If everyone arrived at the Circuito de Jerez thinking about the potential of a title win in the Spanish sun, the protagonists were doing their best to talk it down. “Of course I will try to win it here,” George Russell noted in the paddock, “but if it’s not to be then there is always Abu Dhabi.” “I’ve got to try and get pole and a win to take some points off George,” Jack Aitken observed, “we’ll see how it goes tomorrow.”
Tomorrow arrived, hot and sunny and bright, and the field headed out in an unusual timeslot for them, moving up the order in the absence of F1, with Russell taking the early bragging rights in free practice in a session that went all the way to the flag. The later time didn’t mean there was more rubber on track than usual, and the times tumbled throughout as Raoul Hyman, Aitken, Anthoine Hubert and Kevin Joerg all spent time in P1 before Russell usurped them at the halfway mark.
Most of the field improved again on their second set, but when Russell topped the timesheets again, improving on his own time, his rivals didn’t have an answer: the clock ticked down to zero and the Briton was on top of another ART 1-2-3-4, less than a tenth ahead of Aitken, Hubert and Nirei Fukuzumi.
If it looked as though pole was secure at a circuit where overtaking is famously difficult, Russell’s teammates were not reading the same script: the top of the timesheets ticked over as usual before ART emerged, with Aitken annexing the top spot ahead of Russell, Hubert and Fukuzumi at the halfway mark before returning to the pits for fresh rubber and a last discussion about what they could do from here.
Everyone hit the track with 5 minutes remaining, with Russell grabbing the top spot next time through. As the flag dropped it looked as though it was all over, but his teammates had something left in the bag: Aitken pushed past his title rival into P1 before Fukuzumi barged through too, upsetting the apple cart by denying his teammates the 4 vital points for pole.
Aitken had got stuck in traffic and was surprised to be so close, Russell thought he’d done enough only to see his teammates fly past, while Fukuzumi was just delighted with his second pole of the season: “I drove the best that I could this afternoon: I was three tenths slower than George this morning during free practice, but I knew I could improve for qualifying. I was able to put everything together for that lap, and it was good enough for pole.
“In Monza, I got pole position because the qualifying session was cancelled and I had set the best laptime during free practice: I was lucky and yes, also happy to get pole then, but this time I set it on the track during the qualifying session, so I am really, really happy.”
No one was happier than Fukuzumi on the grid, knowing the advantage he had as long as his launch was okay, but Aitken was at least comforted by being ahead of his title rival for the start. The Briton made a great getaway when the lights went out but had to cede to his Japanese teammate to avoid a collision, handing half a line through for Russell: the Mercedes junior driver didn’t need to be asked twice, running side by side with Aitken before claiming P2 at turn 3 with the 3 running line astern all the way to the flag.
“I am so happy to win the race today,” Fukuzumi laughed in the press conference, “it’s been too long! The race was quite a simple one: I had a good start, nothing special, and after that I remained in the lead and I could manage the tyres until the end. The degradation was not so high for me and I could manage my pace. This win today wins a lot: I’ve overcome all of the obstacles and it makes me very, very happy!”
“We knew the start would be important,” sighed Aitken, “and I got an okay start. To be honest, my aim was to win the race, because I knew I had a points’ gap to make up. I tried to go around the outside of Nirei at Turn 1 but it didn’t come off, and then George came in just about at Turn 2: I’m not keen on crashing, so I gave it to him. Hopefully I can move up tomorrow and come back with more points. We got fastest lap today which is something. We’ve got a fast car so there is a chance for tomorrow.”
“I knew if I wanted to pass Jack I needed to do it as soon as possible,” Russell smiled, “and I saw an opportunity at Turn 2: luckily I made it stick, and it was a fairly simple race from there really. We didn’t know how tyre degradation would play out so I was just managing the gap to Jack, as I knew I probably would not have been able to pass Nirei for the lead. I just managed the gap and settled for second.”
If that doesn’t sound like the words of a racer, it has to be noted that Russell had been ill for a while, developing a problem in his ear which saw it bleeding most days: his doctor advised against flying because of the pressure, but with a championship on the line that was not possible, leading to him spending most of the weekend in pain. If he joked about Fukuzumi infecting him after staying at the Briton’s home just before he picked up the illness, Russell was notably not his usual chipper self, and it was clearly not all down to the pressure of the championship fight.
Russell would need to outscore Aitken by 4 points in Race 2 to claim the title, and most in the paddock was resigned to the fight going all the way to Abu Dhabi, handing the attention back to the sharp end of the grid when the lights went out: Alessio made a cracking start from pole, easily containing Dorian Boccolacci and Niko Kari into turn 1, and with Aitken holding on ahead of Russell further back most were mentally unwinding in the belief that the weekend was over.
But Russell had other ideas, muscling his way by the Renault junior at Dry Sac to give him a shot with Fukuzumi following his lead, although even after grabbing the fastest lap Russell was still 1 point short of the title as the field circulated in lock step.
Dan Ticktum, an impressive P4 in Race 1, was keen to improve on that result in Race 2 and was soon all over the back of Kari: on lap 13 he pushed his way by at turn 2, the Finn being forced over the kerbs before returning as the pair touched with Ticktum coming off worse, sliding into the gravel trap and retirement as Kari continued to the podium, behind Lorandi and Boccolacci.
The retirement meant everyone moved up a position: the extra points meant Russell was now champion. The race went live on the final lap, Aitken was unable to get by his teammates, and it was all over. Kari was later penalised, pushing Hubert up to the podium, and the gap in the points table only increased in Russell’s favour.
“It wasn’t really an easy race because Dorian was always on my tail right from the start,” Lorandi noted afterwards, “and I knew from the beginning that I would have to do a really good start and get to the inside: that was probably 75% of the game. Luckily I managed to do it, and from there on I managed to save my tyres, and before the safety car I was quite comfortable. It was really important to make a good restart, but after we did a good turn 2 I knew it was going to be done. I want to thank the team and everyone, and congrats of course to George for winning the championship.”
As soon as the race press conference was concluded, the championship one could begin. “I would like to give a massive thank you to everybody at ART Grand Prix;” Russell smiled as the cameras flashed around him, “they have been absolutely incredible with all four of us. It’s helped to have three extremely fast and intelligent teammates. We all got along very well this season and we have all come together after every session to talk with the engineers and to push the team forward. I’m sure it means a lot to the team, but they are fairly used to winning this category!
“At the start of the year Mercedes set a clear goal for me, and that was to go out and win this title no matter how I do it: win every race or finish second in every race as Esteban [Ocon] almost did in 2015. That was a clear objective, and I’ve had plenty of messages already from them saying congratulations. I’m sure they’re happy.”
It’s hard to see why they wouldn’t be: Barcelona and some bad luck in Hungary aside, he’s pretty much followed their requests to the letter.