Russell: the ‘other’ Brit heading to F1
After two frustrating seasons in European Formula 3, 2017 GP3 champion George Russell has won the international championship he’d coveted
For any sports star, the night before they have the chance to seal a place in history can be tense. Few, you’d imagine, would choose to spend it picking apart previous performances, discussing their ambitions, or deliberating on their rivals. But ahead of securing the 2017 GP3 title, that’s exactly what ART Grand Prix driver and Mercedes Formula 1 junior George Russell did. In the October-cool Jerez dusk, the 19-year-old sat down with Autosport to go over his successful rookie season in the grand prix support category.
“It’s gone very well,” he says understatedly, after betraying a charming flash of surprise at the number of untidily scrawled questions we’ve prepared for him, the first of which – as you may have twigged by now – is to ask how he thinks 2017 has gone. But this being Russell – always happy to provide intelligent and detailed answers – he goes on: “I had a fairly poor first round, for my standards, in Barcelona, but we soon rectified the issues and turned it around.”
After finishing fourth and fifth at the season opener,
Russell scored main-race victories in Austria, Britain,
Belgium and Italy – split either side of a disastrous weekend in Hungary, where a sensor problem prevented him from starting the first event, and an unfortunate clash with teammate Jack Aitken in race two left him 11th. Second and fourth at Jerez were enough to give him a first title since his 2014 BRDC Formula 4 series win, with one round to spare.
Key to that turnaround was a test at the Hungaroring in the eight-week gap between Barcelona and the Red Bull Ring. This gave him the chance to fully adapt to the GP3 car’s hand clutch – a system he was unfamiliar with, having used foot clutches in his previous three seasons of car racing – and address the start problems he’d had in Spain.
Russell spent his second and third seasons out of karting racing in the Formula 3 European Championship, starting in 2015. He finished sixth for the Carlin squad that year before joining new team Hitech GP for ’16, where he ended the season third behind champion Lance Stroll.
“The last two years have been tough,” Russell says. “When we made the step up to F3, in the first half of the season I didn’t really understand the car and how to drive it properly. Then 2016 was a great year, but you had Stroll at Prema with three really quick team-mates and it was tough to compete.”
But at the end of last year, things started looking up.
“This year I knew I’d have no excuses and I had to put everything into it”
He took pole at the prestigious Macau Grand Prix – an additional ‘selling point’ with Mercedes, where he had been working since the middle of the season. Russell had signed to become an official Mercedes junior in October 2016, the announcement being delayed until the following January because of “a certain Rosberg retiring”. It was also revealed then that he would switch to GP3 with category powerhouse ART.
“This year I knew I’d have no excuses and I had to put everything into it,” says Russell. “[The success] means a lot to me, to make up for the previous two years, which probably haven’t quite shown the potential I believe I have.”
The title certainly vindicates the switch to GP3. It also meant Russell had to get to grips with the category’s difficult-to-master Pirelli rubber. “I’ve improved with tyre management – in different ways to which I had to drive previously,” he explains. “F3 was very much ‘go flat out’
every lap, whereas here you need to think about the tyres, look after them. Also [in GP3] the racing is different because if you have a poor race one, you’re screwed for race two.”
GP3’S combination of a points-heavy first race and reversedgrid second race meant Russell had to adapt his mindset too. “You soon see how the championship turns when you have a bad race one,” he says. “As a driver, I’ve improved
[by being able to] see the bigger picture and picking up these [consistent] points to win the championship.”
Britain’s other third-tier champion
As you’ll read elsewhere in this issue (European F3 season review, page 24), Russell is not Britain’s only third-tier single-seater champion in 2017, with Lando Norris winning the Euro F3 title. Mclaren F1 junior Norris followed Russell, the 2014 Mclaren Autosport BRDC Award winner, by picking up that prize in 2016.
With five titles in four categories across four successive seasons of car racing, Norris has generated a lot of media and fan interest as he makes his way up the ranks.
“There’s no doubt he’s a very good driver,” says Russell. “I think he’s definitely had more opportunities than 99% of other drivers, which gives him an unfair advantage, let’s say. He’s been in a privileged position, but you have to go out and do the job and I know drivers in that position who haven’t been able to fulfil what he’s doing.”
When asked about the buzz surrounding Norris and whether that helps or hinders him, Russell is equally balanced in his comments, but there’s a firmness – one that reflects his fierce competitive spirit – in his reply. “It’s not a hindrance – it doesn’t affect me at all that he’s in the limelight,” he says. “I don’t care if thousands of people on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram are giving hype over him and not me because they [Mercedes and ART] know what I’m doing – they’re happy with my performance.”
Russell reckons the next step in his career is likely to be into Formula 2, where Norris is also tipped to race in 2018. “My goal next year will probably be to win F2, which is where it looks like I’ll be racing,” he adds. “I think Lando is definitely going to be one of the main rivals out there and I’d prefer having him as my team-mate in exactly the same equipment. I’d love to be team-mates with him because there’s a lot of hype around him and Charles [Leclerc, 2017 F2 champion] at the moment.”
Impressions of ART
In recent weeks, sources have suggested that a Russell-norris F2 line-up could become reality, with ART a possible destination for the pair. Russell would have early advantages, specifically with his experience of facing tough competition within the French squad.
This year’s ART GP3 line-up of Russell, Aitken, Nirei Fukuzumi and Anthoine Hubert has been formidable. Aitken and Fukuzumi are backed by Renault and Honda respectively, and are also very highly rated. The ART corps has taken pole and won race one at every round so far this season.
With such an abundance of talent in a high-stakes season – Aitken and Fukuzumi are in their second GP3 campaigns – a spectacular fallout would not have been a surprise. But, on the contrary, the members of the squad appear to get on very well. Mild tensions between Aitken and Russell, after Russell made a pair of forceful moves at Jerez that left the Renault Sport Academy member unimpressed, is as bad as it’s got. The atmosphere is as friendly as it is competitive, with Russell and Aitken quick to cheerfully come to Fukuzumi’s aid with his English during press conferences.
“It’s like a family,” says ART boss Sebastien Philippe.
“I don’t care if thousands hype Lando. Mercedes know what I’m doing”
“It’s never easy to have four of them fighting for the championship. To keep the team the way it is now –
I’m very proud about that. Everything is working well between them and there is respect. I’m very happy with the way they have behaved – out [of the car] and on track.”
The F1 horizon
Hungary represented both a low point and highlight for Russell in 2017. His two non-scores at the Hungaroring are so far the only two he has had this season (Russell had been set to make the points in race two before Aitken’s puncture-induced off also caught out his team-mate, recovering from the back of the grid). But just two days later, he took part in the official F1 test for Mercedes at the track, ending up eighth fastest overall.
“Mercedes have put a lot of faith in me and they’re using me a lot for the simulator,” he says. “I was very pleased that they chose me to do those days and put their trust in me. Going back to the [subject of] hype and the media, it’s very easy to look at a lap time and say, ‘This guy did this lap time – he’s in a Mercedes, he’s in a Renault, or whatever’ – but the guys who need to know, know what programme I was on and were happy with the job I did. We didn’t quite get to complete the whole test programme, but what we needed to find out and do, we did.”
Aside from winning the GP3 title, one of Russell’s main goals for this season was to get fit enough to complete the Hungary test. With those targets successfully achieved, he can take a moment to again consider the ultimate aim: an F1 race seat, and how he’s going to get there.
“You need to believe in yourself,” he says when asked if he’s got what it takes to reach F1. “I believe in myself. I finally had this year to make up for previous seasons, to show on paper that I’ve got it, rather than just telling people ‘I have it’.
“I believe I can get there, but this is a very tough sport and to get there you need to be performing right, at the right time, when an opportunity comes about. But if you’re always performing, then that opportunity will come.”
Russell is delighted with the vindication of his talent that the GP3 title gives him
ART trio (l-r) Aitken, Fukuzumi and Russell
Two tough years in F3; this is 2016