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…
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”