s the downhill Turn 11. And even on the straight it’s left, left, left, and the forces act on the opposite side to normal. But I had no problems and I would have been able to do the race had I been asked to.”
That was impressive, given his relative lack of experience.
In Abu Dhabi he drove Ocon’s car, lapping it in 1m 41.131s for 11th place compared to Sergio Perez in 1m 40.203s in sixth. Again, respectable.
Russell is a very presentable young racer, well turned out, fit and intelligent. And clearly dedicated. So it’s not surprising that his relationship with Wolff and Lauda has gelled so well. They support him in every aspect and he is delivering all the time. And they can see that he is honouring the faith they have invested in him.
In Bahrain’s F2 Feature Race he was on pole until the last moments, when fellow Briton Lando Norris pipped him to it. Then he finished fifth, before stalling at the start of the Sprint Race on Sunday and recovering to 19th. Both times, clutch issues with his car hampered his starts and his progress, but his qualifying performance for the first race demonstrated that the speed is there.
“Toto and Niki are very supportive,” he agrees. “Very easy to work with, and they give that same support to everyone, whether it’s a truckie, a security guard, an engineer, somebody in catering, or a driver.
“Sometimes you don’t realise who they are when you are just talking to them. But Toto is one of the most influential people in the paddock. And Niki is Niki, isn’t he? A genuine F1 hero.”
A big fan of all forms of racing, George watched the Valencia MotoGP finale with the Austrian legend. But before long, it’s very likely that Niki will be busy watching him, as one of the next Britons in F1. Russell is right, had the necessity arisen at Interlagos, he could have raced quite happily in the Brazilian Grand Prix, and doubtless he would have done a strong job.
He’s proved that he is more than ready for the next big step. However soon it comes. And he still wants to top that list of anyone looking for a replacement driver. But in the meantime, he’ll keep pushing hard in Formula 2, looking to make the same sort of impact that won him the GP3 title at his first try. He has time on his side, but because he is a young lion, that will only make him want to get to F1 even quicker.