There’s a certain champion English driver in the Albert Park paddock this weekend who exudes charm, magnetism and the confidence of adding yet more titles to his impressive racing resume.
The driver I’m talking about is neither Lewis Hamilton nor fellow hot-shoe Lando Norris, but reigning Formula 2 champion and Williams driver George Russell.
Having completed two pre-season test sessions in Barcelona before arriving in Melbourne to compete in his first ever grand prix weekend, the confident 21-year-old is already one of the star attractions of the paddock.
Williams’ problems over the previous couple of years regarding the pace of the car have been well documented, and the first day of practice around the streets of Albert Park was no exception. But Russell is well aware of the challenge that lies ahead of him and was happy to have made the first steps of what will surely be a glittering career.
“I think it was amazing to get out there and to be honest the car actually feels not too bad to drive, just the lap times aren’t great,” Russell told Motorsport Tech after his opening day of life as a fully-fledged grand prix driver. “Driving around this amazing circuit with all the fans here, overall it was amazing and something I’ll remember for a long time to come.
“I think the special thing is that I feel I’m here to do something more than just test the car. Previously I did so much testing for Mercedes, Force India and also Williams so it’s nice that I’m driving it and I’m the one contributing to the future of the team.
“First time out there is was great to get on the circuit and it really is an amazing track. When I went down to turn 3 for the first lap it just felt like I was flying because everything was like so close together and it was a really cool feeling.”
Solid day today. We’ve got a lot of work to do but we’re making progress every session. Let’s keep pushing! 👊 pic.twitter.com/11m7hhXDlG
— George Russell (@GeorgeRussell63) March 15, 2019
The lap times will tell that Russell was a fair way behind his illustrious countryman’s quickest mark, but to the rounded Englishman, he knows there is a bigger picture to paint going forwards aside from the first day of practice at the first race of the season.
“Obviously we didn’t have the best of days with lap times and, stating the facts, we’re quite a long way off the rest at the moment. But we knew what we are in for and we know what this weekend was going to be about and we just need to build on that. Barcelona and Melbourne are two very different circuits and you’ve probably seen that from the lap times of the other guys.
“It’s been a bit unexpected further up the grid but like I said, we know what we’re in for, for this race and probably for the first couple of races and we just need to focus on that, build on that to ensure come mid-season and towards the end of the year we have something better. I’m a winner and I want to do great things in Formula One.”
There is the somewhat unthinkable danger, with the times as they were on Friday, that Williams could be outside the 107% pole margin that would mean not starting the race. But this is not a thought that is of concern to Russell.
“I’ve been driving the car and not looking at everyone else,” he added. “Who’s at the top, I’ve not seen the lap times and didn’t bring my calculator with me, so I don’t know but I doubt it. We are running at the same kind of level as everyone else (in terms of practice engine settings) and will have our normal improvements come Saturday but same as everybody else, I think. I’ll be very shocked if we qualify better than the last row of the grid.”
Not too far behind Russell on the popularity stakes, of not on par, is his amazing teammate, Robert Kubica. The Pole’s long road back to full health and fitness has been well documented since a terrible accident during the Ronde di Andora rally almost cost him his life.
No surprise, then, that the former grand prix winner has crowds of Polish fans standing outside the Williams garage on a daily basis, flags held aloft and wrapped around their Williams clad torsos in the hope of catching a glimpse of their idol.
“It’s an amazing thing so see him after eight years coming back into F1 one more time. It’s one of the best things I can imagine for the Polish nation, for Polish people,” said one waiting Polish fan. “That’s why we travel 16,000 kilometres just to see him in F1. Wow. It’s brilliant. He has won before, many times on the podium as well so we know he’s able to win.
“We will see about the car, how it goes and about the pitstops. I know he knows how to do it, how to drive and fingers crossed. He is not quite as he was before (following the accident) but seeing him back on track even after that massive accident he had in 2011 in rally cars is just mind blowing.
“He almost died, he’s still here and we believe in him, so fingers crossed. We believe in him as the Polish people so we will give him the power to do it! I would say Williams is one of the best teams ever in F1. Yes, they have troubles right now but I believe in them, that the team will survive that.”
For Kubica, merely being at Albert Park as a Formula One driver once again is an achievement unto itself. And it was a fairly pragmatic Kubica who talked to the assembled media on Thursday.
“It has been a long time, a long time away from the sport,” added Kubica. “Emotions… to be honest there is not really a lot of time to think about them, you are focused on the job, focused on the things to do. Try to learn as much as you can about new F1. Things have changed quite a lot since I was racing here last time. Just try to prepare; trying to be ready.”
Regardless of how the car performs this weekend, it remains obvious that there is still a lot of love for Williams in the F1 paddock, not least because this great team continues to attract drivers with huge appeal. And if fan power was a factor in getting results, Williams would certainly be near the top of the grid.