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Motor Sport News - - Front Page - POINTS stand­ings

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… ■

Pho­tos: LAT

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