As the rear of the Mercedes started to twitch sideways at 140 mph, I instantly regretted mentioning Lando Norris. Sitting in the passenger seat of a 577 bhp Mercedes AMG GTR, I struggled to finish my sentence as the car danced towards the grass and gravel lining the outside of Monza’s Curva Grande.
No, Norris was definitely not a good conversation starter.
My driver, George Russell, has dedicated his season so far to beating the McLaren wonderkid, and despite receiving only a small percentage of the fanfare, currently leads Norris by 22 points in the Formula 2 standings. By most accounts, Russell has been the more impressive driver in F1’s feeder series this season, but unlike Norris there is no guarantee of a Formula One race seat at the end of it. And as the car squirmed under braking for Monza’s tight second chicane, it seemed Russell was intent on reminding me of that.
“There has been a huge amount of hype around Norris this year, but I think that’s positive for me,” Russel had said in the calmer surroundings of the Mercedes motorhome earlier that day. “I knew what I was capable of and I was really excited to be racing against him this year.
“I told him and his manager at the end of last year that I wanted to be teammates with him and I told [my F2 team] ART that I wanted to be teammates with him because I know how much talk and hype there is around him. At the end of the day, if he beats me then fair enough, but if I beat him then that’s fantastic for me.
“I think the more hype there is about another driver, it just gives more credit to somebody else when they outperform him.”
Like most F1 hopefuls, Russell’s racing career started out in go-karts at the age of eight. His older brother had competed in karting at a national level a decade earlier and the lessons learned helped Russell immeasurably on the ultra-competitive first rung of the motorsport ladder.
“When I was in karting it was ‘dad and lad ‘really,” he explained. “My dad was my mechanic from [the age of] eight to 12 and when I started off we just did it out of the back of a motorhome.
“My father made a lot of mistakes with my brother, because with anything you have to learn and give it experience, so I was fortunate enough for him to learn and get the experience with my brother and put me on the right track at an early age.”
Russell enjoyed plenty of success in his early karting career, but the finals of the 2011 European championships in Spain really stands out. Competing in his first season in the KF3 class, he took a comfortable victory against more experienced opposition, including current F1 drivers Max Verstappen, Esteban Ocon and Lance Stroll. He looked set to take the faster kart classes by storm, but over the space of a winter found himself starting to struggle.
“One thing that I noticed, and it’s a bit unfair, is that the taller I got, the less competitive I was,” Russell said. “I had a big growth spurt at the end of 2011 into 2012 and at the end of 2011 we were arguably the quickest everywhere we went. At the start of 2012, in the winter, we were also quick but as soon as it started to get hot and there was a lot of rubber on the track, the kart tended to bog down because there was so much grip and we didn’t have enough power to pull me off the corner.
“As a taller driver that didn’t help and also there was also just the extra drag. I only had a year and half where I noticed it and struggled with it, but it was too consistent for it to be a coincidence.”
Russell graduated from karting at the end of 2013 and decided to split his 2014 campaign between British Formula 4 and European Formula Renault 2.0-litre. However, in order to bolster his CV to allow him to race in Europe, his career took an unusual detour via Citroen 2CV racing.
“There was a ridiculous rule that if you wanted an international racing licence you had to get so many signatures from certain people via races in Britain. But the first Formula Renault race was before my first Formula 4 race, so therefore I couldn’t get the signatures. So me and three other guys had to go and race these Citroen 2CVs at Oulton Park to get these signatures.
“I qualified 10 seconds off the pace but the track was flat out everywhere and my friend was 16 seconds off the pace. We hit the brakes for one corner and there was a maximum speed of something like 60 mph.
“I remember I made a really good start and got up to third and this other guy started pushing me around the lap and my lap time suddenly improved by about five seconds because this guy was pushing me!”
With his international racing licence secure, Russell’s two-pronged approach to 2014 was met with mixed success as he powered to the championship in F4 while struggling with a suspected chassis issue for the vast majority of his season in Formula Renault. Nothing was certain at that stage, but at the end of the year he got hold of Toto Wolff’s email address and, with nothing to lose, sent the Mercedes boss an unsolicited email.
“I wasn’t expecting a reply whatsoever and I was in Abu Dhabi for a GP3 test at the time,” he recalls. “I decided to send this email at 10:30 at night, put my phone away and woke up the next morning and Toto had replied literally 15 minutes later! He said ‘Hi George, thanks for your email, your CV is very impressive and copied is my PA, send him an email and we will sort out a meeting’.
“So about two weeks later I was sat in his office and we were having a discussion. I told him that I was going to be racing F3 next year and that I’d done a test with Carlin, which used Volkswagen engines, and Mucke, which used Mercedes, and he recommended me to go with Mucke.
“But my test with them didn’t go overly well and I enjoyed the environment at Carlin more, so I sent him another email three weeks later saying, ‘Thanks for all the advice but I’ve decided to go with Carlin’. I gave him my reasons — I felt a British team was good for me — and he emailed me back saying ‘Great to meet you but I think you’re making the wrong decision’.”
Turning down the advice of a Formula One team boss at the age of 16 seems like a bold move, but Russell was confident he’d made the right choice. “I knew at the end of the day a guy like Toto is only interested in results, so that’s why I chose Carlin.”
But it wasn’t just Mercedes showing an interest. At the end of 2014 Russell won the McLaren Autosport BRDC award for young British drivers, elevating his profile significantly among F1 teams. Part of the competition involved driving a DTM car and one of the engineers running the car that day found himself at BMW the following year. He made clear to his new bosses that the award’s winner was worth pursuing and by the start of 2016 Russell had a dream opportunity with a German manufacturer other than Mercedes.
“In January I got an email from BMW saying they’d like to have a meeting about me becoming a DTM reserve driver. This came out of nowhere, so I was like ‘blimey!’ Two or three days later I was on a plane to have a meeting in Germany and one week after that I was sat in the car doing a test for BMW in DTM. I was just like ‘what is going on here?’
“It all went very well and I signed a contract with BMW to be an unofficial reserve driver because I was still young and in my first year in F3 and I wanted to see how I would progress. Then at the end of that season I did the young driver test in DTM and all the teams brought one of their race drivers to be the benchmark and after half a day I was quicker than the benchmark and much quicker than all the other drivers I was testing against.
“So one day later BMW was on the phone and they said, firstly, they were really sorry that there was no race seat for following season, but they ended up offering me reserve driver role for 2016, two races and a race drive for 2017.
“It was going to be a big salary and at this time Formula One was not even on my radar because no teams were that interested. I thought I had to take it. I was 17 years old, I had an opportunity to actually race in DTM that year and with a full contract for the next year! I thought that this was going to be a fantastic career and that I’d pretty much be sorted.”
After years of putting a budget together to go racing, Russell was now being offered a pay drive — in essence he’d achieved his dream of becoming a professional racing driver. But at this point one of the most influential characters in Russell’s career stepped in.
Gwen Lagrue, now head of Mercedes’ young driver programme, had been watching and supporting Russell since go-karts. He had just brokered a deal for Esteban Ocon to join Mercedes’ burgeoning junior programme and felt Russell should be next in line. He caught wind of the BMW offer and immediately arranged to get Russell in the Mercedes’ simulator to prove to the F1 team that it should make a counter offer.
“I was in a tricky position because Mercedes basically offered me an assessment on the simulator and then, come October 1, they would let me know if they would take me on as a junior driver for the following year,” Russell said. “So I had to consider, do I take this option — and all it was was an option — because Mercedes could turn around and say no at any point. I’d also be going into F3 that year with a brand new team and no idea of how I would perform.
“Meanwhile, BMW was offering a potential career that could have sorted me for the next 20 years of my life! It was an extremely tough decision, but I thought I’m still young, I still want to get into Formula One and I took the option deal with Mercedes and did the simulator stuff with them.”
The simulator testing went well, but the F3 season wasn’t so great. Russell finished third behind current F2 driver Maximilian Guenther and current F1 driver Lance Stroll.
“I actually struggled in F3 and my results were tough. We had a few issues with the car and as a team we all struggled, but I out-qualified my teammate 28 out of 30 times. I think Mercedes recognised that and they were pleased with my performance.
“It’s like in Formula One, you can’t win in a midfield team but if you are performing well enough they recognise that. There was a bit of pressure and a bit tension, but all of a sudden I got a phone call from Mercedes saying we are going to take you for next year and you are going to race GP3 with ART, so that was pretty cool.
“In the space of a year, my career went from not really looking like much was going to be happen to having a contract on the table with BMW to then being a Mercedes junior driver on the F1 programme. It was like a whirlwind ride at that point but a fantastic opportunity and incredible to get picked up by Mercedes.”
In 2017 Russell dominated GP3, lining him up for a move to F2 this year. The field has undoubtedly been more competitive than in recent seasons but poor reliability from F2’s new car has skewed the results of almost every driver. Nevertheless, Russell, who had particularly damaging reliability issues in Monaco and Budapest, still leads Norris by 22 points.
And yet, while Norris has a seat at McLaren confirmed for 2019, Russell’s next step is less obvious. He has completed Friday practice sessions with Force India in recent years, but under the new ownership of Lawrence Stroll — the father of Lance — any chance of progressing to a race seat appears to have been blocked off.
“I think it’s not going to be as much of a natural step into F1 as we first thought, and I think as a whole package it’s much harder than we anticipated really,” Russell said. “So much has changed and potentially drivers who weren’t looking for seats are now looking for seats. There’s outside contenders coming in who teams are looking at and considering. But at the end of the day, I think what is clear for me is that I’ve just got to perform.
“If I perform in F2, that’s the highest level below Formula One and teams will recognise that. Teams want drivers who are performing and doing well, so I’m still in a good position at the moment and being a Mercedes backed driver, the obvious choice would be to be in a Mercedes-powered team, so either Williams or Force India.”
But Ocon, who is several seasons ahead of Russell in Mercedes’ young driver programme, is also struggling to find a drive. Wolff has talked about his desire for top teams to have a third car to run young drivers, but even that would be a long-term solution that is unlikely to help Russell for next year.
Russell wouldn’t be where he is now without backing from Mercedes, but that same backing has ostracised him from the 2019 driver market with rival teams unwilling to give up a valuable seat to a driver who remains under contract to the world champions. Russell insists driving for a non-Mercedes-powered team is not completely off the agenda, but it seems Williams, which is set to lose Stroll to Force India, is Russell’s best bet.
“I think Williams are certainly a team I really admire and have huge history and a fantastic team that have often taken the gamble in the past and taken young drivers. I feel like that would be a fantastic place for me to start my F1 career and be part of the history, and hopefully part of their resurgence as they go back to the positions they should be fighting for.
“What’s clear with Mercedes is that they are not going to push for me for a Formula One seat just because I’m a Mercedes-backed driver, they are only going to push for me to get an F1 seat if they believe I really deserve it. And if there are no seats in Williams or Force India for me, they will push elsewhere. But as I said, this always come back to me performing and if I want that opportunity I have to make it happen for myself.”