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Why Russell’s toughest year in F1 hasn’t got him down

George Russell labels Formula 1 2023 as “the toughest season I’ve ever had psychologically”, but he’s embracing mistakes made last year heading into 2024, which has taken on a new dimension now Lewis Hamilton is leaving Mercedes.

George Russell, Mercedes

Photo by: Jake Grant / Motorsport Images

That comes down to typical sportsperson bravado – but the psychological boost of such an approach, to take the positives and shut out the negativity, has long been clear at the top level of all sporting echelons.

So, when Russell said in an interview with select media including Autosport at the 2023 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that, “no doubt, it’s been probably the toughest season I’ve ever had psychologically”, his way of coping with it was about “bouncing back from missed opportunities”.

These cover his crashes in Canada and Singapore, late Monaco off, and clash with Max Verstappen in Las Vegas.

That was in turn followed by perhaps Russell’s strongest performance of 2023 overall – where he battled through illness to take advantage of Sergio Perez’s penalty and end up third in the Abu Dhabi finale.

“This is when you push yourself,” Russell added of his mindset ending last year, as Mercedes now prepares for its 2024 campaign.

“I could comfortably lift my foot off the gas pedal and drive a percent below the limit and I could sit here right now and tell you that I wouldn’t make a single mistake.

“And probably when I sit through my championship years [in GP3 and Formula 2 in 2017 and 2018 respectively], I probably wasn’t being pushed as much as I’m pushing myself now.

“I’m purposely trying to push myself further and beyond, and I’m not satisfied with just being on par with my team-mate in qualifying or whatever it may be – [like in 2022 when] we were very even across the whole season.

Hamilton had the edge on Russell in 2023

Hamilton had the edge on Russell in 2023

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

“I want to be ahead. And that’s what I’m pushing myself for. And perhaps that’s been a small reason for contributing to a couple more mistakes.”

Russell feels “you look back on seasons like this and you grow”, but he’s ultimately “thankful [2023] was not a season where we’re fighting for a championship victory”.

That mainly centred Mercedes’ car performance problems with the still recalcitrant W14, which continued on the design development path established in the W13 and its now abandoned ‘zeropod’ upper aerodynamic surfaces concept.

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But Russell is also “confident next season will be very different”, because “I know the sort of driver who I am”.

He continued: “I know one year like this is not going to take away from all of my other consistent seasons, championship-winning seasons.

“I know it won’t take a lot to find myself in that good rhythm once again.”

Russell had, however, made a fine start to the 2023 campaign – with his starring Melbourne and Miami drives, plus early campaign 4-2 qualifying record against team-mate Lewis Hamilton up until the Spanish round.

There, Mercedes scored its only double podium of last year and Barcelona was, until Abu Dhabi, Russell’s only source of 2023 silverware.

George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14

George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

But it was the middle part of the Russell’s season, which really extended all the way through to Abu Dhabi despite that long run being peppered with promising showings from the 25-year-old in Italy, Japan and Qatar, that will be remembered amongst the majority of F1 fans.

For Mercedes, Russell recovering from those 2023 setbacks is now even more imperative with Hamilton heading to Ferrari for 2025.

Unless the team makes a bold choice in trying to lure Fernando Alonso away from Aston Martin – which is surely unlikely given the Spaniard’s part in the 2007 Spygate scandal that is still recalled at the top echelons of Mercedes’ OEM management, which at the time had the works engine supply deal with McLaren – Russell will essentially be its de facto number one driver.

That’s because even if a straight swap with Carlos Sainz moving across from Ferrari to replace Hamilton happens, or Russell’s close friend Alex Albon arrives from Williams as he himself did in 2022, Russell will have three years of experience in Mercedes’ system and benefit from understanding its historic car package trends.
But Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff has already suggested Russell being a team leader is highly probable.
Wolff said on Friday: “George has the potential to be the next lead driver in the team. I couldn't wish for a new team leader when Lewis leaves. No doubt about that.
“We've such a solid foundation, such a quick and talented and intelligent guy in a car that we just need to take the right choice for the second driver, the second seat.”
Wolff has backed Russell to lead Mercedes after Hamilton leaves

Wolff has backed Russell to lead Mercedes after Hamilton leaves

Photo by: James Sutton / Motorsport Images

When asked why last year had not ended up being a season that kicked on from his maiden F1 win in the 2022 Brazilian race and how 2023 playing out the way it did means he is having to bounce back this year, Russell responded: “We’re all here to fight for victory, we’re all here to fight for championships.

“And that’s not just the 2,000 people that work for Mercedes, this is the thousands of people who work at Ferrari, McLaren and everybody else that works down this grid – they are fighting for victory.

“And this is the sad reality of Formula 1 – only one team can get it right. And, often, when you do get it right, you get it very right and it’s very difficult to turn the tide and chase back up.

“So, of course I wanted to achieve a lot more [in 2023]. Regardless of being victory-less, there were probably seven or eight podiums I could’ve had this year.

“And I sit here with only one to my name [at the time of the interview] and I’m disappointed with myself in that there’s been a few [mistakes] on my shoulders.

“But I think when you’re on the backfoot, everything often goes against you. But when the car is flying, everything goes for you. So, clearly we need to work on one thing.

“I look at the positives. I’m 25 years old, I feel like I’ve got a good at least 15 years left in me – [from] when I look at Fernando [Alonso]. And when I look at Max, I think he was in his seventh year [he was, in 2021] before he fought for a title.

Verstappen took until his seventh season until he won F1 title

Verstappen took until his seventh season until he won F1 title

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

“So, we need to bide our time, as frustrating as it is. But you’ve got great drivers like Charles [Leclerc] in the exact same position, Lando [Norris] in the exact same position.

“And this was Max four or five years ago in 2020 and prior. So, I’m not too bitter about it. Of course, I would love my fortunes to be different, but my time will come.”

In terms of what put him onto that backfoot position – in response to an Autosport suggestion that his downturn in 2023 results followed Mercedes' massive car design upheaval at the Monaco round that preceded Spain – Russell replied: “No, because it’s not been down to lack of [car] performance.

“I feel like the performance has been strong. But take [the Vegas clash with Verstappen] as an example – just such a nothing of an incident ends up costing us a podium and we ended up finishing eighth.

“Zandvoort [where Russell battled to the front to lead briefly in the wet early stages] – very unfortunate timings with the weather [and] nobody knew [what was going to happen].

“Some people rolled the dice and got it right, and I again I think we’d have finished second in that race.

“I got into the lead and [then] one thing after another and we fell backwards. We had great pace to achieve that.

Russell led in Zandvoort but missed out on podium

Russell led in Zandvoort but missed out on podium

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

“We had an incredibly fast car in Budapest [where Hamilton started on pole] and we had a mess in qualifying and ended up qualifying 18th.

“Another missed opportunity – my mistake in Singapore. That was a potential victory missed, but it was a comfortable P3 that was gone.

“But everybody has seasons that are a little bit here and there, but I’ve never had a season like this – when I see so many opportunities that have gone past. And that’s definitely very frustrating.

“But, I feel my quali pace has been great. I think against Lewis we’ve been very similar. I’m going up against the greatest driver of all time, and if I’m on par over a quali lap, I take satisfaction with that.

“Of course, I’m not purely satisfied with only being on par with my team-mate, but you’ve got to take some perspective sometimes when your team-mate has had 100 poles or whatever he’s had – 100 victories and seven championships.

“I don’t have a bad benchmark, so I take those positives. But, just right now I’m scratching my head a little bit [on] how so many results have slipped through my fingers.”

The effects of Russell’s reflection on these through the off-season now concluding will be one of the stories to follow in F1 2024.

It simply enters higher up the interest scale given his coming importance to Mercedes and position within it after Hamilton’s departure.

Can Russell bounce back in 2024?

Can Russell bounce back in 2024?

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

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