The star of Formula 1’s Belgian Grand Prix qualifying was undoubtedly George Russell who handed Williams a shock front row start with second place on the grid alongside pole position man Max Verstappen.
At the iconic Spa-Francorchamps venue, Russell was only denied by Verstappen in the dying moments of Q3 and he eclipsed Lewis Hamilton by 0.013s to match his best F1 qualifying result – previously achieved during his one-off Mercedes drive at the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix.
Our writers give their verdict on Russell’s sensational qualifying session, discussing how big an achievement it is and what it means for his future.
Example of his impeccable skill behind the wheel
Given how polished Russell is out of the car, his obvious intelligence, determination and rigorous approach – not to mention his consistent speed in the dry – it’s easy to overlook the sheer feel and ability he has behind the wheel.
Spa in changeable wet conditions is as tough as it gets, so to take a car that is far from the best in terms of grip levels and deliver as he did throughout qualifying speaks volumes. Such performances even in the wet are vanishingly rare in F1 these days, so what he did required a special talent.
That Russell was immediately on the pace from the start of Q1 was also telling. This was not a question of lucking in or being last across the line in rapidly-drying conditions, he had to be quick throughout to do this and beat people fair and square.
Another indication that he’s a driver who has earned the chance to be tested at the front in F1 over a full season.
This was Russell’s finest hour
Russell has had some special Saturdays and of course some impressive Sundays. His qualifying and race performance on his Mercedes one-off stood out among them as the best outright result and the most spectacular ‘look at me!’ moment as well.
Not anymore. They’ve both been eclipsed by this qualifying performance.
Benefitting from a clearly well-performing car, good feel from the tyres and his own confidence, Russell achieved the seemingly impossible at Spa. And it’s not ‘only’ one lap because he was strong all session – he just did something outrageously good at the very end.
This is what will now be talked about as THE Russell performance. Until of course he gets in a Mercedes full-time and starts winning races.
Russell can handle the pressure
This wasn’t a performance under the intense pressure of trying to convince Mercedes to give him a drive for 2022, as surely that decision has already been made.
If that’s the case and Russell knows he has the drive for next year, there’s a different kind of pressure that comes with that. It’s the extra attention.
Russell will have known he was on a good lap. He’ll have known everybody would be watching it closely – including Mercedes – to see if he could seal the deal. He didn’t put a wheel wrong.
As we saw at the Sakhir Grand Prix last year, the higher the stakes, the more he has on the line, the greater performances Russell appears capable of.
Mercedes surely didn’t need any more convincing even before today. But it will take yet more reassurance from what we saw today in knowing that Russell isn’t going to wilt in the spotlight.
Williams deserves credit
It truly was a “stonking” lap from Russell, as his engineer said, but his Williams team deserve plenty of credit as well.
It was ahead of the curve in Q1 by sticking on the intermediate tyres and it ensured it was not only clear of its regular Class C rivals, but right in the mix at the front of the field.
Just as in Hungary, there was no comparison between Williams and its closest competitor Alfa Romeo on a day when a major upset was possible.
One team was nowhere and rarely looked like escaping Q1 after a messy series of practice sessions including an embarrassing pitlane shunt and braking woes, while the other was ahead of the conditions and looked like a genuine Q3 contender from the very start.
It’s the latest evidence of a far stronger operational outfit since its restructuring and it bodes very well for Williams’s future and F1’s new era next year.
The team chanced it all on Russell’s final Q3 lap, having full confidence in a driver who has consistently delivered when it’s really mattered on a Saturday this year.
Perhaps the difference was that Alfa didn’t have a driver that it could rely on to do the same?