George Russell exclusive interview: 'These last races will be emotional - I want to do Frank Williams proud'

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  • George Russell
    George Russell
    British racing driver
  • Lewis Hamilton
    Lewis Hamilton
    British racing driver
George Russell Williams - GETTY IMAGES
George Russell Williams - GETTY IMAGES

This was already shaping up to be an emotional fortnight for George Russell. After three seasons at Williams, the team who gave him his big break in Formula 1, the 23 year-old will be flying the nest following the Abu Dhabi race next weekend, saying goodbye to what he calls his motorsport “family” as he gets ready for the not inconsiderable task of teaming up with Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes.

Then last Sunday came the sad news of Sir Frank Williams’ death at the age of 79. Suddenly the weekend in Saudi Arabia has taken on a whole different hue.

“It’s hard to put into words what Frank meant to this team,” Russell says of the Williams founder. “He was just such an icon of the sport. Obviously for me, growing up and watching F1 and dreaming of being a Formula 1 driver, I mean, it was every kid’s dream to be part of a team like Williams…I’m just so incredibly proud to be able to say I raced for him.”

Williams, of course, was no longer actively running the team by the time Russell joined. The team he began from scratch, famously conducting business from a red phone booth at one point after the ‘office’ was disconnected due to unpaid bills, was sold to private investment firm Dorilton Capital last year.

But Russell is adamant his DNA remains. “Absolutely,” he says. “I think what this team stands for, its values, will always be the same. And I think it’s great to see with this transition of ownership that that core, almost like a family feel, rather than a big corporation, has been retained.

“But I also think it's really exciting to see some of the small changes that are happening to build on those foundations, to push the team further up the grid.”

Russell will no longer be part of that push as of next week. One chapter of his career is coming to a close. Another, hugely exciting one, is about to begin.

He will not be starting completely from scratch. Russell has been part of Mercedes’ junior driver programme since 2017. He even raced for the team last season after Hamilton went down with Covid (and might have won in Bahrain but for a Mercedes cock-up). But it is fair to say it is going to be a big step up; taking on a man who could by then be an eight-time champion.

George Russell Lewis Hamilton - AFP
George Russell Lewis Hamilton - AFP

So, is he feeling the pressure? “To be honest I feel really relaxed,” he says. “Honestly, I think I'm in a really privileged position, teaming up with one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of all time. I can just go in with an open mind and see what I can do.

“Going up against Lewis probably takes the pressure off if anything, because no one will expect me to beat him. So in a way, it's a win-win situation.”

Russell smiles. He is clearly anxious to avoid saying the wrong thing, acutely aware that a careless remark at this stage could create problems for his new team (and therefore himself) at what is a critical moment of Mercedes’ season. Questions about whether he might have the pace to trouble Hamilton are gently batted back.

“What would be the point of saying it?” he asks. “I’m not the kind of guy who says ‘I’m the fastest’. But I believe I’ve got the potential to achieve great things. 100 per cent.”

Russell, in fact, comes across as pretty serious all round. Whereas Lando Norris - his contemporary and compatriot at McLaren - is all banter and bromance with team mate Daniel Ricciardo, Russell cuts a more earnest figure.

He has always been that way. In an interview with Telegraph Sport after his move to Mercedes was confirmed back in September, Claire Williams recalled how the young Russell used to pitch up at her office in the Williams motorhome, back when he was a F3 and F2 driver, armed with a little black notebook, eager to jot down any pearls of wisdom. “He was so diligent,” she said. “And I loved the notebook. I loved how presentable he always was, and how eloquent.”

'Lewis is absolutely relentless. I have tried to take that from him'

Rusell remains as diligent as ever. He rarely goes out - although he says that is partly down to Covid - rarely ventures ‘below the line’ on articles, and is actively trying to cut back on social media (“Does listening to positive feedback make me faster? No. It probably boosts my ego slightly but it doesn’t make me any faster. And equally listening to negative feedback doesn’t make me faster either.”)

“I think it’s because I've had to work for it throughout my career, you know,” he explains of his character. “There are other guys who have had it handed to them, who have been in a more privileged position. If I want to compete against them, I feel I need to do more in other ways to prove myself.”

Russell says that is a lesson he has already assimilated from time spent with Hamilton. “Everyone has this perception that he arrives from a fashion show and jumps straight in the car and, bang, he’s quickest,” he says. “Even I had a perception of him as, you know, the Greatest Of All Time, incredibly talented and so on. But he’s absolutely relentless. I have tried to take that from him. I believe I work as hard as anyone on the grid now.”

Time will tell what the limits are for Russell. After a holiday around Christmas-time “to recharge the batteries”, he plans to hit the ground running in the new year.

“I will be doing a big training camp to try to frontload the season,” he says. “Because again I recognise the demands that will come from Mercedes, not necessarily just from a driving perspective, but all of the marketing and sponsorship events that come with being in a high-profile Formula 1 team. I haven’t really experienced that, even less so with Covid.”

For now, though, he just wants to focus on what he says will be a “hugely emotional” final two races for Williams.

“I’ve built such a bond with this team over these three years,” he reflects. “It will always be part of me. I just want to go out there and give it my all, in Frank’s honour, to try and achieve the best result possible, as he always wanted us to do."

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