Williams driver George Russell came within a tenth of a second of reaching Q3 in qualifying for the Styrian Grand Prix, having taken the team into Q2 for the first time in 20 months.
Russell challenged for a place in Q2 in last weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix and might have made the top 15 with a perfectly-executed session, but the wet conditions at the Red Bull Ring second time round gave Williams an even bigger opportunity.
The 22-year-old posted his best time of 1m19.636s on the final flying lap of his first Q2 run, but a combination of worsening conditions and the fact he couldn’t get the brakes and tyres up to temperature, briefly dropping his left-side wheels onto the gravel at Turn 4 while attempting to do so, meant he couldn’t improve on his second set of tyres.
“I’m sure George knows where he could have gained a bit of time and we could have been slightly better with the tyre” :: Dave Robson
Williams head of vehicle performance Dave Robson admitted it was frustrating to miss out by such a small margin given 10th-fastest Sebastian Vettel was only 0.091s quicker, but praised the job done by Russell and the team.
“It’s frustrating to miss out by such a small margin, but having a quick look back, I think we did pretty much everything we could,” said Robson when asked by The Race about how close Williams got to a Q3 place.
“He had a good track position, we got the engine turned up at just the right time – we can’t run in a max power mode every lap, the battery goes flat – so I think we got it just about right.
“In those conditions, I’m sure George knows where he could have gained a bit of time and we could have been slightly better with the tyre.
“So it’s frustrating but, on the whole, we did a very good job with what we had.”
Russell was delighted to have put in the best qualifying performance of his F1 career so far. He was 12th fastest and will gain a place from Charles Leclerc’s grid penalty to start 11th.
The Mercedes-contracted driver, who had a strong rookie season in 2019 despite the limitations of the Williams meaning he was always eliminated in Q1, was shocked to come so close to Q3.
“I’m over the moon, there’s no way I would have expected that,” said Russell, whose previous best F1 starting positions were 14th places in Belgium and Italy last year – on both occasions elevated at least five places by penalties for others.
“We would have been pleased just with Q2 and if you’d told me before the weekend we’d be less than a tenth from Q3 I’d have not believed it.
“I had a lot of fun out there, I’m really pleased for all the guys. It’s not quite our true pace but for all of the hard work from the mechanics week in week out to get this result is a real boost for all of us.”
TOPPING THE TIMESHEETS…BRIEFLY
Russell made a stunning start to Q1, setting the fastest first flying lap of anybody with a 1m24.031s lap after capitalising on the advantage of a clear track earned by Williams sending him out behind the initial flurry of cars – briefly putting him to the top of the timesheets.
That was 0.204s faster than Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel’s time, although he was soon relegated to second by Alfa Romeo driver Antonio Giovinazzi’s second flier.
The rest of the first run didn’t go so well for Russell, who only improved on his final lap and headed for the pits for a fresh set of wets having been shuffled down to 16th place, but then put in a lap on his second set to make Q2 comfortably in 12th place.
“When he went top of the timesheets, obviously you think ‘that’s great’ but we knew that wasn’t a ‘real’ pace. But it is still fantastic to get up there,” said Robson.
“And particularly nice because he asked on the radio what the pace was like and it was nice to be able to tell him that he was P1.
“But even though that wasn’t truly representative, [Russell and team-mate Nicholas Latifi’s] pace was strong throughout the session and I think George is fully satisfied with where he is on the grid.
“So from the context of the last few months, years, it’s been a really nice day, a really good day.”
LATIFI’S Q2 NEAR MISS
Latifi’s first wet qualifying session in F1 could have produced far more than 18th on the grid as his final two laps were thwarted by yellow and red flags and left him an unrepresentative 1.377s slower than Russell.
Latifi was ahead of Russell on first-run pace by two-tenths, but his second run was compromised first by a yellow flag at the final corner and then by the red flag.
The Canadian did improve on his second run, but his best lap was the last one he completed before the session was stopped – on which he had to back off significantly in the final sector while running behind Max Verstappen because of yellow flags for Antonio Giovinazzi’s off.
“I don’t think he would have been far behind George’s pace to be honest. He comfortably had the pace to get through” :: Dave Robson
Prior to backing off for that yellow, Latifi was set to post a lap of about 1m20.9s. This would have comfortably earned him 15th place and a Q2 slot.
The red flag was then thrown just as Latifi was completing his next lap, which had started strongly before he lost time at Turn 7. He did complete that lap, but it did not count as the session was stopped moments before he crossed the line. It would have been a 1m21.4s that would have put him 16th.
The red flag also cost him what would have been his final lap, when he would have had maximum engine power and the best of the conditions to attempt to nail down a Q2 place.
“He had two laps, at least, where he was easily quick enough and annoyingly on one of them [Sergio] Perez spun and he backed off and conceded nearly a second I think, so that lap would have been easily enough,” said Robson.
“Then the lap that was red flagged. I don’t think he would have been far behind George’s pace to be honest.
“He comfortably had the pace to get through. So he was extremely impressive today because that’s the first time he’s driven out car in the wet, where you really have to go for it. And he was brilliant from the start.”
No wonder Latifi’s summary after qualifying was a simple, “frustrated – we could have easily made it to Q2”.
VINDICATION FOR WILLIAMS
Williams deputy team principal Claire Williams declared the qualifying performance as “vindication” of the team’s efforts to improve its fortunes after a dismal two years.
The squad only finished in the points in three races across 2018-19 and Williams sees this performance, combined with a good showing in qualifying for last weekend’s Austrian GP, as proof of its progress.
“When we’ve got 22 races that we’re going to and you end up dropping out of Q1, never scoring points, it’s been a really painful two years,” said Williams.
“The last time we were in Q2 was Brazil 2018 so today, and I suppose last weekend as well, feels like vindication.
“We told everyone, we promised that we were working in the background doing everything that we needed to to turn this team around.
“Clearly we’ve had a lot of support, we’ve also had some doubters and I hope that what we’ve done is demonstrate that we deliver on our promises and we will continue to work hard.
“We know we’ve still got a lot of work to do but it does feel good that we are putting in the performance to show that we’re moving our car and our team back up to where we want to see it.”