My time has come: Williams driver George Russell wants promotion to Mercedes and a chance to fight for the Formula One world championship after impressing when standing in for Sir Lewis Hamilton in Bahrain last year
- George Russell, 23, wants to become next British Formula One world champion
- He stepped into the Covid-19-hit Lewis Hamilton’s shoes superbly in December
- Russell and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen are reportedly top of Toto Wolff’s wishlist
This is not a job application from George Russell, but it might as well be. It is addressed to Mr Toto Wolff; the rest of us are copied in.
The 23-year-old, who wants to become Britain’s next Formula One world champion and has the best chance of succeeding in that ambition, believes his moment for promotion into the all-conquering Mercedes team should be arriving fast.
There is no time now for sitting on fences, or evading questions, or hiding his desire. That reticence ends here — markedly Russell’s most candid expression of intent during his young and promising career.
Williams driver George Russell has spoken about his ambition to become F1 world champion
The 22-year-old (left) is at the British team alongside Canadian Nicholas Latifi (pictured right)
The situation is that the King’s Lynn-born star is part of Mercedes’ young driver programme and, after winning the Formula Two title in 2018, is entering his third season for Williams.
He temporarily stepped into the Mercedes seat when Lewis Hamilton went down with Covid last December and produced a dazzlingly mature and forceful drive at the Sakhir Grand Prix in Bahrain, a race he would have won emphatically but for a pit-stop blooper and then a late puncture.
His performance put the wind up Hamilton, who crawled off his sick bed to prevent Russell from having the chance to fill in for him again in the final race in Abu Dhabi. But the balance of power had shifted. Hamilton, now Sir Lewis, went on to sign just a one-year deal to shoot for an eighth world title this season.
Russell stepped in superbly for Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes in Bahrain back in December 2020
And Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, also 23, and Russell are spoken of as heading Mercedes boss Wolff’s list of contenders to refresh the team in 2022.
Speaking to Sportsmail from Bahrain, where the season starts on Sunday, Russell said: ‘Winning here in December would have been a fairy tale. But I am not here for fairy tales. I am here to be a Formula One world champion, and this was one small bump in the road.
‘If anything it helped my career rather than harmed it, so I have to be happy with how it worked out. I wanted to seize the moment. I took a chance that does not come about every day. I had to give it everything, as I do for Williams every weekend. But I was outside my comfort zone.
‘I was inside a team I had never raced for before. With engineers I had never engineered with before. In a seat that didn’t fit me. In a cockpit where I didn’t know the buttons. And procedures I was unfamiliar with.
‘I had to unlearn the Williams things and learn the Mercedes things in the space of two days. And on top of that I had to learn how to exploit the car to drive it fast.
And Mercedes boss Toto Wolff (right) is said to see him as a long-term option for the future
‘I could have done more with another shot the following week. I was disappointed I didn’t win, but thought, I can’t just sit here and sulk. You cannot change it. Life goes on.’
But not quite as before. Suddenly Master George, whose yeoman work in a Williams car that was not up to snuff had already won him plaudits from the knowledgeable, was one of the hottest properties in the sport.
Hamilton contacted Russell prior to the race to wish him luck. But he did not congratulate him afterwards. Which tells you everything you need to know about how the weekend impacted on the fortunes of the two individuals.
So what of Russell’s next move? ‘I want to drive in a car that allows me to fight for a championship,’ he said. That is clear. I am a Williams driver. I am backed by Mercedes. My contract with Williams runs out at the end of this year.
‘Everyone presumes I am on a natural path to Mercedes. But we know in racing that there is no natural path. You saw that in Bahrain with me.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen (right) is also on his shortlist for when Lewis Hamilton (left) leaves
‘First, I wasn’t the reserve driver. It could have been Stoffel Vandoorne (the official reserve driver) in the seat instead of me and if that had been the case you and I would probably not be having this conversation.
‘I am not letting myself get carried away. I know that a couple of bad performances, silly mistakes on or off the track, could change things. That is the nature of the beast, and this watchful attitude will govern how I go about my work for the next 15 years.’
Russell has spent lockdown at his parents’ house in Leicestershire with trainer Aleix Casanovas, putting his 6ft 2in frame through its paces in the makeshift gym. The season ahead at Williams will be a tough slog with only Haas likely to be more sluggish, judging by pre-season testing.
But Russell’s confidence contains echoes of Hamilton, aged 21 and on the cusp of his big break at McLaren, as he laid out his future, before living it out. There is a similar certainty of purpose to the polite, focused, determined and demanding Russell.
Russell will be representing Williams rather than Mercedes at Sakhir, Bahrain on March 28
What guarantees, I wonder, has Wolff given him about his immediate prospects? ‘No assurances,’ he said, ‘other than I have been told I am part of Mercedes’ future when the time is right. Toto has never let me down. He has given me his word.
‘When I signed for Williams in 2018, he said I would be there for three years and then we would see. He did not want to rush me to be alongside Lewis, the greatest of all time, too early, and to destroy my career.
‘They believed in my potential and in getting me in at the right moment. At the time it was frustrating, but I think it was the right thing to do. I have a bigger toolbox now to draw from.
‘Now I would be excited to have Max or Lewis as a team-mate. It would be fantastic. I want to go against the very best. Yes, they have the top cars, but they are the best in the business at the moment. I want to prove myself against them.’
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