George Russell’s reputation in Formula 1 has been built on his superb qualifying performances for Williams during the past two-and-a-half seasons, but Mercedes hasn’t signed him simply to be another ‘Mr Saturday’.
After all, it effectively already had that in the driver Russell will replace, Valtteri Bottas.
Mercedes won’t have committed to the switch without being confident Russell is an upgrade, both in terms of his performance level and his potential as a long-term successor to 36-year-old Lewis Hamilton.
But given Russell’s patchy race results, which beyond the extraordinary second place in the Spa non-race amounts to a couple of minor points finishes – one in his 48 Williams starts and the other on his one-off outing for Mercedes in last year’s Sakhir Grand Prix – you can draw legitimate comparisons between his performance patterns and that of Bottas.
Considering Hamilton has a record 101 pole positions in F1, Bottas’s achievement in outqualifying him just under one third of the time shows his single-lap strength. As Red Bull has discovered, finding a driver who can be close to a superstar team leader is no easy feat, so even with his performances relative to Hamilton on Saturdays regressing this season compared to 2020, to be fewer than two tenths of a second off on average this year is impressive. The majority of drivers on the grid would struggle to match that.
Where Bottas loses out is on Sundays. His underlying pace is good, but when things become more complicated over race stints things often get away from him, which explains why he’s only won nine times in his 90 Mercedes starts. In that same period, Hamilton has won 46 grands prix. Regardless of the occasional races where Bottas has been compromised to help Hamilton, Bottas’s Sunday inferiority is clear.
Russell’s qualifying statistics are remarkable. He has only been outqualified once by a team-mate in his 49 outings in Formula 1, with his sole defeat to Bottas during his one-off for Mercedes in last year’s Sakhir Grand Prix, where even in an unfamiliar car that he wasn’t entirely comfortably in he lapped just 0.026s slower in qualifying.
At Williams, Russell has a 100% qualifying record. While his team-mates have been Robert Kubica, who was a shadow of the potential world champion he was prior to the devastating injury that changed his life in 2011, and the solid but unspectacular Nicholas Latifi, it still reflects how consistent he has been. He’s also becoming increasingly strong at making steps with each run in qualifying, a crucial skill for a driver who will be expected to be a regular pole position contender next year.
The problem is that Russell has struggled to translate his qualifying heroics into points despite reaching Q2 10 times in 11 races this year – twice going a step further into Q3 – and nine times out of 16 outings for Williams in 2020.
He has also had some high-profile failures when points are on offer, notably what he called his “amateur” crash under the safety car at Imola and poor final standing restart at Mugello last year. He was also on course for points at Imola this year when he took to the grass while attempting to pass Bottas and was pitched into the side of the Mercedes.
Russell’s best F1 weekend to date, last month’s Belgian Grand Prix, was entirely predicated on qualifying form given he converted that famous second on the grid in a wet qualifying session into runner-up spot in the race. No matter that Russell had set his sights on a top five if the race was wet, given this was a grand prix unworthy of the name it further fuelled criticisms from some quarters that he’s a qualifier, not a racer.
So it’s fair to ask if Russell can back up his qualifying excellent with race performance, and indeed if there is any substance to the allegation that he is a ‘choker’ in pressure situations given in most of the few occasions there has been a points finish on offer at Williams, it hasn’t come off.
But it’s not difficult to build an argument against that interpretation. Firstly, he finally broke his Williams duck with eighth place in the Hungarian Grand Prix and showed no signs of throwing away that opportunity. That he finished behind Latifi was down to the unusual circumstances of the race given Latifi got ahead while Russell was hindered by the first-corner chaos.
Likewise, when Russell had his big chance in the Mercedes in the Sakhir Grand Prix last year, he drove an exemplary race.
But for the Mercedes pitstop catastrophe, which cost him the lead under the safety car, and the puncture he picked up after passing Bottas that ended his likely progress back to first place, he would have taken a sensational win.
To have performed so well under pressure after being pitched in at the last minute was a remarkable performance and made Russell’s promotion to Mercedes for 2022 almost inevitable.
But there are aspects of Russell’s race performance that do need work, something he’s not afraid to admit.
In his first season with Williams, his problems on the first lap were clear as he started lap two behind Kubica 11 times despite his qualifying superiority. He was honest about the problem, putting it partly down to the disruption caused by the aerodynamic turbulence, compounded by the fact that he was extremely cautious to avoid contact given the financial and parts problems Williams had that season.
The first lap malaise has continued since. At Silverstone, contact with Carlos Sainz at Brooklands on the first lap of the sprint race earned him a grid penalty that squandered his ninth place finish on Saturday. In the 13 race starts this year, including the Silverstone sprint, Russell has gained positions three times, held position four times and lost out six times on the opening lap.
The Williams has been a tricky car to get off the line at times, although that has improved this year. But the Williams team doesn’t feel there is a particular problem with the way he executes his launches. It’s true that Russell’s decision making in terms of car positioning on the first lap has sometimes not paid off and he does sometimes struggle to pick when to attack and when to consolidate, although he has also had some strong first laps.
There’s another parallel to be drawn with Bottas here. He has had his problems on first laps, most recently rear-ending Lando Norris at the start of the Hungarian Grand Prix, and he has not been the most dependable driver in first-lap combat with Mercedes. Even during his stint with Williams from 2013-2016, during which he racked up nine podiums and did enough for Mercedes to shell out £10million to acquire his services after Nico Rosberg retired, the team had doubts about his decision-making in first corners.
Russell’s case isn’t quite the same. While the offset between his qualifying results and race results is startling on paper, it’s important to note that Williams has not been competitive during his two-and-a-half seasons there.
In 2019, Williams was cast adrift well off the back, but since the start of 2020 it has still been a relatively weak car. By the team’s own estimation, it’s still only the ninth-fastest car overall, although on average qualifying pace it’s eighth overall with a slender advantage over Alfa Romeo.
What Russell has done is consistently extract close to the maximum from the Williams in qualifying, allowing him to start ahead of cars that are fundamentally quicker. Once in race conditions, he’s in a constant battle against regression to the mean so it’s inevitable that his Sunday results are less impressive. That doesn’t mean his race performances are perfect, but he’s always fighting competitive gravity in races.
And generally, he does it well. His tyre management is good and while it’s difficult to make direct comparisons with Bottas given they only had one race together as team-mates, he potentially has an advantage on this score.
He’s also done a good job of dealing with a Williams that, particularly in the first part of the season, was very wind sensitive – another area that Bottas has occasionally struggled with in races.
Mercedes has access to enormous amounts of data on Russell and has been convinced that he will be up to it on Sundays in its car, and overall his race performances at Williams have been convincing. And assuming Mercedes is at or near the front of the field next year, the complications of being down the order on the first lap won’t be an issue.
His all-round attitude is also hugely beneficial. While Bottas fits in well with the team, Russell’s ultra-professional approach has also made a strong impression.
Save for the occasional misstep, such as his reaction to the collision with Bottas at Imola that led to him issuing an apology, Russell has an intelligent, rigorous, determined approach that should endear him to the team and allow him to make a positive contribution technically from the off.
Russell is held in high esteem at Williams and has already built up plenty of credit with his occasional test outings for Mercedes, most recently in the Hungaroring tyre test. This means he can replace the valuable contribution Bottas has made alongside Hamilton, albeit with the risk of being a more disruptive force.
Russell still has plenty to prove when it comes to performing consistently at the front of the F1 field, and going up against Lewis Hamilton will be the toughest challenge of his career.
But he’s certainly done enough to earn it and also shown that he potentially does have an upside that stretches beyond what Bottas has achieved. Mercedes wouldn’t bet on Bottas to win a world championship after Hamilton’s retirement, but Russell could yet prove himself to be capable of the greatest prize.
Drivers are asked new, tougher questions every time they step up a level and Russell has had all the answers every step of the way up to now. You can never be sure how anyone will react when they step up to the next level, but all the evidence is that Russell has the toolkit to thrive even in the rarefied atmosphere of the front of the F1 grid up alongside an all-time great.
He may be known as Mr Saturday, but there’s far more to Russell’s game than a quick qualifying lap. Over the past two-and-half seasons, you’ve had to look very closely to spot what he’s doing, but next year it will be far more obvious why Mercedes has decided that Russell could well be the full package.