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When Lewis Hamilton posted on Twitter earlier this season that he was hoping to introduce George Russell to the joys of skydiving, a few wags joked that the seven-time world champion must be getting so tired of being beaten by his younger team-mate he had resolved to chuck him out of an aeroplane.
Never mind that Hamilton’s message was above a picture of the two of them standing grinning with their surfboards in Melbourne after a bit of intra-team bonding, there remains a suspicion in some quarters that their bonhomie must be false. That Hamilton must be throwing his toys out of the pram by now.
Hamilton, after all, “passionately hates” being beaten by his team-mates. So said 2016 world champion Nico Rosberg (a man who famously retired after his title triumph rather than go mano-a-mano with his Mercedes team-mate again) just last week. Two-time world champion Mika Hakkinen, meanwhile, suggested a month or two ago that Hamilton was probably thinking of switching teams, so hard would he be finding the current state of affairs. “I can imagine the sulking,” Hakkinen said. “There’s lots of complaining and whining.”
Russell shakes his head when the suggestion is put to him. His experience of Hamilton has been very different. “Lewis has been absolutely spot on, every single race,” Russell says firmly of their relationship. “He's always congratulated me if I've had a good result. There's never been any hard feelings, whatever the result or the outcome.” The respect is mutual, with Russell publicly tweeting his admiration for Hamilton on Tuesday, saying the 37 year-old had “done more for the sport than any driver in history” after it emerged that Nelson Piquet Snr had used a racist term to describe the Briton.
Huge respect to LH. He has done more for the sport than any driver in history, not just on track but off it. The fact that he and so many others are STILL having to deal with this behaviour is unacceptable. We all need to stand together against discrimination of any kind. https://t.co/E4c1jFQKtf
— George Russell (@GeorgeRussell63) June 28, 2022
“The relationship [between us] has far exceeded my expectations,” he adds. “Not that I expected anything to be sour, but it's been a very good start to the season in that regard.”
Russell, truth be told, has been as sure-footed out of the cockpit in his debut season with Mercedes as he has been in it. And he has been very sure-footed in it. Despite a car which has been, at times, “undriveable”, the 24-year-old finds himself sitting fourth in the championship heading into his home grand prix at Silverstone this weekend. That is mainly thanks to a remarkable run which has seen him finish in the top five in all nine grands prix so far this year, the only driver on the grid to do so.
On the day we meet, at the team’s headquarters in Brackley, Russell is feeling a little under the weather. Back-to-back races in Azerbaijan and Canada have taken their toll, although Russell admits he was thankful he was not bumped down to Economy for the flight back from Montreal, a fate which, he chuckles, befell Alpine’s Esteban Ocon. In general, though, he is delighted with how his first six months have gone, even if the increase in his public profile has been at times unsettling.
Russell admits he will probably end up moving out of his London flat in the not-too-distant future. “At the moment it’s spot on for what I need. But I think I need to find somewhere where I feel totally comfortable. I do find myself just going from my floor in the building down to the gym. And the only place I would ever go for dinner would be across the road to my local. It's less of a palaver for me, for my girlfriend, or if I'm with friends.”
Russell says he and his girlfriend Carmen even had their first experience of being “papped” while on holiday. “It is something I'd never experienced before,” he says. “Also a couple of times fans have followed us in the streets. Most of the time it's with good intentions. But it's a bit uncomfortable.
“It’s not like I have security with me wherever I go. I don't feel I need it. I don't think of myself as famous. I still find it strange when people recognise me in the street.”
Russell will not have any trouble being recognised at Silverstone this weekend. A record crowd of 356,000 is expected to cram into the Northamptonshire airfield over the course of the weekend, and they will all be desperate to catch a glimpse of one of the rising stars of British motorsport.
Russell, who will be staying in a camper van on site, cannot wait. He has memories of getting Hamilton’s autograph back in 2009 when he was invited as part of Formula Kart Stars. Now they are friends and team-mates.
Russell is hoping Mercedes can spring a surprise. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen may look “bulletproof” right now, but Russell, 64pts back, is adamant he is still in this championship.
“Absolutely,” he says. “It's a hell of a long way to go. You got to keep on believing. I went to every single race for the last three years for Williams thinking l could win. You've got to believe it, because if you don't believe it, you're defeated before you even start.”