In the high-stakes world of Formula One, team dynamics are often complex, a delicate balance between individual ambition and collective goals. The Italian Grand Prix at Monza was no exception, with George Russell’s astonishing selflessness coming to the fore as he made a huge sacrifice for his Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team partner Lewis Hamilton in an attempt to drag his senior team mate toward the sharp end.
Russell’s qualifying performance was nothing short of stellar, putting him fourth on the grid for the main event on Sunday. However, the mood in the Mercedes camp was not entirely celebratory as Hamilton could only manage eighth place. The result was undoubtedly a disappointment for the seven-time world champion.
Getting ‘a tow’
In Formula 1 terminology, a tow refers to the slipstream effect created by a car following another car closely at high speed. When a car is in the slipstream of another, it experiences reduced drag, allowing it to go faster using less energy. This can be a significant advantage, particularly on Monza’s long straights where top speed is critical.
Monza’s unique layout, with its combination of high-speed straights and tight chicanes, creates an ideal environment for towing. Drivers and teams strategise extensively to ensure they get the best possible tow during their qualifying laps.
In qualifying, drivers try to position themselves strategically on the track to take advantage of the slipstream of a faster car. This tactic can result in a significant increase in straight-line speed, ultimately leading to a faster lap time. Qualifying at Monza is often a tactical game of cat and mouse, with drivers trying to time their laps to perfection and gain a tow from a rival.
During the race, a tow can be a game changer, especially when fighting for position or trying to overtake a rival. Monza’s long straights offer plenty of opportunities for slipstreaming, allowing a chasing car to close the gap on the car in front. When executed effectively, a driver can position himself in the slipstream and use the reduced drag to slingshot past his opponent into the chicane or other braking zones.
However, mastering the art of ‘towing’ is not without its challenges. It requires precise timing, coordination and an understanding of the aerodynamic dynamics at play. If a driver follows too closely, he risks destabilising his own car due to the turbulence created by the car in front. Finding the right balance between taking advantage of the slipstream and maintaining control of the car requires skill and experience.
Teamwork also plays a crucial role in optimising a ‘tow’ at Monza. Formula 1 teams use team orders to ensure that their drivers work together to maximise the benefits of drafting. This may involve one driver acting as the ‘lead’ car, creating a slipstream for his teammate to exploit.
2023 Italian GP objectives for Mercedes
The weekend had begun on an optimistic note, with Mercedes announcing on Thursday that both Hamilton and Russell had signed contract extensions, committing themselves to the team until the end of the 2025 season.
Nevertheless, a podium finish in Monza was the immediate objective, and Russell’s performance had raised hopes. He had outperformed Sergio Perez to position himself on the second row.
After qualifying, Russell confessed to deliberately providing Lewis Hamilton with a slipstream, or “tow”, throughout the qualifying session. This strategic move was designed to increase Hamilton’s lap time and maximise his grid position.
A tactic that obviously failed despite best intentions.
Russell explained the nuances of the tactic, highlighting the potential time gains and the risks involved.
“I think if you nail the tow and [nail] your outlap, there’s a good one and a half, two tenths in there. But the risk is that you don’t get the right outlap and you’re too focused on that,” he explained.
Such precision was paramount in the execution of this plan, and the consequences of a slight miscalculation were evident in the soaring speeds at Monza.
“It’s quite challenging when you’re heading into turn one at 210/220mph and you get the slipstream…
“The next lap you’re doing 225mph and [it] changes your braking point. If you nail it, there’s a tenth and a half. I towed him [Hamilton] the whole session.”
— A¹¹ (@perstappen_) September 1, 2023
Russell’s process to help Hamilton
As the young British driver explained the process, he revealed the mutual respect and cooperation within the Mercedes team.
“Every weekend we take it in turns whose decision it is to go first or second. This weekend it’s his decision and it’s up to him,” said Russell.
The Italian Grand Prix may not have produced the results the Mercedes team had hoped for, but George Russell’s remarkable sacrifice for his struggling teammate.