until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula 1

How Russell handled his return to the back

by Edd Straw
6 min read

George Russell was back to reality in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after returning to Williams once it was confirmed Lewis Hamilton would be back in action for Mercedes.

A week after he had come so close to his first Formula 1 win on his race debut with Mercedes on the Sakhir Outer circuit, he finished the Yas Marina race 15th.

“Sometimes it’s almost like our car is controlling the driver, we have to react to it. In the Mercedes, you are the one controlling it” :: George Russell

It was a difficult weekend for Williams, with tyre temperature issues in qualifying leading to both Russell and team-mate Nicholas Latifi struggling on a weekend when Alfa Romeo was comfortably the fastest car in the ‘Class C’ group of three teams at the back.

This meant Russell was unable to add to his nine previous Q2 appearances for Williams this year, ending up 18th fastest but moving to 16th on the grid thanks to penalties for Sergio Perez and Kevin Magnussen.

But the first challenge of the weekend was to re-adapt to the limitations of the Williams FW43 having spent the Sakhir GP weekend trying to dial himself into a way of driving better suited to the Mercedes W11.

“It’s actually harder, probably, jumping back to the Williams because the Mercedes car is so good,” said Russell.

“What every driver wants from a race car, the Mercedes gives you and the driver is in control of the Mercedes, whereas sometimes it’s almost like our car is controlling the driver, we have to react to it. In the Mercedes, you are the one controlling it.

“That’s only natural when you’ve got a great car underneath you. It’s a true joy to drive and maybe that’s why I probably got up to speed with it relatively quickly.”

Williams spent the build up to the race weekend preparing for Jack Aitken to continue as Russell’s stand-in, but given Hamilton had first tested negative for COVID-19 on Wednesday and arrived in Abu Dhabi on Thursday afternoon, the team was well aware that there was a good chance Russell would be released by Mercedes once Hamilton’s availability was definitively confirmed.

Williams head of vehicle performance Dave Robson admitted that the uncertainty did create some inconvenience, and also impacted the way that the runplan was formulated for Friday practice.

But he confirmed that it didn’t take Russell long to dial himself back into his Williams, which ran in standard 2020 specification while team-mate Latifi ran with an experimental 2021 test floor in FP1 and part of FP2.

George Russell Williams Abu Dhabi Grand Prix 2020

“It was not ideal for anyone concerned,” said Robson. “We knew that we weren’t going to know, so we planned Friday accordingly.

“We had a fairly quiet programme on that car, so that would have suited either Jack or George.

“Most of the test items were then sitting with Nicky, so it was a little bit disrupted, but we dealt with it as best we could.

“We had a little bit of a fear that he would come back a bit disappointed” :: Dave Robson

“It took George a little bit of time to get used to driving our car again, probably not helped by the warm conditions in the afternoon session, but they’re pretty good, they know what they’re doing.

“After a run or two, he was back up to speed pretty quickly, certainly in good time to make the most of the evening session.”

Robson also saw no sign that Russell reacted poorly to being denied a second shot in the Mercedes and felt the 22-year-old threw himself back into life at Williams with his usual focus.

“I must admit, we had a little bit of a fear that he would come back a bit disappointed,” said Robson.

“I’m sure he’d love another weekend invitation but to be fair to him, he was back to his old self immediately and keen just to get on with life in in our car. So no real difference.

“He’s obviously picked up a few things that they do that aren’t necessarily relevant to us, at least not in the space of a week. Nothing’s really changed either in his attitude or general approach.”

George Russell

While the Yas Marina circuit wasn’t expected to be a track well-suited to the Williams, Russell was the fastest of the ‘Class C’ runners in final practice.

But qualifying went badly for Williams, with both drivers struggling to with tyre temperatures and Russell lapping 0.159s slower than he had done in FP3.

Russell described the difference in the behaviour of the car and tyres as “strange”, with team-mate Latifi also struggling and lapping four-tenths slower having spun on tyres that had lost temperature thanks to having to crawl through the final corners of his preparation lap amid traffic.

George Russell Williams Abu Dhabi Grand Prix 2020

“Qualifying was more about the tyres than about the driver,” said Robson when asked by The Race if there was any sign of Russell underachieving because he wasn’t fully back in tune with the car.

“I think the lap and the run he put together in P3 was actually the sort of run you would normally have done in qualifying.

“I’m happy we ended like that. Job well done” :: George Russell

“So if anything, he got it together a bit a bit too early this weekend.

“I think that was exceptionally good. The qualifying delta is just reflecting the tyres on this occasion.”

George Russell Williams Abu Dhabi Grand Prix 2020

Russell’s race looked straightforward as he held 16th place in the first stint, although he was temporarily relegated to 17th before Perez’s Racing Point retired.

In the ‘Class C’ battle, Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi led the way in 14th and 15th with the Finn having passed his Alfa Romeo team-mate around the first lap.

Dec 13 : Abu Dhabi Grand Prix review

Russell stopped under the virtual safety car on lap 10, switching from mediums to hard. As Haas driver Kevin Magnussen had stayed out on hards, Russell passed him on the approach to Turn 8 with the assistance of the DRS on lap 16 to retake 16th.

Giovinazzi had also stayed out on his starting set of mediums, but on lap 22 Russell passed him for 15th on the DRS on the run to Turn 11.

Giovinazzi later stopped for hards and came back into contention, which allowed him to pressure Russell in the final 10 laps. But the Williams driver held on to take 15th, behind the two Ferraris and three places behind Raikkonen.

Despite it being an ostensibly straightforward race, Russell was battling troublesome brake temperatures, particularly in the closing stages as proved by a lock-up into Turn 11 at a point where he was told “the brakes are at the limit” on his 52nd of the 55 laps.

“It was much harder than that, because we were really on the limits of brake temperature,” said Russell when asked about his drive by The Race.

“We were really having to manage the brakes, which requires managing how you attack the brake, managing what brake balance you use, which then consequently hurts the tyres.

“Then I couldn’t attack the brakes, so then the tyre temperature was dropping, but the track was getting colder, so I needed to attack the corners to keep the tyre temperature up.

“It was on this knife’s edge throughout the whole race. Actually, it was a really well managed and executed race.

George Russell

“They’re very little gremlins in the background, but with the track temp dropping, you need to be able to push the car to the absolute limits and we couldn’t really do that.

“I’m happy we ended like that. The Alfa was quicker than us and we beat both Haas and Giovinazzi, so job well done.”

Dec 15 : Alonso fastest in controversial F1 test outing
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