TOYOTA F1’S NEWEST STARS ON THE YEAR AHEAD
Up there with pigs that fly, pink fluffy unicorns and UFOS, the unimaginable happened last year when three Britishborn drivers locked out the top three of For mu la1’ s support series, and all will graduate to the highest level of motorsport in 2019.
F2 champion George Russell, runner-up Lando Norris and third-placed Alexander Albon will join Williams, Mclaren and Toro Rosso respectively, putting four British drivers in F1 for the first time since 2014.
Albon looked the most unlikely to make that graduation, but brilliantly he starts the year with the potential to finish the highest as Toro Rosso outperformed backmarkers Mclaren and Williams in 2018.
New 2019 regulations, with aero changes likely to be the most significant, can still shake-up the order but, as it stands, it looks like Albon has fallen on the most pleasant of footing.
The london-born driver has lived in milton Keynes for years, but has raced under a Thai licence during his career.
While his CV is nowhere near as impressive as Russell or Norris, his stand-out year was 2016 when he finished runner-up to Charles Leclerc in GP3. The following year was a disaster at ART in F2, but he bounced back last year to fight for the series title.
The 22-year-old has constantly faced adversity in his junior single-seater career, and that’s why – although his CV may not be impressive in comparison to Norris and Russell – he will raise his game to fight with the stars of world motorsport.
Perhaps the most significant moment in his career came in 2012 when he was dropped by Red Bull from its junior programme.
“It was a difficult year for me for numerous reasons, not least because of my results, but it made me work that much harder,” says Albon. “I was on the brink of stopping racing all together.
“Since then, I knew I had to impress every time I drove and fortunately Dr [Helmut] Marko gave me a second chance.”
And fought he has. He was the only driver in the F2 field last year on a race-byrace deal for three races before he was finally signed by DAMS after “begging” for the seat. This kind of dedication will ensure that effort is something he will not be deficient of when it comes to F1.
Eventual Formula 2 champion George Russell looked equally as unlikely as Albon to score a seat for 2019, as the driver market kept spinning without churning out Russell’s name. With Esteban Ocon – the Force India driver higher on the Mercedes junior ladder than Russell – still on the market, there wasuncertaintyoverthebritbeingchosen.
However, a stirring pitch to Paddy Lowe at the German Grand Prix, which included a now infamous Powerpoint presentation, helped fight his corner and delivered a dream F1 drive.
Russell has been affiliated to Mercedes since 2016, but he already had success before that with the BRDC F4 title and Mclaren Autosport BRDC Award wins in 2014. In 2017 he took the GP3 Series title in his debut year, before a step up to Formula 2 delivered the most crushing title success despite myriad problems ( see F2 review sidebar).
In the first half of the year, Russell had to watch on as Norris’s consistency made sure he was top of the title table and the first name rolling off the tongue when it came to discussions of future F1 stars.
Russell dealt with this as he believed Mercedes boss Toto Wolff was watching what was going on and could see Russell’s pace behind the results. But with Norris securingamclarenseatinearlyseptember, the pressure appeared to be on. But Russell – like with every other negative vibe he faces – turned it into a positive.
“Lando’s announcement so early helped me to push Williams for my drive,” explains Russell. “Because if I was ahead of him in the championship and Mclaren believed he was worthy of a Formula 1 seat, it showed there was some great signs for myself. It probably added more pressure for Williams to say ‘we’ve got to go with George because he’s the guy who is winning F2’.”
A month after Norris’s announcement, Russell was signed up. Albeit, to the team that finished last in the constructors’ standings last year.
But Russell, always finding the positives, believes he can mould the Grove team around him and lead from the front, by example. He has already attempted to meet all the team’s staff and attended two grands prix with them to lay the foundations for what he is hoping is a successful future, and what Brits are hoping is the start of a path to replace Lewis Hamilton when he retires.
“I’m extremely motivated, I think this year is a perfect opportunity for me to join Williams and to get into Formula 1,” adds Russell. “Off the back of a tough season [for Williams in F1] this gives me the opportunity to go in and be a team leader and push this forward to develop the team in the right direction.
“Formula 1 is such a complex sport and you can’t just be fast. Hopefully this opportunity will show that not only I’m quick but I can develop this team and push everyone in the right direction.”
Although Norris was signed before Russell, the former is the youngest of the three to secure a seat, and got his sealed first, but had to work extremely hard for it.
He was under even more pressure than the other two, as he had to audition for his job by impressing in Formula 1 FP1 outings with Mclaren at Spa and Monza, and moves into a team which hasn’t proved fruitful for its last two rookies in Stoffel Vandoorne and Kevin Magnussen, both of whom had to move
away in an attempt to rebuild their careers.
Norris also comes with the most amount of media pressure between the three, and couple that with the fact that he is the first Brit to join the Mclaren outfit as a rookie since Hamilton, obviously some will make a direct link.
“Being compared to someone who could be about to win five world championships, I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” said Norris speaking just after his promotion in October. “It’s still very different. He came into Mclaren when they were doing extremely well. I’ve joined when they are going through a pretty tricky time. Things over the past few years have got a bit lost.”
And he, alongside Russell, has the respective job of attempting to turn around the fates of these flailing giants.
Mclaren is winless since 2012 with Jenson Button at the Brazilian Grand Prix, while Williams’ last triumph came at the
Spanish Grand Prix with the infamous Pastor Maldonado victory. While neither are expected to snap that streak as soon as this year, Russell and Norris will be expected to help move the two sleeping giants further up the grid.
Albon’s task is no easier. He faces a thirsty team-mate in Daniil Kvyat, looking to get back in Red Bull’s good books after being dropped in 2017. While the squad is in place as a feeder team to Red Bull and therefore not expected to frequently win races, Albon must outperformkvyat if he’s to have a chance of establishing himself as a future F1 star.
While the likelihood of the three winning races in 2019 is unlikely, it’s exciting that three of the most talented drivers for some time enter F1 with Britain as their birthplace. The future is bright for the UK in motorsport, providing each driver is allowed back into the country after each round, with Brexit looming… ■