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“How would you like to do a lap with George?” said the man from Mercedes. Given that the George in question was Formula 2 star Russell, and we were at Suzuka, saying no was not an option.
I’ve been going to the track since 1989, have covered every grand prix there since 1992, and was a regular visitor during the early 1990s while living in the country.
It is a favourite venue for many drivers, and also for paddock dwellers, and it really feels like a second home. And yet until last weekend I had never actually been around the track, even on foot. That opportunity finally came courtesy of the Pirelli Hot Laps programme, in which Formula 1 race and third drivers carry out demonstration laps in Mercedes, McLaren and Aston Martin supercars. And it was not an opportunity to turn down.
F2 championship leader Russell has never raced at Suzuka, and, ever the canny student, he’s using these demo laps to learn the circuit. Through the Japanese GP weekend the word is Russell is honing in on a 2019 Williams seat, so the timing is perfect for our run, which takes place aboard a 4-litre V8 Mercedes-AMG GTR, complete with “green hell magno” colour scheme.
“Let’s see what we can do,” laughs Russell as we launch off from Suzuka’s downhill grid and plunge into the sweeping Turn 1 right-hander that is significantly tighter than TV images portray.
The V8 engine rumbles away magnificently as we flick out of Turn 2 and climb through the Esses with thousands of spectators watching on, awaiting the start of qualifying.
“This flowing section is just absolutely incredible,” beams Russell, hands dancing at the wheel as we thread our way through. He’s not a touring car or GT racer, but the feel is natural, as should be expected for someone destined for a seat among the elite. “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.”
We have a bit of a wobble at Degner 1, 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. 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…”
Along the back straight we hit 152mph and, after a rollercoaster ride through 130R, there’s a heavy braking zone into the deceptively tricky high-kerbed final chicane. “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. As the last customer for this session I get the privilege of what is supposed to be a second ‘cool down’ lap back to the pitlane – though Russell shows few signs of relenting, before eventually easing off the pressure.
“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 an aspiring F1 driver several of the ‘flyaway’ circuits mark new territory for Russell; he has already had a chance to learn Shanghai and is going to sample Austin and Mexico City, while last year’s Force India FP1 run means he already knows Interlagos. 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 exiting this corner, there’s a stream here, this part of the track’s fine’.
“Driving any car, no matter what it 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 in F1 next year. I have a feeling that he’s going to be something very special…