Williams Racing driver George Russell just completed a breakthrough weekend at the Portuguese Grand Prix.
In Saturday’s qualifying session, he made it through to Q2 and bested his Williams teammate for the 40th time in a row. He’s undefeated in his two-plus years with Williams. Russell then missed Q3 by less than a tenth of a second to Sebastian Vettel’s Aston Martin.
Qualifying 11th is the best performance of his F1 career and the best for a Williams car in recent memory. Meanwhile, his teammate Nicholas Latifi qualified 18th. And that’s the yardstick in Formula 1, as the equipment varies so much. It’s virtually impossible to get a direct measure of how fast and skilled Formula 1 drivers are. It’s a bit like comparing Michael Jordan to James LeBron or Muhammad Ali to Mike Tyson. But these competitors are in the sport at the same time. It’s an impossible task, yet we still try. And that’s what makes F1 so interesting.
To suggest that Russell is the fastest driver on the grid is not to also suggest that he’s the best driver. Speed is just one factor in being a great driver, one worthy of contesting the World Championship. It also requires consistency, temperament, and an ability to perform under tremendous pressure. Being fast is certainly a prerequisite for greatness, and that’s why many deem Russell a future World Champion. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence to suggest he could, in fact, be the fastest driver in 2021.
Speed is a function of the driver being able to extract the greatest performance out of any given car. If all 20 drivers had the exact same equipment and equal time to practice, who would clock the best time in a single flying lap? When you look at Russell’s performance this past weekend and the massive delta to his teammate. When you look at his performance in the Mercedes last season at the Sakhir Grand Prix, where he barely fit into Hamilton’s cockpit and had just three practice sessions to get used to the car. Not to mention his dominating speed during the race itself. When you look at the qualifying deltas between Hamilton/Bottas and Verstappen/Perez. It becomes clear that Russell is certainly on the same level as Hamilton and Verstappen, who are considered the two fastest drivers. It’s further arguable that he’s faster than either of them and just needs the right car to prove it.
Unfortunately, the Williams car could not perform in the race itself, as it can’t handle the dirty air from following other cars. And what we saw at the front of the race is that Bottas lacks the speed, execution, and/or killer instincts to contend with either Hamilton or Verstappen. This is why Mercedes should make the decision to put Russell in the seat next to Hamilton sooner rather than later.
I had a chance to talk to Russell before the Portuguese Grand Prix and posed a hypothetical: if he’s in a Mercedes car next to Hamilton and could pick five tracks in a theoretical five-race World Championship, what would those be?
Rob Reed (RR): Today is Thursday before the Portuguese Grand Prix. Is this traditionally the day when you do the track walk?
George Russell (GR): Today is the day we traditionally do a track walk, but I actually no longer do track walks, because I find it – it’s quite time consuming. We have a very busy schedule on a Thursday between all of our interviews, with the engineer meetings. Often, a track walk takes at least an hour. It’s much more productive for me to sit down with my engineers over a coffee, go through all of the details. Then, I’ll often just quickly jump on a bike and do a lap in 15 minutes as opposed to an hour.
RR: It seems like you’ve been doing the track ride more than the track walk. It’s more efficient and probably even a little more fun.
GR: I mean, I have a little laugh when I’m overtaking all of the other drivers who are walking the track and give them a little wave as I cycle by. Yeah, it’s good.
RR: I want ask about the crash at Imola. You had DRS wide open, massive pace in the slipstream. Can you tell me how that crash happened from your point of view?
GR: Yeah, from my side, I was coming up behind Valtteri. First, I actually thought he had an issue, because we had so much pace advantage over him. I’d never been in a situation behind the Mercedes about to overtake them on merit. I have the DRS. I was catching him. I was doing 200 miles an hour. As I pulled out from behind Valtteri and I went to overtake him, he, in his own right, defended hard. As a consequence, I got slightly onto the damp patch, and just lost the car. The stewards deemed it as a racing incident, which I think is a fair one, because ultimately, it was very unfortunate circumstances that came together.
I think on a personal side, the emotions were so high at that moment. I was in a point-scoring position. I just crashed at 200 miles an hour, which I’ve never done before in my life. It was scary. It was honestly scary. Going down the street sideways, in the side of the Mercedes, there’s grass, some mud, carbon fiber, pieces of car going everywhere. I don’t know if I’m headed towards a wall, headed towards a gravel trap, about to roll it, or anything. Your heart sinks.
Afterwards, I got out of the car and I actually went against my own instincts to walk away. Because I thought I wanted to show some emotion. In the moment, that was quite a poor judgment call, because my emotions and adrenaline were so high. I wasn’t proud of the way I acted, to be honest, after that incident. It wasn’t myself. It wasn’t to the standards I set myself and ultimately, I do want to be a role model. I do want to lead by example to the younger generation and the people who watch Formula 1. My actions post-incident were not that.
RR: I think everybody appreciated your apology. I think it was well-received. Certainly publicly, it was justified. I personally have some different opinions about it. Have you seen the onboard from Valtteri’s car? I don’t think it’s been released publicly, right?
RR: I think the big question is not whether he moved to the right or defended. He said that he defended. The question is, “How did he defend? Was that defense unsportsman-like?” Because when I was watching it live, I saw you react to something. You reacted to a move that, again, we can’t necessarily see from you’re on-board. It was almost like a very sudden move that you’re just not supposed to make in that position. Certainly under those conditions.
GR: Obviously, as a racing driver, you’re biased to every situation. Even teams are biased towards their own driver. You cannot see an incident rationally sometimes. At the end of the day, I don’t go into any overtaking opportunity planning to crash. I went for that opportunity, because I thought it was possible, and I thought it was a very viable overtaking opportunity. Obviously, in the blink of an eye, suddenly everything changed.
RR: The other thing I don’t buy is that you shouldn’t have gone for the move. A younger Lewis Hamilton would have 100% gone for that move.
GR: Yeah, for sure.
RR: Every single day, every driver on the grid would have gone for that move. That criticism holds no water. You had such pace. You wouldn’t have been fighting into the next turn. With that pace, you would have been by him if he hadn’t squeezed you so hard and caused you to react in the way you did. Again, I don’t think it had to happen that way and the only person who could have avoided that outcome was Valtteri. That’s where I come down on it.
On a less controversial note, let’s actually talk about cycling.
GR: Change the subject. Absolutely.
RR: What role does cycling play in your training?
GR: I do a fair amount of cycling. Firstly, for fitness. Secondly, psychologically, it just takes my mind away. I find it relaxing. I live in London. I cycle to Richmond Park, which is renowned for its cycling around there. It’s just a really relaxing area with a load of animals and wildlife surrounded the park. It’s really beautiful, overlooking London. I’ll be on the bike twice a week.
I’m not one of these guys who would go out for four to six hours at a time. Because ultimately, we race anywhere between an hour-and-a-half to two hours. We try with our cardio to do as many minutes on the bike as I would potentially do in a race. For me, any further is a bit unnecessary for my given sport.
RR: Is it ever something that you do on race weekends, in a proper way other than just the track ride? I’ve seen guys kitted up and doing some proper laps on the track. Is that something you’ve ever done?
GR: I did it in Bahrain, when I was there for – I mean, we were in Bahrain for three weeks, because we had to test. We’re filming in the middle. That was incredibly fun cycling around the circuit. The surface is so smooth. You don’t have to worry about cars or people. You’ve got the place to yourself and it was perfect. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t, but we have a little gym bike in our motorhome, which I would use on a Thursday. For example, today, this morning, I did 25 minutes really intense on the bike. Then I use it for my warmup as well. Just five minutes, just getting the heart rate up before the session. I’m just a bit more pumped and ready to jump in the car.
RR: Where do you think you stack up on the grid in terms of cycling speed?
GR: I think Valtteri is probably number one, I’d say. Obviously, his girlfriend is a professional cyclist. Valtteri is very good at his cardio to be fair. He’s a very fast runner, a very fast cyclist. I’d say, he’s probably up there. I’d like to say top five for me.
RR: Who’s going to be off the back?
GR: Who’s going to be off the back? Oh, that is probably Lando. Yeah. I’ll go Lando. I reckon he will be back row. I say, short distance running, I reckon I’m number one. I reckon 400 to 1,500 meters is yeah, I think I’ve got the leg to everyone there.
RR: Coming back to Formula 1, I also wanted to touch on last year’s Sakhir Grand Prix. From my view, I think aside from Turkey, that was the most exciting race of the season. Obviously, it didn’t turn out like you’d hoped. But as a result, the Russell stock shot up quite a bit. What did you take away from that experience?
GR: I took a huge amount away from it. I think, the number one lesson I learned is that I’ve been fighting in the back of the grid for two seasons now with Williams. It’s been tough at points, because I’m a winner. I want to win and I want to fight for victories. It’s been tough. What I learned in the Sakhir Grand Prix is that it’s not going to get any easier fighting for victories and fighting for championships, psychologically. If anything, it’s going to get even harder, because I qualified second on the grid. I was 20 milliseconds off poll, which is the equivalent, literally, of a blink of an eye. I was disappointed being second. My previous best was 12 in qualifying. I’ve just qualified second and I was disappointed.
That taught me, fighting for a victory and losing it, it’s going to be even more demoralizing than coming home on P15 and doing your best, but not having the tools to show for it. Dealing with the tough moments afterwards and getting yourself back together to say, “Right, I’ve got another race next weekend. I’ve got to get myself together to try and win this thing,” because I can’t let the disappointment dwell on me. I can’t let those disappointments affect my performance next weekend. That’s so important.
Formula 1 is very tough. It’s very unique. It’s heavily dominated by your qualifying performance. If you have a good qualifying, you’re often going to have a good race. A lap in qualifying is 90 seconds long. Ninety seconds can make or break your whole race weekend. Just psychologically, you’ve got to be in the right frame of mind to say, “Right, this is the moment.” It’s Q3 now. Or in our position, it’s Q2 now. I’ve got to nail this, because I put all this preparation into traveling to Australia, traveling to Bahrain, traveling to Portimao, or wherever it may be. This one lap is going to give me a good weekend or a bad weekend.” That’s a lot of pressure.
RR: It doesn’t sound like you were surprised at your own performance when you were in a competitive car. It sounds like, what you took away from that was the growth that you still have to do psychologically, in dealing with being in that position and not ultimately delivering and going into the next race like it never happened, right?
GR: If you want to win a championship, you have to be the best over the course of 23 races. Not the best over one race. If you have a disappointment, you need to get that out of your mind. That was such a fantastic opportunity. I left that race fulfilled with confidence, because I haven’t had the opportunity to truly prove what I can do with the tools I’ve had. Always in the back of your mind, you’ve got that small doubt thinking, “What would happen if Lewis Hamilton was in a Williams? Would he be scoring points? Or would he be in the same position as me?”
Because nobody would ever know. I thought I was doing a good job, but you just never know if Hamilton or Verstappen jumped in, what they’d do. I think, the fact I got that opportunity in the Mercedes, it made me feel, actually, I’ve probably been doing quite a good job with the tools I’ve had.
RR: I want to give you a hypothetical. Let’s say you’re alongside Lewis at Mercedes. The championship is decided by just five races and you get to choose the tracks for those five races. What tracks are you choosing?
GR: Ordinarily, I’d say Silverstone, because that’s my home race. Equally, it’s his home race as well. I think, yeah, let’s do it. Let’s put Silverstone on the calendar. Hungary—Budapest, I always seem to go well there. I’d say, Budapest. Monaco. Monaco is just something else.
RR: Do you like the street courses? Do you feel really competent on the street courses?
GR: Yeah. Nowhere in the world where I get more adrenaline than driving a lap around Monaco. It blows your mind. Absolutely blows your mind. The speeds we go in these cars is, yeah, exceptional. I’d add Monaco to the list. Then I’d probably say, Suzuka. Great track. Followed by Portimao. I like Portimao. Yeah, they’re my five.
RR: I guess we can assume that some of that calculus is that those might be some of Lewis’s weaknesses?
GR: I’ll let you read into that as you wish.
RR: How about a track that’s brand new? What are your thoughts on coming to Miami next year?
GR: Super excited. Incredibly excited to go to Miami. I think it’s a really cool place. I’ve seen the track. It looks great. This will be the second race we have in the US. There’s talks to have a third. Where that could be? I don’t know. Maybe Vegas could be awesome, or Indianapolis. I think, we all love going to Austin, going to the states. I’m really excited to have a race in Miami.