“I was very happy with how I…” George Russell stands up as he gets interrupted by Susie and Toto Wolff.
“Sorry, we have to!”
The pair have just walked into the Mercedes hospitality unit on the Thursday of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend, and after having not been in Brazil it’s the team principal’s first chance to congratulate Russell on his maiden Formula 1 win in person.
Clearly excited, Wolff is expecting the same emotion from Russell, but in a matter-of-fact way the young Brit says: “Try and do it again this weekend…”
“Legends grow slowly,” comes the wise reply from his boss, with a wry smile.
He clearly has a taste for it, but that first victory has seemed like a long time coming for Russell after having joined a team that had dominated F1 up to – but not including – 2022. Two years earlier, he really should have had that first win on his debut when filling in for the unwell Lewis Hamilton in Bahrain.
“I’ve got to be honest, all the thoughts that went flowing through my mind straight after the race (in Brazil) on that in-lap, Bahrain didn’t cross that once,” Russell tells RACER. “And I don’t look back on Bahrain with any real thoughts or disappointment or frustration at all.
“I think in a way it would have been a little bit too easy and a bit strange to have won my first race in that manner. You know, coming in last minute, jumping in and winning the race… of course, it would have made for a great story, but I didn’t necessarily fight for it. It was sort of handed to me because of Lewis falling ill, and I drove well, and should have won the race.
“Whereas now, my experiences at Williams, experience of this year, the psychological struggles with the last couple of races, having a bad three races, and there was quite a lot of abuse as well, online – which always plays a part naturally; you don’t try and look at it, but it’s impossible not to see – all of the things put together with bad performances is quite a tough pill to swallow.
“So they’re sort of all thoughts that come rushing back when you cross the line and you have a brilliant weekend… and it’s not really much more you probably could have done on that weekend; we executed everything perfectly.”
The bad three races that Russell references were in Singapore, Japan and Austin, where he suffered a braking issue that compromised him in qualifying at Marina Bay, then admits he wasn’t at his best throughout the Suzuka weekend before ruining a more promising race in the States due to Turn 1 contact with Carlos Sainz.
While Mexico had provided an encouraging return to normality, it all clicked in Brazil where he won both the Sprint and then the grand prix, holding off teammate Hamilton in a Mercedes one-two to take the team’s only win of the year.
The emotions got to Russell immediately afterwards, as he admits he had been struggling mentally towards the latter part of the season.
“There’s always a lot going on that is not seen on the face of it,” he says. “You always put on a brave face, every single race you go to, but naturally, we all have our good moments and our tough moments as human beings and for us as a professional sports person, that often coincides with your performance.
“But I think it was just so many things just all coming together. As I said, bouncing back from a couple of difficult races, and at such a pivotal point of the year for us as a team, but also for me.
“So much had been going on over the space of the last five weeks – the difficult races, going Singapore, Japan, a lot of time away, a lot of work back at the factory, then I was in Austin, Mexico, Vegas, back and forth, and a huge amount of traveling and flying and quite mentally drained (after) working as hard as I could on track off track and in the simulator.
“It kind of felt like we put the work in and the result delivered. That was such a release of all these emotions as well.”
The 24-year-old is in his fourth season in Formula 1, but the move to Mercedes has provided him with much more in the way of marketing and commitments than he had at Williams. It’s an aspect he accepts he has to find a better way of handling, having not expected it to have such an impact on him.
“It’s the time consumption of the things off track,” he says. “For every one day of marketing, that’s one day less in the gym, or training or resting and recovering to be in a better place for the next race. And that’s definitely taken its toll on me. I need to work out how I’m going to best deal with all of this because for sure, at times this year, I haven’t dealt with it that well.
“When I look at the amount of days I’ve been away, this year, external to all the racing, all the simulator, all the days at the factory is it’s in the 60s, the number of days. That’s two months worth. And that’s away from the track. And these are flights, hotel nights, on my own.
“It’s just part of being a Mercedes driver, but that’s definitely a shock to the system. And when you get 22 races in or 21 races in and it is compounded with poor performance, you feel quite low. But then to come back and have a bit of a reset and have the best weekend of the year by far, that was another reason why it was so hugely satisfying.”
Don’t think Russell was naive about the task at hand when joining Mercedes, though. He knew the environment he was entering into alongside Hamilton, and even made a conscious effort to reset his expectations and goals after a junior career and three years at Williams during which he provided the benchmark.
“I didn’t worry, but I did have to sort of have a sit down with myself and accept that… I think we went through the stats, and statistically I finished ahead of my teammates, I think like 95% of the time, in the five years prior to my year here,” he says. “So I was used to a certain level of outscoring them or whatever you want to call it, but then I had to say, if it’s 55/45 in my favor, even if I lose 45% of the time, that’s going to still be incredibly successful against Lewis.
“So psychologically, you need to set yourself up for small failures. I’m not going to beat him every single session, every quali, every race, that’s just absolutely not going happen. But having a year like we’ve had this year, I don’t know what the numbers are, but it probably is 55/45, roughly. And that’s an incredibly successful year, and almost equivalent to maybe what the 95/5 was for me previously.
“So I never doubted myself. I always believed in myself, but definitely it’s always a mindset. And if you go with the mindset that I’m going to beat Lewis Hamilton 95% of the time, you’re going to come away disappointed.”
Mercedes does come away disappointed with its 2022 campaign, but not with its driver pairing. Russell has slotted in perfectly and ended up outscoring Hamilton by 35 points as he finished a strong fourth in the drivers’ championship – the win providing an exclamation mark on his year.
As reflective as he is now on the challenges he faced – both expected and unexpected – it’s a year that has taught him he has everything he needs in his locker and is ready to fight for a title.
“Every race I go to, I fight to do the best job possible, whether that is fighting for a victory as we were (at Interlagos), or fighting for last place as we were at Williams,” he says. “So if we do get to first race next year, and we realize we’ve got a car that’s capable of winning, I’m still going be approaching it exactly the same.
“Everything I do right now is for performance, and to try and get the best performance possible. I think I’ve got enough experience now that I feel ready to fight for a championship and be able to handle the challenges and difficulties that come with it.
“Obviously, the likes of Lewis and Max have more experience in that scenario. But if you go out and you put it on pole and win every race, you’ll be world champion. So you’ve just got to focus on smaller details and it’s in your own hands, almost.”
Almost. A good enough car is out of his hands, but Russell has marked himself out as a genuine challenger even alongside the most successful driver of all time. That’s the statement he wanted to make this year, and that legend Wolff references is certainly still growing.