Formula 1

The one hurdle Russell must clear for Mercedes

by Matt Beer
9 min read

George Russell is on a career path that could one day lead to a seat in the Mercedes Formula 1 team, but after a strong rookie season in 2019 the biggest area of improvement he must make is his first laps.

Russell outpaced Williams team-mate Robert Kubica in all 21 qualifying sessions last year, but ended up behind him on the first lap on 11 occasions – although for three of those races Kubica actually started ahead owing to Russell carrying grid penalties.

It’s a problem Russell is well aware of, one that he intends to improve on this year in a car that appears to have the pace to fight with the midfield as he bids to build on a 2019 campaign during which he was arguably the standout rookie performer despite the lack of results.

“I definitely need to get my elbow out a bit more because I can’t be fannying around at the back” :: George Russell

“I’ll definitely try to be strong,” said Russell when asked about his starts by The Race ahead of the aborted Australian Grand Prix weekend.

“That’s definitely an area of my driving where I definitely didn’t do a good enough job last year.

“But it was a strange situation that we found ourselves in, in that the cars ahead would just clear off and I’d just be racing with Robert.

“It was my first year and I didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks in that regard, but this year I definitely need to get my elbow out a bit more because I can’t be fannying around at the back.”

George Russell

An analysis of all 21 of Russell’s 2019 first laps does suggest that he was unusually conservative, which was logical given there were times when Williams was low on parts. There was also little to be gained from taking futile risks to gain a shortlived track position advantage, something Kubica was more often willing to do.

On multiple occasions, Russell was cautions and there are examples of him lifting off early for first corners rather than risking getting caught up with the cars ahead.

This suggests that he’s absolutely right when pointing to the necessary conservatism playing a part in this. There were races when he was more attacking, China early in the season and then Hungary stand out.

But there did also appear to be a problem in the launch itself that held him back and made it harder to attack in first corners. For much of the season, he was plagued by excess wheelspin in the second phase of the launch – something that afflicted Kubica less often. This potentially suggests a struggle to balance the throttle with clutch disengagement.

It also meant he was often not in a position to be thrusting in the first corner, something Kubica often could be – as proved by the number of occasions he passed Russell.

There were also several occasions when Russell’s positioning left him exposed. In Singapore, Brazil and Abu Dhabi for example, he took a middle line and found himself sandwiched between two cars – at Marina Bay picking up damage from contact with Daniel Ricciardo’s Renault.

Singapore Grand Prix start 2019

On balance, it does appear Russell has a little work to do ensuring that the second phase of his launches are better. That said, the wheelspin occurred less often towards the end of the season, but this was at a point where Kubica was more consistently getting ahead – often compromising the quicker Russell’s race in the process.

But Russell can be given the benefit of the doubt given the unusual circumstances of his first season when, in unfamiliar territory at the back of the grid, he had to play it safe. Bear in mind also that the turbulence into the first corner when you are behind 18 cars is enormous and can make the car unpredictable.

This year, there will be gains to be made by making good starts and taking a more aggressive approach to the first corner given the Williams does appear to be a strong midfield contender.

But the key now is ensuring he doesn’t go too far the other way and get his elbows out too much and make mistakes as a result.

If he can get that judgement right, he will take another step towards convincing Mercedes that he could be the right man for the future, even if the shortened season and Valtteri Bottas’s strong 2019 form means any hope of promotion for 2021 seems premature.


Robert Kubica George Russell Williams Australian Grand Prix 2019 Melbourne


Started: 19th
End lap 1: 18th (ahead of Kubica)

The onboard is not available, but from external replays Russell has a so-so start and slips behind Kubica. But he gets back ahead of his team-mate as Kubica suffers front wing damage into the first corner, perhaps underlining why Russell is being cautious.


Started: 19th
End lap 1: 18th (behind Kubica)

Russell picks up a lot of wheelspin during the start but is still ahead of Kubica approaching the first corner. With two cars ahead, he brakes early and is passed around the outside of Turn 1, only to repass his team-mate through Turn 2/3.

Russell then lifts off in the shower of sparks trailed by Racing Point’s Sergio Perez and is repassed by Kubica on the approach to Turn 4.


Started: 17th
End lap 1: 15th (ahead of Kubica)

One of Russell’s racier starts, he gets a good launch and hangs on around the outside in the first couple of corners, then capitalises on Daniil Kvyat pushing the McLarens into each other to run 15th. There’s no hesitation at this start.


Started: 16th
End lap 1: 18th (ahead of Kubica)

Russell has a reasonably launch and a touch of wheelspin, losing a place to an Alfa Romeo on the run into the first corner. He takes a cautious approach into the first few braking zones on a weekend that Williams suffered significant damage thanks to Russell’s Friday drain incident.

George Russell Williams Baku damage 2019


Started: 19th (grid penalty for gearbox change)
End lap 1: 19th (behind Kubica)

He makes a strong getaway but having pulled alongside Kubica (who he started behind because of a gearbox-change penalty) wisely backs off rather than putting himself in a risky position on the outside into the first corner. Repasses Kubica through Turn 3, then loses the place to him and ends the lap where he started in 19th.


Started: 19th
End lap 1: 20th (behind Kubica)

Has a little wheelspin, but is cautious as Antonio Giovinazzi has a big wobble in front of him on the approach to Ste Devote, which allows Kubica to pass him on the outside line on the approach to the corner. He ends the lap last despite an attempt to pass Giovinazzi up the hill towards Massenet.


Started: 18th
End lap 1: 15th (ahead of Kubica)

Russell has a good launch, but must jink around the slow-starting Giovinazzi. As he holds an inside line on the run to Turn 1, Kubica is able to pass him on the outside line. But Russell then repasses his team-mate on the run to the last chicane at the end of the lap.


Started: 20th (penalty for engine elements)
End lap 1: 19th (behind Kubica)

Russell starts behind Kubica thanks to engine element change penalties and makes a solid start, battling with Kvyat’s Toro Rosso through the first corner – having had a brief early lift for safety on the approach – before passing him later in the lap.


Started: 20th (penalty) PITS
End lap 1: 20th (behind Kubica)

Russell starts from the pits, so isn’t in a position to do anything other than finish the first lap at the back.


Started: 19th
End lap 1: 17th (ahead of Kubica)

Has a decent launch and takes it easy into the first corner, although later has half a look up the inside of a Toro Rosso at Brooklands before settling into 17th – the place gains thanks to the Haas drivers’ clash.

British Grand Prix 2019 Silverstone


Started: 17th
End lap 1: 18th (ahead of Kubica)

Has a solid start but can’t make much progress beyond passing Kvyat owing to cars side by side ahead. Backs off on the run up the back straight in impossible visibility, but holds position ahead of Kubica easily on his first wet F1 start.


Started: 15th
End lap 1: 14th (ahead of Kubica)

From his best grid position of the season so far Russell takes a more aggressive approach to the start, putting himself on the outside line in Turn 1 and also capitalising on others going too hot into Turn 2 to complete a racey first lap 14th having passed Kevin Magnussen into Turn 4.


Started: 14th
End lap 1: 15th (ahead of Kubica)

Russell apologises over the radio for an “absolutely woeful start” after too much wheelspin during his launch and second phase. But he’s racey through the first corner, having to take to the runoff to avoid clashes ahead, and only loses one place over the lap.


Started: 14th
End lap 1: 15th (behind Kubica)

Picks up wheelspin in the second phase of the start and is passed by Kubica before the first corner.

George Russell Williams Italian Grand Prix 2019 Monza


Started: 18th
End lap 1: 19th (behind Kubica)

Gets ahead of Romain Grosjean’s Haas at the start, but finds himself in the middle between Ricciardo’s Renault and Kubica, on the outside, into the first corner. Contact with Ricciardo gives him front wing damage.


Started: 17th
End lap 1: 16th (ahead of Kubica)

Russell’s start is compromised by having to jink around Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo, which lurched forward before the start then was slow away. With Kvyat’s Toro Rosso to his right, he holds a wide line into Turn 1, which allows Kubica to pass him on the inside of the corner.

But as this is the race where Williams was critical on parts, and Kubica’s healthy car was later retired after a failure put Russell into the wall, caution is understandable. Kubica pits under the safety car at the end of the lap, putting Russell back ahead.


Started: 18th
End lap 1: 19th (ahead of Kubica)

Makes a solid start and isn’t seriously threatened by Kubica, although he does lose a place to Kevin Magnussen through the first two corners before settling into 19th.


Started: 19th
End lap 1: 19th (Behind Kubica)

Picks off the Haas of Grosjean off the line but lifts early before attempting to go around the outside of an Alfa Romeo. A conservative approach to Turn 4 allows Kubica to close, then a sideways moment in Turn 6 lets the Pole get past.

Mexican Grand Prix 2019


Started: 18th
End lap 1: 20th (behind Kubica)

A slightly slow getaway followed by a wall of cars while he takes a middle line into the first corner allows Kubica to sail around the outside. Russell then has to go off to avoid Lance Stroll, then back off when the Racing Point squeezes him in the esses as he attempts to repass.


Started: 18th
End lap 1: 20th (behind Kubica)

Picks up only a little wheelspin in second gear, but with Carlos Sainz Jr attacking into the first corner on the inside and Kubica on the outside, Russell has no choice but to back off and settle into last place


Started: 18th
End lap 1: 19th (behind Kubica)

Wheelspin in the second phase and on the move up to second gear allows Kubica to get past around the outside into Turn 1. Russell attempts to repass his team-mate into the chicane but overdoes it and runs off, grazing his team-mate in the process.

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