GREAT EX­PEC­TA­TIONS

After two years learn­ing from Lewis Hamilton as Mercedes’ de­vel­op­ment driver, Ge­orge Rus­sell has got his F1 break for 2019 with Wil­liams. He’s not tak­ing the chal­lenge lightly…

F1 Racing (UK) - - NOW THAT WAS A CAR -

As he stabs at a piece of tomato on his plate, Ge­orge Rus­sell con­veys both the good grace of a po­lite and con­vivial young man, and the im­pa­tience of a newly con­firmed and ex­tremely busy For­mula 1 driver on whom it has only re­cently dawned that a bustling sched­ule does not al­ways in­clude a lunch break.

Sit­ting at the back of the Mercedes hos­pi­tal­ity unit, Rus­sell, 20, pushes his plate to one side, in­sist­ing he can break off from lunch to talk F1 Rac­ing through the steps he’ll take to­wards mak­ing his mark in F1 next sea­son. In 2019, the young Mercedes re­serve steps up to a full-time drive at Wil­liams. “It’s a long win­ter,” he main­tains. “It gives us plenty of time to spend at the fac­tory get­ting to know each other. The main thing is build­ing re­la­tion­ships with the engineers so there are no un­knowns, and mak­ing sure we’re com­fort­able to the point where we can ex­press our feel­ings to one other.”

Rus­sell is keen to help es­tab­lish an en­vi­ron­ment of mu­tual re­spect at Wil­liams, al­low­ing him to build on his rep­u­ta­tion as one of the most ex­cit­ing young tal­ents in mo­tor­sport. In 2014 he took the BRDC For­mula 4 ti­tle in his first sea­son of sin­gle-seaters, go­ing on to win races across his two years of Euro­pean F3, before col­lect­ing the 2017 GP3 crown in his rookie sea­son. And, at the time of writ­ing, Rus­sell is poised to win the F2 (for­merly GP2) ti­tle on his first at­tempt like Lewis Hamilton, Nico Hülken­berg and Charles Le­clerc before him.

Wil­liams chief tech­ni­cal of­fi­cer Paddy Lowe is wildly en­thu­si­as­tic about Rus­sell, whom he con­sid­ers “con­fi­dent”, “dis­ci­plined”, “well-or­gan­ised”, “in­tel­li­gent” and “quite spe­cial”. Ex­am­ples of Rus­sell’s con­fi­dence and de­ter­mi­na­tion in­clude pro­duc­ing a Pow­erpoint pre­sen­ta­tion for Lowe a year ago in an at­tempt to se­cure a 2018 Wil­liams drive; phon­ing Lowe again this sum­mer to ar­range a meet­ing to dis­cuss a pos­si­ble 2019 deal; and dili­gently arm­ing him­self with a pen and pad to take notes when he met Claire Wil­liams at the Ger­man GP. Taken alone, each in­ci­dent may seem triv­ial; put to­gether, they have clearly made a last­ing im­pres­sion.

In Austin, on his first day in the F1 paddock after be­ing con­firmed at Wil­liams, Rus­sell vis­ited the garage and shook hands with ev­ery team mem­ber. He’s like Lewis Hamilton in terms of his loy­alty and at­ten­tion to de­tail, and that’s no co­in­ci­dence. He has spent two years as a Mercedes Ju­nior, learn­ing from Hamilton up close. “It’s a very priv­i­leged po­si­tion to be in,” Rus­sell en­thuses. “Lewis is an ex­tremely talented driver, but when he comes to the track he will work his arse off to max­imise ev­ery­thing. That was kind of re­fresh­ing for me to see – that a guy like him isn’t re­ly­ing on his talent alone. It doesn’t just come to him; he’s out there work­ing for it.”

Wil­liams have taken plenty of flak this sea­son for run­ning two in­ex­pe­ri­enced yet clearly well-funded drivers in Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin. Rus­sell, who has im­pressed his new team with his pace and feed­back in the sim­u­la­tor on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions over the past 12 months, brings totemic value to Wil­liams, as well as some­thing tan­gi­ble: he rep­re­sents their de­sire to move away from pay-drivers and get back to the days of har­ness­ing fresh, young talent.

It is a risk for Wil­liams to choose Rus­sell over drivers with ma­jor fi­nan­cial back­ing, and both Mercedes and Wil­liams in­sist his ar­rival brings no direct fi­nan­cial rec­om­pense or an en­gine dis­count. Wil­liams could have se­lected Mercedes’ other pro­tégé, Este­ban Ocon, who finds him­self on the scrapheap next sea­son through sheer bad luck, but they wanted a driver who would com­mit to more than one sea­son. Rus­sell, mean­while, is happy to have taken his first proper step into F1. “It’s no se­cret that this has been a dif­fi­cult sea­son for them, but they are tak­ing steps to im­prove their fu­ture,” he says of his new team. “It’s the per­fect time to get this op­por­tu­nity and prove my­self not only as a quick driver but as some­body who can lead the team and progress.”

If Rus­sell can do that, he’ll lay very solid foun­da­tions. Where that might lead him is any­one’s guess, but the last Brit at Wil­liams was Jen­son But­ton – and he didn’t do too badly for him­self.

“IT’S THE PER­FECT TIME TO PROVE MY­SELF AS SOME­BODY WHO CAN LEAD THE TEAM AND PROGRESS”

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