If there was always going to be a lot of focus on George Russell coming into the final round of the season in Abu Dhabi as the championship leader, the small matter of his announcement as a 2019 Williams F1 driver meant that even more people would be tuning in to see if he could finish off the year as the FIA Formula 2 champion. No pressure, then.
George had a handy 37 point lead in the title race over rival and long-time friend Alex Albon with just 48 points up for grabs: if the maths pointed to the near certainty of success, Russell has never been a man to make assumptions. In other words, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.
The first test for the likeable Briton, and the first opportunity for the rest of us to see how he was handling the pressure, was the free practice session on Friday afternoon. Taking place in the high heat of the noon sun, Russell made his intentions known with a strong fast lap at the 15 minute mark at 1:51.720, while Albon was slightly wayward at the marina complex on his hot lap and decided to keep his powder dry for the real battle that evening, finishing the session in P9 as Antonio Fuoco and Luca Ghiotto rounded out the top three behind the championship leader.
It was only a first marker, but more was to come that evening from qualifying. The 4 points on over were a huge psychological advantage to whoever could claim them: if Albon could grab pole the gap would drop to 33 points with 44 on the table, and the advantage of starting from pole, while if Russell emerged on top the gap would widen to 41 points, leaving him requiring just 4 points from 2 races to become champion.
When the track ran green Russell was the 2nd man on track, clearly looking to stamp his authority on the session from the start. Carlin duo Lando Norris and Sergio Sette Câmara briefly alternated the top spot between them before Russell monstered their time, nabbing the top spot by seven tenths: Albon’s best time halved the difference for P2, but it was clear he still had work to do.
Nicholas Latifi and Nyck de Vries took advantage of a clear track on the alternate strategy to grab the top of the timesheets, but the Dutchman was soon on the radio to his team to advise that more was needed to secure the top spot. And so it proved: Russell re-emerged and blasted them out of the water, cutting another four tenths off an already good time for a lap of 1:49.251, and when Albon ran wide in the final complex it was done.
Russell nailed his colours to the wall in the press conference: “I am very, very pleased about that pole position: coming into this weekend obviously I had a very healthy points margin, but I knew that there was a potential 8 point swing after qualifying depending on whether Alex or I got pole, so clinching that is great for me and the team. It was incredible!”
Having one hand on the trophy was one thing, but there was still the matter of those pesky 4 points: Russell might have been starting from pole and Albon from P8 but as everybody knows, anything can happen in Formula 2.
The teams prepared themselves on Saturday night under the bright lights of the Yas Marina Circuit, the serious faces at ART and DAMS an external display of the pressure they were putting themselves under for the final fight for the title. And when the red lights went down there was disaster: Albon and Latifi both stalled on the grid, along with Sette Câmara, leaving Arjun Maini nowhere to go and causing a huge accident with Latifi, taking out both drivers and Nirei Fukuzumi on the spot.
Back at the front Russell had done what he needed to do, making a decent start and knowing better than to challenge the storming getaway of Nyck de Vries into turn 1: Albon and Sette Câmara were pushed into the pits and restarted, getting away as the rest of the field were lead through the pitlane to avoid the clean up on the front straight. The pair were allowed to unlap themselves soon after, but were still a sector behind the rest of the field when the race went live on lap 7.
Albon had a mountain to climb ahead of him, while back at the front Russell was already planning to finish his title fight in style, having just one little problem to solve: Nyck de Vries. The Dutchman has had more than his share of bad luck this season, but no one is in any doubt about his speed and determination: anyone who is going to steal a win from him will have to have both qualities in abundance to get by him.
Both started on the supersoft tyres, and would need to come in soon: Russell gambled and came in on lap 9, leaving a bit of performance behind as he risked everything on a one lap flyer on cold softs, and re-emerged to put in the out lap of his life in clear air as de Vries used up everything left in the softer compound. The Dutchman came in a lap later, emerging just in front of Russell but unable to stop him blasting past at turn 2 for the provisional lead behind Ghiotto on the alternate strategy.
Russell wasted no time in building a gap back to de Vries to break the DRS window, snuffing out the threat of a challenge from behind, and then concentrated on managing his tyres to last to the end of the race while further back Albon, who had switched strategies, was stuck in a throng of drivers who were all trying to put themselves on notice for next year and squabbling over any points they could bring home.
Almost unnoticed up front, Ghiotto was slowly but surely eking out a big lead back to Russell, and people started to wonder if the supposedly impossible could happen: was it possible to win from P15 on the grid and on the wrong strategy? The clear air was certainly helping him, but a slightly wayward trip across the marina chicane was judged to have gained him an advantage, with the stewards handing the Italian a 5s time penalty for his sins.
Albon stopped from P10 on lap 23, dropping out of the points to 14th as his title run was extinguished: 3 laps later Ghiotto came in and sat fuming for those unending seconds before getting fresh rubber and being released, emerging 5th and looking for payback. Norris fell at the first hurdle as the Italian set the fastest lap of the race, blasting past de Vries soon after but running out of laps (and tyres) to regain his former position: Ghiotto rounded out the podium wondering what could have been behind a fast charging Artem Markelov in P2, but all eyes were on winner and new champion Russell.
“It was a hard fought race for us!” Russell laughed afterwards. “We lost the lead at the start, and it felt after the safety car that we had a pace advantage over Nyck but he wasn’t going to give me the position easily, as I found out! We decided to gamble and stop first: I pushed extremely hard on my out lap to jump Nyck and avoid being jumped by Artem, it paid off, and I brought it home from there.
“It’s a huge sigh of relief to be honest! It’s been a very long and tough year for myself and ART: we’ve worked really hard, and probably from Baku we’ve been one of the quickest on track every single time. It’s been a little difficult to get this across the line, but on that pole yesterday you saw the emotions there, and obviously we knew what we had to do today: to win it in style, and that’s what we did!”
For the final race of the season Russell still felt that he had unfinished business: sure, he was already the champion with an F1 contract in his pocket who shared the win record of 7 in a season with Stoffel Vandoorne and Pierre Gasly, but that only gave him the incentive to own the record for himself. Overtaking is clearly possible on this circuit, but racing in the heat of the day instead of the (relative) cool of the evening means the machinery at his disposal is under extraordinary stress.
When the lights went out Fuoco blew past a slow starting Roberto Merhi on pole, towing Norris, de Vries and Russell in their slipstream as they headed up the hill to the top of the circuit: Norris snuck past de Vries on the run down to the marina while behind them an incident between Sean Gelael, Niko Kari and Tadasuke Makino prompted a break in hostilities as the VSC boards were displayed.
Louis Delétraz was alert to green flags, mugging Russell when the race went live once more, forcing the Briton to use some of his tyre life getting back by the Swiss driver that he was planning to use on passing his countryman. By the time he was back on Norris’ tail Russell had less useable rubber at his disposal, and a few laps in his wake killed off what was left in his fronts: Russell was soon unable to keep pace with his countryman, and his last ambition was denied.
Out front Fuoco cruised to a 2nd victory of the season, while Merhi dropped back into the clutches of Norris, having spent his tyres in the same manner of Russell: the inevitable happened on the final lap, with Norris outdragging Merhi on the end of the back straight for P2, with a huge lock up for the Spaniard rendering the move final as the chequered flag dropped on the season.
“We knew already the start was the key to this race,” Fuoco noted afterwards, “because it is difficult to overtake and you can destroy your tyres when you’re behind another car, so it was quite good to jump in front and to manage the gap to Roberto for all the race. In the end it was positive for us, to score another victory in Formula 2 is always nice, and it is good for the team because they are rookies: they did a good job, and I would like to give thanks to them for the work they did here, and all year.”
Away from the spotlight on the front of the race Albon quietly set about proving a point, to himself if no one else: after dropping to the back at the start of the feature race and getting under way well behind the rest of the field, the likeable Thai driver fought his way to P14 at the flag, started the sprint race in the same position and finished the weekend in the points in 8th, a demonstration of the determination and speed that put him into the title fight in the first place, and of what might have been but for some bad luck earlier in the weekend.
Inevitably the attention at the end of year party was on champion Russell and vice-champion Norris, with the podium in the final race allowing the latter to push Albon back to 3rd in the final standings: the pressure was off both, and they were able to relax and enjoy themselves with their respective teams. But motor racing never stands still for long: with GP3, F2 and F1 tests in Abu Dhabi taking place this week all eyes will be on who goes where as the merry-go-round gets underway once again.
And, like you, the teams and the drivers, we can’t wait.