Never short of confidence, George Russell revealed after his maiden Formula One win at the Brazilian Grand Prix last week that he felt it had simply been a matter of doing everything right. In his words, he expected himself to “do your thing, get into the groove”. Which is a disarmingly self-possessed description of what was an immense drive at Interlagos.
He made it sound almost effortless but Russell is not at Mercedes, one of F1’s top teams, by accident nor did he clinch that win through anything but a relentless commitment that has marked him out as a potential future world champion.
Speaking before this weekend’s season finale, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, his victory still resonated. “I’m just very proud of the achievement,” he said. “It’s something I’ve worked my whole life towards, what you dream of as a child and my years in Formula One, you dream of that moment.”
So accomplished was the victory that Mercedes’ team principal, Toto Wolff, conceded Russell deserved to have been promoted from his F1 apprenticeship with Williams even sooner. “I guess at Williams he was the best school kid we could have had, maybe a year too long,” he said.
The 24-year-old from King’s Lynn would doubtless have leapt at such a chance, especially given the baptism of fire he has experienced this season after stepping up to Mercedes. It has been a brutal rise to the front of the grid, battling with a car that is off the pace, for a long period a beast to drive, suffering from porpoising and bouncing sufficient to rattle any fillings.
His attitude, defined by a rigorous positivity, has been crucial in seeing him through the year, such that when Mercedes finally had the W13 up to speed in Brazil he was ready to take advantage, as he told the Guardian several weeks ago when considering what he might achieve in the final races of the season.
“You have to just seize your opportunities, nothing is ever guaranteed,” he said. “You have to try from every difficult situation to spin it into a positive. You can’t sit sulking that you are not winning. You have to see every race as an opportunity to learn and develop. If you can’t fight for victories, be there to improve yourself and the team.”
This is the mindset of a wiser, more experienced driver and which bore fruit in Brazil. Russell led from the pole
yet it was far from straightforward. He had to be quick, to work his tyres well, hold it together through two safety car restarts and see off a concerted attack by his teammate, the seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton, over the final laps.
Few were surprised. Russell had demonstrated just such control when he stood in at Mercedes for a Covid-stricken Hamilton at the Sakhir GP last year. He would surely have won there but for a team pit error and a puncture. There were tears in Bahrain as he slumped to the ground in disappointment but that experience and Mercedes’ travails this year are lessons from a crucible he has embraced.
“Winning in a way is easy, because everybody is happy, you are celebrating on Sunday night, your emotions are not being tested when you are successful,” he said. “No one needs a lesson in how to drink a glass of champagne or celebrate but when you have a really tough weekend and the whole team have put in such an effort, to not get a result at the end of it, we feel that and we have to dig deeper than ever.”
Always a considered character, it is instructive that he went to Wolff for career advice when he was 16 and delivered a powerpoint presentation on why he thought he could drive for Mercedes. After being taken on as a Mercedes junior he was tasked by Wolff to prove himself by winning GP3 and F2. He did so in his rookie season of each in 2017 and 2018.
Placed with Williams in 2019, he served his apprenticeship in a car mired at the back of the grid but consistently outperformed in it. That he has coped so admirably with Mercedes’ issues this season is surely a result of putting in those hard yards at Williams.
He has since demonstrated the equanimity and empathy with teammates this fostered, not least after a tough race in Singapore, where Mercedes believed a win was possible but which became a weekend to forget for Russell. A handling problem in qualifying left him 11th on the grid and he then started from the pit lane as Mercedes opted to take a new engine, from which he could recover only to 14th. It was a bitter disappointment but typically Russell believed the adversity only built a closer bond with his team.
“It was the first weekend where I hugged every single team member after the race,” he said. “Everyone was so deflated at how it panned out. We all needed a lift.”
There is already a sense that Russell is fine-tuning his skills. As with Hamilton, the natural talent is clear but he is honing every aspect of his character. Indeed, in a sport where mental strength is vital, Russell is happy to admit he nurtures psychological well-being in the same way he does his physical health.
“On a professional level I have a psychologist I talk to here and there, whenever I feel like I need to,” he said. “I feel it’s important to talk to a professional if you have something weighing you down.”
It demonstrates his endearingly straightforward qualities. Much has been made of what a hard time Mercedes’ drivers have had this year yet Russell is that rare breed, similar to Hamilton, who is more than aware of the bigger picture outside the F1 bubble.
“People talk about me having a tough time but I am travelling the world racing an F1 car for a team like Mercedes,” he said. “I am not happy with finishing in second, third, fourth or fifth, I want to win, I want to fight for a championship but the fact is I’m not going through a difficult time.”
Last weekend Russell had a taste of just how good it can be and the prospect of another promising step was raised during practice in Abu Dhabi, Mercedes finishing in a one-two in the first session and Russell four-tenths off Max Verstappen in the second.
When the flag falls in Abu Dhabi he can take a real sense of satisfaction into the close season having served notice of what a formidable proposition he will be with the right car under him. Indeed, F1’s newest winner expects to get his groove on to even greater effect in the coming years.
“There is room to improve I feel,” he said. “I still feel I have a lot more in my locker and that gives me confidence for the future.”