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

Autosport (UK) - - CONTENTS - By Alex Kalin­auckas, As­sis­tant Edi­tor

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

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