George Russell’s Friday at Silverstone didn’t start well, setting the 20th and slowest time in the sole free practice session ahead of qualifying for the British Grand Prix. As he put it, “I was lost”.
Yet three hours later, he had qualified in a surprise eighth place and had the partisan Silverstone crowd on its feet, cheering almost as loudly as they did for Lewis Hamilton’s pole position.
Russell’s second consecutive Q3 appearance for Williams was a bigger surprise than his achievement in Austria and didn’t look on the cards even during the first half of qualifying.
“Following practice, I was lost, lacking confidence and we had a bit of a decision to make – whether we tried to improve the car and turn it upside down or whether we stuck to our guns and hoped the track comes towards us,” said Russell.
“And that’s what we did, we just stuck to our guns and the track came towards us, and the tyres came towards us and everything got in a much nicer window.
“I just felt so confident and comfortable out there, which allows me to get that extra tenth or two.”
But on Russell’s key lap, the one that launched him from 12th heading into the final runs up to seventh in Q2, he gained an extra 0.441s.
While his sole run in Q3 on the only set of fresh softs he had was the one that earned him eighth on the grid, it was Q2 that really mattered.
“I just feel like I keep on improving through these sessions,” said Russell when asked by The Race how he found the improvement.
“It’s something I do need to work on for Q1, to be honest, because I seem to improve more than others. It’s always sort of been my style that I semi build-up to it through a stint, but I’m maybe under-hitting it slightly in Q1, which is something I need to improve.
“But that’s great this year because we’re sailing through Q1 and then the opportunity again in Q2 to find some more is great.”
Russell’s progress was impressive. In FP1 – a session blighted by a wide moment at Copse which broke his front-left mirror – he set a 1m29.857s. That improved to a 1m28.297s on the second push lap of his first Q1 run before he set a 1m27.671 to earn a Q2 place.
His first Q2 lap was a slight improvement 10 1m27.521s before he put in the 1m27.080s. Then, in Q3, his time was 1m26.971s – 3.1s quicker than FP1.
“It’s not the first time I’ve noticed that I improved probably more than I should during a session,” says Russell.
“I think I just like to get an understanding of what the car’s doing before then fully knowing how to extract the maximum from it. I guess if you’re in a top car that’s going to sail through to Q2 and Q3, that’s exactly the strategy that you want.
“But it’s really coming towards us. My first lap in Q2 was fine but nothing great and then the second lap just made a massive, massive step.”
This meant he was ready to deliver come that second Q2 run, where he described “everything” as having improved – “getting the tyres in a better window, knowing exactly what we need to aim for on the outlap, me driving a bit better, good position with a small slipstream from [Fernando] Alonso ahead”.
Russell’s final Q2 lap was met with a huge cheer from the crowd, which also urged him on for his Q3 attempt.
Even from inside the car, Russell says he was aware of the support as he turned in one of the star performances of qualifying.
“You can see it, every in-lap, out-lap you are so aware of it,” said Russell, who has his family at a race for the first time since the 2019 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. “You can see them in the corner of your eye.
“That’s such a cool feeling – and seeing on the TV screens them following you round on the lap.
“Maybe I should focus more on my driving than watching what the crowd are doing! Maybe I’d have been a bit higher on the grid!”
Russell’s light-hearted interpretation of being aware of the crowd belies his steely determination to try and do something he’s never done before – pick up points for Williams.
If he does that, he might again find himself getting plenty of love from the 140,000-strong crowd.