George Russell's 2023 season was a bit of an enigma. His qualifying record versus Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton was incredibly evenly matched -- 11-11 over 22 races -- yet he finished 59 points shy of the seven-time world champion.
Compared to his first year at Mercedes in 2022, when he outscored Hamilton by 35 points, his 2023, on paper at least, looked like a step back. But when Russell assesses his season, he believes he has made a solid step forward.
"If I took last year and rated it, I would say my performance was a 7/10, results were 9/10. This year I would say, performance 8.5/10, results 4/10," he told ESPN in an interview towards the end of the 2023 season.
"So it's a funny one, because I feel like I'm driving better, I definitely am faster this year, quali pace, race pace, but the results haven't come at all."
"There are a number of reasons why that is, it has been a bit of a strange season. There was more competition in Formula One this year, with Aston at the beginning of the year, then McLaren, Ferrari as well, but I definitely prefer it to be that way round: having the performance and the results will come.
"At the end of the day, we are not fighting for world championship this year and through those lack of results you are continuing to build that toolbox of experience and I know it's only going to make me stronger. So I'm not too concerned that the results haven't been there because the pace is there and if the pace is the results will inevitably come."
Russell's philosophical approach to his results seems to stem from a slight change in mindset this year. For a 25-year-old, he comes across as remarkably mature -- a trait that has no doubt been honed by the need to perform year on year to reach Formula One.
Championship victories in GP3 and Formula 2 preceded his arrival in F1 with Williams, where he outperformed his machinery for three full seasons before getting promotion to Mercedes. But even for a driver as focused as Russell, there has to be an escape valve -- a way to decompress between races.
This year, it's partly come in the form of his new hobby freediving. Since moving to Monaco at the end of 2022, he has taken up the sport in the crystal-clear depths of the Mediterranean, daring himself to go under for longer each time.
"Freediving feels like meditation," he says. "There is definitely something there about calming yourself, taking care of your heart rate and getting into a slightly different zone. It's something where the body can achieve it, but there is a psychological limitation when you know that you can dive 30 or 40 metres but that one thing that is stopping you is the psychological aspect. And then as soon as you start to panic, you're in the shit.
"But when I was doing the freediving over the summer, I wasn't thinking about anything else. And when you live in such a highly competitive world like we do, I'm thinking about Formula One all the time, how I can improve and do things better. But sometimes it drives you crazy and you need to take a step away."
With a 22-race season (set to become 24 races in 2024), Russell says there is a huge benefit arriving at a race weekend in a clearer state of mind.
"Formula One is almost like a creative space. Sometimes when you are just so caught up in that moment and obsessed about it and not giving yourself a minute to think about anything else, you find yourself stuck in a channel. Doing some different activities broadens your perspective a little bit. That's what I found about the summer break, just doing a few different activities and when I arrived back to Formula One, I approached it in a slightly different manner and it really helps."
After F1's summer break, which ran for four weeks between the Belgian and Dutch Grands Prix, Russell said he was able to arrest a slide in performance as a result of coming back to the paddock more refreshed.
"Before the break I had two races where I was really off the pace, overthinking things, trying too hard to recover that performance, and then after the break I went in with an open mind and came out and it was probably the strongest I have ever been performing.
"That is something I learned. It's never easy when you are in an environment like Formula One and the competition is so high and you are constantly being tested."
When at races, Russell has the ultimate barometer of performance in teammate Hamilton. The seven-time world champion has more race victories than anyone in the sport and more pole positions, meaning Russell must be at the very top of his game to beat him. Remarkably, the average gap between the two over a single lap (both in qualifying and sprint shootout sessions) was a miniscule 0.030s in Russell's favour this year after 28 head-to-head sessions.
"You want to test yourself against the best drivers in the world and having Lewis as my teammate is pretty privileged position to be in because I know every weekend I'm going up against one of the greatest ever," Russel said. "If I can perform against him, I know I can perform against anybody and that's why I'm not dissatisfied with this season because the performance has been there -- I think we're equal on quali performance.
"He's having more consistent race results, but I know if the pace is there those results come. I'm pleased with that as one aspect and I'm not too disappointed with this season. Nothing major has been lost."
The relationship between the two Mercedes drivers has been good this year. Even after an on-track collision in the opening corner of the opening lap in Qatar, the two soon put the incident behind them -- a moment captured by the team and posted on social media. Unlike previous teammate rivalries, such as Hamilton's famously fierce one with Nico Rosberg between 2014 and 2016, Russell believes any tension is alleviated somewhat by the 13-year age gap between the two.
"Lewis and I are at very different stages of our career. My mentality is pretty clear, if you qualify ahead of the other guy and make a good start you are going to beat them. It's as simple as that. I'm not thinking how I am going to race my teammate, I'm thinking about how I'm going to qualify as high as possible, make the best start, have the best race."
Russell's arrival at Mercedes in 2022 coincided with the team's first season not challenging for a championship since 2014. There is hope that a change of car concept for 2024 will put the team back in the fight for titles next season and, entering his sixth year in F1, Russell has no doubt he will be ready for a successful title campaign if the car is good enough.
"I know personally I will be ready," he says directly. "I'm confident on a personal level that whatever is thrown at me I will be ready to tackle it.
"But for us as a team I can't sit here six months away and say I am confident we will have the fastest car on the grid. I'm definitely confident we are going to make a car that is much more competitive than this year and probably I said the same 12 months ago, but we made some mistakes over the winter that I am confident we won't be making again.
"It's down to our rivals what they achieve, but Austin was a step in the right direction and if anybody can achieve that change in performance Mercedes can."