George Russell’s first Q3 appearance for Williams in Formula 1 seems to have come at the perfect time given Mercedes has signed Lewis Hamilton a new contract and now only needs to decide his 2022 team-mate.
However, even if Russell privately feels his ninth place in Austrian Grand Prix qualifying – which becomes eighth on the starting grid – strengthens his claim to the second Mercedes seat, he is certainly not about to let on.
An enthusiastic Russell had plenty to say on Saturday at the Red Bull Ring.
He said getting into the top-10 shootout with Williams, which hasn’t scored a point since mid-2019, felt like a pole and left him more pumped than his last win in Formula 2.
He said the lap to get him out of Q2 was one of the best laps he’s ever done.
And he said it was “massive” for Williams to get through on the medium tyre as it sets him up to finally break his points duck for the team one week after he was robbed of the chance by a power unit problem.
What he wouldn’t say is how good this kind of result is for his chance of earning a Mercedes drive for 2022, given it came just a few hours after the team re-signed world champion Hamilton and confirmed the straight fight between Russell and Valtteri Bottas to be his team-mate next year.
Russell can use the media quite cleverly but he tends to pick his moments. How Russell handled every attempt – subtle and not-so-subtle – to discuss the result in the context of Mercedes’ imminent decision spoke volumes for how determined he is not to get carried away or take anything for granted as he bids for a career-defining opportunity.
What are his thoughts on Hamilton’s new contract, for starters?
“Really pleased to see Lewis staying in the sport. He’s a worldwide superstar and performing at an exceptional level. The guys had a tough day but on the whole he’s like a fine wine, keeps getting better with age.
“Max [Verstappen] and Red Bull are strong but I’m sure Lewis will be pushing them the whole way. It’s great for F1 to have a guy like Lewis staying.”
Great for George personally though, right?
“You want to be racing against the best drivers in the world and if Lewis wasn’t on the grid next year it would be a shame because there would be one of the greatest of all time not on the grid.
“For me personally I want to compete against the best in the world. On the grid right now, we’ve got a good group.”
Maybe a more direct approach is needed: Hamilton’s deal is done and Mercedes boss Toto Wolff’s said it’s between you and Bottas. So a decision is coming soon…
“I don’t really know to be honest. I’m not pressuring anybody, I want to do my talking on the track. If I do the job on track everything will sort itself out. Mercedes know me so well, through all the years. I’m in contact daily as I have been for the past three years.
“They’ll get it done when they believe is the right time, whichever way they decide to go.”
OK, enough. This was surely perfect timing, getting a result like this just as Mercedes’ focus switches to the second seat?
“With regards to timing, it’s not even playing on my mind. Just week in, week out, I want to show what I can do to everybody, to myself, to Williams, to Mercedes. And hopefully this just adds to that.”
Aha, at last. A tiny glimpse of acknowledgement that this might mean something, however small.
Of course, Mercedes is not going to make a decision based on one qualifying session in isolation. But this latest starring performance is hardly in isolation.
Russell had already been superb one week earlier in Austria, narrowly missing out on Q3 but qualifying 11th, starting 10th, and running in the points on merit in the grand prix until a problem struck.
His qualifying performance this time was even more impressive. There was an element of fortune – he wouldn’t have made Q3 had Fernando Alonso not been blocked by Sebastian Vettel – but he outqualified both Ferraris and a McLaren. And he did so on the medium tyre. It was seriously impressive, even if the Williams is a genuinely good midfield package at this particular track.
Wolff said earlier in the day that he did not want to discuss the second seat too much because this was Hamilton’s day.
But equally Russell’s qualifying exploits should demand focus on what he is achieving right now. Wolff said a couple of weeks ago he wanted to observe Bottas in a more settled state after a rough start to the season, and to observe how Russell continued to perform at an ever-improving Williams.
Well, Russell can do little more. The argument for Mercedes signing him is well-established: he’s young, fast, hungry and more than ready for a bigger shot.
Nothing he has done in recent races undermines that argument; everything he’s doing is making it argument watertight.
He could have scored points last week had circumstances not conspired against him. He may yet score points today.
Even Wolff was moved to hint that Russell is going above and beyond.
“He performed very well already last weekend, and only the problem that we had on the power unit stopped Williams from scoring solid points,” said Wolff. “And that’s a shame because in a way we let them down.
“And again his qualifying performance was optimum, in the top 10. And I guess he’ll perform equally well in the race. He’s not only quick but he’s also gentle to the tyre.
“So, he is doing what is expected from him – or maybe even a little bit more.”
With Mercedes’ driver line-up focus now firmly on Hamilton’s partner for 2022, Russell’s latest reminder of his immense abilities could not have come at a better time.