“How would you like to do a lap with George?,” said the man from Mercedes. “Yes please!,” was my reply. Given that the George in question was F2 star Russell, and we were in Japan, I was not going to say no.
I’ve been going to Suzuka since my first visit for a WEC race in 1989, and I’ve covered every Grand Prix there since 1992. When I lived in Japan in the early nineties I seemed to be there all the time for F3000 or sportscar races, usually watching from the chicane.
The drivers love it, and so do I – it really is a second home. And yet until last weekend I had never actually been around the track, even on foot. Thanks to the Pirelli Hot Laps programme, which sees F1 race and third drivers carrying lucky passengers in Mercedes, McLaren and Aston Martin supercars, that chance finally came.
Any lap with someone who really knows what they are doing is always an education, as it reminds you just how special these guys are. Donington in the wet in a Ford Fiesta with Mario Andretti was one of my more memorable experiences!
Russell has never raced at Suzuka, and he’s using these demo laps to learn the circuit. In Japan the word is that he’s closing in on a Williams seat for 2019, so the timing is perfect. And our Mercedes-AMG GT R, with its 4-litre V8 and special “green hell magno” colour scheme, is some road car.
“Let’s see what we can do,” he says as we take off from the grid and plunge into a first corner that seems so much tighter than TV images suggest.
Suddenly we’re heading back up the hill into the Esses, the V8 rumbling away magnificently. F1 qualifying is coming up shortly, so thousands of spectators line the banks.
“This flowing section is just absolutely incredible. Even driving this is just amazing. I think this is a circuit which really rewards a driver who’s absolutely on it, and if the car’s feeling good, I don’t think it gets any better than this. Lewis’s comments yesterday, he was just having a great day, and I can totally understand why.”
Russell’s hands are dancing at the wheel as we thread our way through. He’s not a touring car or GT racer, but it all comes so easy to him, as it would to someone who is so clearly destined for the top.
George Russell, Mercedes AMG F1
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Sutton Images
We have a bit of a wobble at Degner, where so many F1 drivers have come to grief. “I never realised how much of a bump there is on the apex,” he notes.
“Obviously I’m used to driving an F2 car, so it’s not really similar, but for a road car, it’s as good as it gets, really. Doing a track day in a car like this is just an incredible experience, and obviously some good tyres on it as well, so you can really nail it and lean on it.”
Corners that look so straightforward on TV prove to be so much more challenging than you expect.
“Now into Spoon, it’s really tricky, because it goes on for so long, there’s so much energy going through the tyres. Oops, we got a bit sideways there…”
Down the back straight we hit 244km/h – I know from watching a FOM-supplied video, complete with data – and then there’s a big stop into a corner that usually looks so easy.
“Obviously 130R is usually an easy flat corner in F1, but it’s not quite the same here… Into the chicane, nibble the kerbs. That’s that, finished the lap. Enjoy your first experience of Suzuka? It’s such an incredible circuit isn’t it?”
Indeed it is. I’m the last customer for this session, so as well as my flying lap I get a what is supposed to be a second “cool down” lap back to the pit lane, but Russell shows few signs of backing off. Eventually I wonder want happened to the cooling down idea.
“We’ll cool down a bit now, short shift,” he says. “It’s more for the brakes really. Obviously this car is made for the road, it’s not quite used to nailing it that hard through the corners. It still handles extremely well. Even for me it’s a real privilege to drive this circuit in it.”
As we coast back to the pits I wonder how useful are these demo laps to an aspiring F1 driver. Russell has already had a chance to learn Shanghai, and he’s also going to sample Austin and Mexico City (he already knows Interlagos and Abu Dhabi). Intriguingly he says the extra mileage has been handy even at tracks where he’s been busy with his F2 programme.
“I’ve done it a few times this year during race weekends. I’ve actually found it really useful just to get into the groove of the circuit again, and obviously on a Saturday or Sunday you’re straight into a race, so having that opportunity to drive beforehand just gets you into the mood for racing.
“The one place I’ve found it extremely useful was Paul Ricard. I think it was wet on Saturday, and I went out in the car and I could see where all the puddles were, and that really helped me to have a good idea – maybe I need to watch out out of this corner, there’s a stream here, this part of the track’s fine.
“Driving any car, no matter what is is will never hurt you. I did Monza and Paul Ricard, and I won at both. So it bodes quite well, let’s say.”
A few days after our Suzuka run comes the confirmation that Russell will indeed race for Williams next year. I have a feeling that he’s going to be something very special…
George Russell, Mercedes AMG F1 W09
Photo by: Zak Mauger / LAT Images