Did Mercedes announcement slow Russell down in 2021?
It was one of the worst-kept secrets of the paddock in 2021 but did Mercedes' George Russell announcement make him slower?
George Russell steps up to partner Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes this year, and the 23-year-old won’t be expecting to get a moment away from scrutiny.
After years of showing promise at Williams, and a stellar performance as Hamilton’s substitute at Bahrain in 2020, all eyes are on Russell to see if he can challenge for the title in his first year at a top team.
It’s the culmination of years working his way up the ranks, gaining the support of Mercedes, and proving himself in racing’s top tier, with his promotion confirmed at the 2021 Italian Grand Prix.
But at that very point, Russell appears to have let up in his unrelenting pace. Until then, he had been head and shoulders ahead of team-mate Nicholas Latifi in qualifying, and had the edge in races too.
The team dynamic shifted noticeably once Russell had secured his dream drive, as the gap between he and Latifi closed up and Russell’s unbroken record of outqualifying his team-mate finally ended.
We have analysed the data, in association with Project F1, to show how the Mercedes announcement coincided with a dip in Russell’s dominating form.
George Russell’s star quality has shone through since he arrived F1, despite joining what was, at the time, F1’s slowest team.
He quickly became known as ‘Mr Saturday’ for his record of out qualifying his team-mate, which eventually stretched to an unbroken run of 51 races.
In 2021 he carried on in a similar vein, out-performing his equipment and even fighting with Bottas at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix before that battle ended in tears.
He made it into Q2 in every race of the year barring the Hungarian, Brazilian and Abu Dhabi Grands Prix. He made Q3 at the Austrian, British, Belgian and Russian rounds, with a season high coming in the downpour at Spa where he out-qualified Hamilton to line up alongside eventual world champion Max Verstappen on the front row in P2.
By this time, it was clear that he would be replacing Bottas at Mercedes and his 2022 seat was announced ahead of the Italian Grand Prix.
It was at exactly this point that Russell’s star started to shine a little less brightly in the Williams.
Monza marked the first time in his Williams career that he was outqualified — albeit in the sprint race, where Latifi finished 14th and Russell 15th.
That was the most visible sign, but analysis of his pace, in association with Project F1, shows that the gap between the Williams drivers narrowed substantially at the same time.
The graph below shows the Williams’ drivers’ qualifying pace in relation to that of Haas – the slowest team on the grid.
Russell’s pre-Monza form was comfortably quicker than Latifi, particularly in qualifying in which he enjoyed an average of 0.462sec advantage across a single lap over the Canadian.
That advantage is then cut to just 0.268sec for the remainder of the season as Latifi improves his performances in tandem with Russell dropping off from his earlier season pace.
Latifi initially only had the sprint qualifying triumph to his name from Monza but he repeated the feat in the Brazilian sprint qualifying.
Finally, at the last possible opportunity as Russell’s team-mate, he managed to out-qualify the Mercedes-bound man on merit over a single lap at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Even so, Russell delivered on his promise to continue fighting for Williams, with points-scoring finishes in the Italian and Russian Grand Prix
Ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix, Russell said that his time with Williams was beneficial but it had taken its toll mentally.
“It was a very good education to join Williams at probably the toughest time they’ve ever experienced,” he said.
“Having to deal with the difficulties of that and the psychological shift of going to every race knowing we’re not going to finish any higher than last position and having to motivate yourself week in, week out to fight like a warrior was hard, but that’s what we are here to do and that’s the only speed I know.”
That Hungarian GP weekend was one of his best of the season, even though he ended up behind Latifi on track by the end.
In his Mercedes announcement, he underlined how he would not be taking his eye off the ball at Williams.
“I have nine more races as a Williams driver, and I want to make sure they are the best nine of my time with the team. Then, and only then, can I turn my attention to 2022.”
It’s easy to understand that thoughts of a more competitive season may have begun creeping in but a two-tenth loss of pace in 2022 won’t go unpunished as often.
Up until now, he has been a talent in waiting at Williams and his potential clearly high, but there will be no room for any such slumps next season at a probable race-winning team.