Russell produced a stunning display in qualifying on Saturday to finish 11th, coming within eight-thousandths of a second of a Q3 berth, but he moved into the top 10 anyway thanks to Yuki Tsunoda’s grid penalty.
Early contact between Pierre Gasly and Charles Leclerc promoted Russell into eighth early on, and he held onto the position well. He was the leading midfield runner on mediums, allowing him to edge towards Fernando Alonso in seventh as the stint wore on.
But then trouble started brewing. On Lap 17, Russell was informed by Williams it was “moving to plan B for reliability”. It was an early warning sign of the issue that would end his race. Russell said he was “confused” by the message as “we were having a great race”.
Russell boxed at the end of Lap 25, but as the team fitted a set of hard tyres it hoped would take him to the end, some extra mechanics set to work on topping up the pneumatic pressure on the car. It resulted in an 18-second stop that dropped him down the order.
Russell was forced to come in the very next lap for the same issue, leaving him nursing the problem on-track down in 19th before Williams finally called time on his race on Lap 36.
“I saw that they had to top up the pneumatic pressure that was depleting, and they topped it up, and it went down again,” Russell said.
“So quite a rare issue, not one that the team have experienced in a long, long time.”
The mood in the Williams camp was immediately clear. Russell hopped out of his car and did his rounds to say thank you, but many mechanics were left with their heads in their hands, knowing a big opportunity had passed by.
Russell rightly called it “typical”. After a perfect race in France that would ordinarily have been good enough for points only gave him 12th as all 20 cars made it home, the time that Russell was top-10 material, his car had failed.
Russell said the result could have been “massive” for Williams, predicting he could have finished as high as seventh. While the pace of the Ferrari was so good that Carlos Sainz Jr and Charles Leclerc would likely have overhauled him, even P9 would have been enough to lift Williams not only above Haas, but also above Alfa Romeo in the constructors’ championship.
The ‘Class C’ battle may not be very enticing for fans to follow, but for the hundreds of men and women working across those three teams, it is everything. Eighth versus 10th is worth a huge amount of prize money. For Williams in particular, after three seasons as F1’s basement team, it would be a massive boost for morale as well.
Arguably, the points would mean more for Williams than they would for Russell. We all know his star quality, and that he is set for an exceptionally bright future in F1. While an underdog result may look good on his CV upon a theoretical move to Mercedes in the future, it is unlikely to make or break any decision.
His focus may have been on the fight at the front, but Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff was keeping an eye on how his star junior was doing. “I saw that George was running right in the top 10 pack, and fast,” Wolff said. “So when I saw the car breaking down, it was just a super shame for Williams and for himself.
George Russell, Williams
Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images
“But nobody doubts his speed, and the quality as a driver. It’s a shame for Williams, not having taken home a serious amount of points which would have made a big difference in the championship.”
Fernando Alonso has been a big advocate of Russell’s talents, labelling him as a future world champion. But was he surprised to see the Williams lurking so closely in his mirrors on Sunday?
“No, not surprised,” Alonso said. “I think he was already fast on Friday in the Williams. It seems that they are generally fast at this circuit, so I was expecting a strong race from them but unfortunately he had to retire.
“Next weekend I would expect Williams again to be very close to us.”
The saving grace of Russell’s outstanding display is that he gets to do it all again next weekend. Williams won’t be leaving Austria having to wait another 12 months to see if the track was one that suited the car, instead getting a second bite at the cherry. The team worked well to optimise the set-up for the Red Bull Ring, and Russell was clearly in a good groove throughout the weekend, giving him hope for the coming weekend.
“We’ve got a different compound of tyres, which will make things interesting,” Russell said. “We know the C5s are obviously very sensitive. It’ll mix things up a bit in the race with the deg.
“But yeah, we’ve got to be fighting for Q2 again as the minimum, pushing for the back end of the top 10, and then trying to make the most of the race. I think we’re doing a really good job at the moment in it. And it definitely will come by.
“But a day like today could have cemented P8 in the constructors’. Alfa aren’t looking as strong these days. We could probably have come away with four or six points today, which is pretty massive.”
As much as Russell and Williams may rue their bad luck, the performance shows the fight for eighth is far from over.
If anything, this time next week, Williams could be in the pound seat should it perform as it did on Sunday – and perhaps deliver Russell his breakthrough points with the team.