Professional, clean-cut and, above all, stunningly fast, Williams driver and Mercedes junior George Russell has long seemed an obvious choice for the next vacancy in the world champions’ driver line-up.Valtteri Bottas – the very driver many expect he may replace at Mercedes next year – putting both out of the race.
But Mercedes CEO Toto Wolff saw it differently. He made it clear the team’s junior driver should not have been fighting so hard for position with one of its works cars. Russell’s furious initial reaction towards Bottas, and suggestion that he would have fought less hard against another rival, also reflected less well on him.
Bottas has every reason to regard Russell as a threat to his future at the team. Prior to the crash, Russell’s most notable performance in an F1 car came four months earlier in Bahrain, where he substituted for Lewis Hamilton and was on course to beat Bottas to victory until a doubt misfortune struck.
Speaking to RaceFans for an exclusive interview at Imola last Thursday, Russell said that Bahrain weekend demonstrated what he is capable of.
“I believe I’m at a level that I’m capable of winning races,” says the 23-year-old. “But I don’t believe I’m at my maximum potential and I think I’ve got a long way to go. There’s a lot for me to improve and there’s a lot more I can bring to the table.
“But equally, I think I’m in the right machinery. I’d like to think I broke through that last year.”
Following Hamilton’s one-race absence after he tested positive for Covid-19, Russell returned to Williams, where he is now in his third season. Driving the Mercedes made him realise “the psychological difficulties of performing at the highest level of sport”, he explains.
“The joys of success are even greater and the downs of the disappointment are even greater, much deeper. That is probably the biggest thing I took away from that.”
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Life at Williams inevitably involves less pressure, he says. “I’ve had a relatively easy ride, been under the radar over the past two-and-a-half years. Never in the points, doing my trade.
“If I’m a little bit off the pace it goes a little bit unnoticed. If I have a great result, again, not overly noticed. You come away from most weekends relatively satisfied, even though you knew there could have been half a tenth more maybe in it.”
Those small differences mean much more at the sharp end of the field. “That [Sakhir] Grand Prix, for example, half a tenth more would have meant I was on pole position and my feeling on Saturday evening would have been completely different to what it was.
“That’s what sport should be about and what Formula 1 it should be about. So to conclude, the biggest thing I learnt was actually things aren’t going to get psychologically easier fighting at the front, if anything it’ll get harder.”
Russell didn’t go into the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix weekend expecting his race would end in a wheel-to-wheel fight with a Mercedes. Having reflected on his reaction to it, a day later Russell posted a contrite apology to Bottas, his team and fans on social media.
His generation of drivers have grown up with the facility for immediate communication to their fan base which the likes of Hamilton came to later in their careers. While there is inevitably some scepticism over whether drivers are tapping out their own Tweets, Russell stresses “anything that I put out there is all authentic.”
“I obviously have somebody helping me in managing my accounts,” he adds. “But all the messaging, all the photos are signed off – either created by me, and then signed off by me. And that’s pretty much the extent of it.”
Russell enthusiastically joined Lando Norris, Alexander Albon and other F1 drivers in live-streaming their simracing exploits when the pandemic hit last year. He is, however, acutely aware of the potential downsides to social media.
“I try to avoid it,” he admits. “Social media is a slippery and dangerous slope for all of us because everybody is just being shown in their best light. It can be very demoralising for a lot of people when you see all of these, whatever it may be, people that seem to be living an incredible life, people who seem to be incredibly fit or good-looking or whatever it may be, and just seeming to have it all.
“But you’re only seeing the top five percent of everything. And I’m even guilty of it myself. If somebody takes 100 shots of me, I’m not going to choose the worst one, I’m going to choose the best one. And it doesn’t show you a true picture.
“Fortunately for me, I probably just missed the curve, I only got on social media when I was 14 or 15. But for these, the next generation who grew up with it, from the beginning, it’s truly worrying, to be honest.”
This thoughtful communications style is a hallmark of Russell’s. The story of him impressing Wolff with a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation is well-known. Following last year’s race at Imola, where he made the rare error of crashing out during a Safety Car period, he penned a letter to his team apologising for his mistake while justifying his take-no-prisoners approach.
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There is a degree of professionalism in his approach to his career which sets him apart from other drivers. But it isn’t imposed from above, he explains. “I’ve never had a PR agency,” says Russell. “I’ve never had any of that, to be honest.
“I think it just comes from being mentored correctly by the people around me and understanding what will get the most out of myself and the most out of my team and all of us.”
Penmanship and eloquence were certainly not his forte at school. “No, I was completely the opposite as a school kid,” he laughs. “Maybe that was why…
“No I think [it was] just being mentored correctly from the beginning and understanding what it takes to be a top Formula 1 driver. I understood from the beginning that it takes more than just doing the business on the track. There’s so much more that goes with it and that’s everything behind the scenes to everything in front of the camera. You’ve got to excel at everything you do to be there because at the end of the day there’s only 20 drivers and it’s a ruthless sport.”
It therefore should have come as no surprise that, when Romain Grosjean lost his F1 seat and relinquished his role as a director of the Grand Prix Drivers Association, Russell immediately put his name forward for the job, which is typically taken up by more experienced racers.
“I knew that Romain was stepping down,” he explains. “I’d been in a lot of contact with [chairman] Alex Wurz and I called him one day and I said ‘listen, I’d be really interested in stepping up into that position, what do you think?’ He said ‘I think you’d be great at it and go for it, put your name forward’.”
The GPDA has chiefly concerned itself with safety matters in the past. Those remain as relevant today as they have in previous years, as Grosjean’s shocking crash in Bahrain last year demonstrated.
Asked what else the GPDA should concern itself with, Russell answers quickly: “Improving racing. Good races attract more fans.”
“I equally just want to help the sport grow, want to improve,” he explains. “Help the sport grow.
“The drivers’ input is a key one. Ultimately, we’re in a unique position that there’s only 20 of us driving the cars and we’re in a slightly different position to the other 2,000 people that go around the F1 circus, whether it’s with regard to safety or circuit improvement or whatever it may be, the whole range of things.
“The grid procedures we’re doing with the We Race As One and the certain gestures people are doing, trying to bring everybody together because we are a united force. And to be honest, even over my three years in F1, I have noticed the growth of how united we are, especially last year. It’s after almost every drivers’ meeting, all the drivers stay on together just the 20 of us, to talk about certain issues.”
With one generation of F1 talents potentially eyeing retirement over the coming years – Raikkonen, Vettel, Alonso, Hamilton – Russell identifies Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc as his two likely long-term rivals. “They’re the two I suspect will be at the top in the future,” he says.
“Max in this past year and a half, two years, has really come into another level, to be honest. I think that has been a factor of firstly being an incredible driver, but being in the same team, just that consistency is something that just naturally comes along.
“Charles is only in his third season now with Ferrari, I still think it takes a bit of time for all of these small updates to be directed in a way that will suit you personally as a driver. But they’re both absolutely incredible drivers and they’re going to be able top of this for the coming 10 years.”
He predicts a “fierce rivalry” between them in the future. “So I look forward to that challenge whether that’s fighting against them in different cars or whether that’s fighting against each other as team mates.”
Russell’s reference to potentially appearing as a team mate to one of them suggests he heard McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown’s recent prediction that both of Mercedes drivers will leave at the end of the season and the team will promote Russell while luring Verstappen away from Red Bull.
Alternatively, that he could end up outside the Mercedes fold. But he insists he’s “not really thought about that” and is secure in the belief the three-pointed star will do what’s best for his career.
“Mercedes have always put their faith in me and everything’s been on course. They signed me in 2016, put me in GP3 and the goal was win it. Then it was F2, goal was win it and you’ll be in F1. And the deal at the time was a three-year deal. We’re in our third season now.
“What will happen for next year? Time will only tell, but they’ve had my back and faith in me since day one and I continue to have my faith in them, that they’ll give me the best opportunity for me to succeed in the future.”
Russell could hardly have given a better account of himself to the team in Bahrain last year, but he is adamant he could do much better if he gets the seat full-time.
“I managed to get that fantastic opportunity last year but in Bahrain I thought I was not even close to the limits because I didn’t know the car, the set-up wasn’t designed for me, I was uncomfortable, I was in pain while driving. I just made the most of a difficult situation.
“I thought that was the absolute maximum potential given the experience, but nowhere near the potential what could have been, had that been a full season.”
Running in the lead for so long, only to be relegated to ninth at the finish, was undoubtedly a major disappointment. However Russell says the challenges he faced earlier in his career equipped him well to confront them.
“I think in life, if you have a smooth run, when you get to the top, as I said about Bahrain, you’re always going to have massive disappointments. And if you don’t know how to deal with them, that’s going to brew up inside of you, eat you up and affect your performance.
“Moments for me like last year in Imola, crashing, or in my junior career, I had a really tough season in F3 2015 and in karting in 2013. They were my… 2013 and 2015 were my two toughest years of motorsport and that has really helped me to develop.
“That race in Bahrain with Mercedes obviously was an incredibly difficult pill to swallow but I’m over it now and I’m past it and through it. I think that had I had a different upbringing and a different career path, it would probably still be here haunting me today.”
If that was a difficult pill to swallow, what followed in Sunday’s race was a tougher and different kind of disappointment to come to terms with.
Following his heat-of-the-moment reaction, the Monday apology was a return to the Russell we recognise. The coping mechanism has kicked in, and he is already pressing on with the task of demonstrating to Mercedes he is the next driver they need.
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