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Formula 1

How ‘grafting’ Russell is impressing Mercedes

by Edd Straw
7 min read

George Russell’s time as a full-time Mercedes Formula 1 driver hasn’t started as he hoped in terms of results, even though his haul of a third, fourth and fifth place was the stuff of dreams during the Williams days.

But looking beyond the results and instead at his performance level and all-round contribution to the team, life with Mercedes has started well. And even his, relative to Mercedes standards, modest results have been good enough to put him an improbable second in the drivers’ championship.

The 24-year-old has slotted in well alongside established star Lewis Hamilton. After finishing behind Russell in the Australian Grand Prix, albeit only as a consequence of the timing of the safety car triggered by Sebastian Vettel’s crash on lap 23, Hamilton singled out Russell’s work-rate for praise.

“It’s incredible, he’s done an amazing job,” said Hamilton.

“He’s been so solid these first three races and he’s been working and really grafting away. He’s doing an amazing job.”

Far from being blown out of the water by Hamilton, Russell has performed credibly in relative terms. In Saudi Arabia, he comprehensively outqualified the struggling Hamilton, who felt he’d gone the wrong way of set-up despite there being “nothing radical” in the difference between the cars according to trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin. There, Russell appeared to have better understood the limitations of the car.

Hamilton has been just ahead in the other two qualifying sessions, which have gone more smoothly for him. In Bahrain, he was comfortably clear thanks to Russell overworking the tyres on the prep lap – an area where Hamilton excels – but the gap was just 0.108s in Australia last weekend.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Australian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Melbourne, Australia

In the races, they have generally performed at a similar level. Hamilton has at times done a better job with tyre management, but his tyre-whispering skills were always going to be an area where Russell needed to make further games and he will be learning. But Russell has proved consistently quick.

None of this is evidence of Russell turning the tables on Hamilton, who remains the undisputed top dog at Mercedes. But it does prove he’s at least in the ballpark and isn’t going to sink without trace.

He’s not become frustrated, distracted or angry because of his big break turning into a more difficult season than anticipated, but has simply got on with his job and proved he’s absolutely ready to be a Mercedes driver.

“He does a great job,” said team principal Toto Wolff. “He’s not given a tool to fight at the front where him and Lewis deserve to be.

“George has proven that he has the ability of racing at the front but simply at the moment, we are not providing him with the car. So I am very happy with his performance overall.”

Russell has therefore established a firm foundation in his first three weekends as a Mercedes regular. Eager as he is to outpace Hamilton immediately, being close, consistent and making a proper contribution to the team’s efforts to dig itself out of a hole is almost as valuable.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Australian Grand Prix Race Day Melbourne, Australia

And he’s generally performed well on first laps and avoided mistakes in the race, an area of scrutiny during his Williams days. He’s been less Mr Saturday and more Mr Consistency.

Russell is well aware focusing purely on his battle with Hamilton, privileging his own aspirations over the team’s, would have been a sure-fire way to make himself unpopular. It’s a trap plenty of drivers have fallen into in the past.

“These small things in the scheme of things don’t mean a lot really,” said Russell when asked how important it is to him to finish ahead of Hamilton in two out of three races.

“Obviously, everybody wants to finish ahead of their team-mate, but Lewis and I have no interest in battling it out for P5, P6. We want to work together, to claw that gap back.

“So there’s no hard feelings if he’s ahead of me, there’s no hard feelings if I’m ahead of him, and we’re not too concerned about that at the moment.”

One of Russell’s strengths is understanding the big picture. Of course, he wants to usurp Hamilton – difficult as that is given Hamilton continues to operate at a sky-high level – but it’s a battle for another day. At best, it’s a ‘phoney war’ right now.

Instead, the priority for both is to assist Mercedes in getting back to a state where it can fight for wins. It’s become abundantly clear that fixing the porpoising problem is not the work of a moment, so for now the key is to limit the damage and ensure the feedback and collaboration is at the highest possible level. The best way Russell can impress Mercedes is by ‘grafting’ for the common cause.

Crucially, Russell recognises the game has changed for him since the days when beating his team-mate was the only real measure of his success at Williams.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Australian Grand Prix Race Day Melbourne, Australia

“It’s quite a strange feeling for me because we have such high expectations from all of us,” said Russell. “Whereas previously, in my first couple of years that [beating my team-mate] was everything.

“Because we weren’t really fighting for points, we weren’t fighting for much, that was the only satisfaction you could get, your results based on your team-mate.

“But here we have a bigger picture. And the long game we need to play is to catch these guys up because we’re here to win.”

This doesn’t mean Russell isn’t paying close attention to his performance relative to Hamilton. At the end of Q3 in Australia, he enquired over the radio about the deficit and appeared content when told it was a tenth of a second.

Russell also recognises the role he plays in keeping spirits high. As FIA press conference host Tom Clarkson mentioned after the race in Melbourne, Russell, off-camera, went to celebrate with his team in parc ferme. It was both a genuine display of happiness at a job well done and showed he recognises the need to be a team player and credit the team’s hard work.

And so far, Mercedes has done a good job of damage limitation with its execution of races on track. It’s had three relatively straightforward runs to best-of-the-rest behind Ferrari and Red Bull, with Russell declaring it a silver lining to the cloud that’s hanging over the team.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Australian Grand Prix Race Day Melbourne, Australia

“It’s been a respectable start to the season in terms of how we’ve managed to optimise our lack of performance,” said Russell.

“Every race we’ve done, we have truly maximised the result possible. I don’t think we could have achieved a higher result at any of the circuits as a team and that is, I guess, a silver lining.

“But unfortunately, there’s nothing substantial in the pipeline anytime soon. It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s going to take a number of races.

“There’ll be little things, there’ll be incremental steps but we recognise that our rivals are going to be doing the same so it may not be clear to the outside world that we’ve made progress because Ferrari and Red Bull are going to be making progress as well.”

Encouragingly, Russell accepts it will take time for Mercedes to pull out of the current slump. He’s in it for the long haul and can be confident Mercedes will get back to the front eventually. Whether it’s a few races, a few months or years before that happens, Russell’s set out his stall to do everything he can to ensure he’s in the best possible position to profit from it.

Right now, that means a combination of being the ideal team player while ensuring he continues to perform at a good level.

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