“I’m here to win, that’s what I live for in racing.” It's a familiar trope of the racing driver's vocabulary, but the difference for George Russell is there are many who believe winning is exactly what he'll do. 

Russell is eager to place himself first in line to take the crown currently worn by Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton, and he has shown plenty of the hallmarks required to do so. 

It's a high expectation for a driver yet to score a point in F1, but headline stats don't come close to telling the full story Russell has been developing. 

Russell was thrust into the middle of a crisis scenario at Williams in what became a difficult rookie campaign as the former world champion squad slumped to new lows against the backdrop of internal wrangles and heavy financial losses.

But Williams has turned a corner this year with its FW43 car and Russell has so far grasped the opportunity with both hands to flourish, leading the British outfit’s continued recovery push as the team’s most experienced driver. 

He will be looking to make it three Q2 appearances in a row at this weekend’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone - his home race. It is impressive displays such as these which suggest that in more competitive machinery, Russell has the credentials to shine. 

And as Mercedes’ highest-placed junior, the 22-year-old is well-positioned to land himself such an opportunity in the future. 

But with Russell confirmed to be staying at Williams for at least one more year in 2021, his wait to be in a position to be winning races and fighting for championships may have to go on a little while longer.  

In the meantime, he has been subjected to watching greatness unfold before him from a vantage point further back on the grid than he would have liked, as Lewis Hamilton continues his quest to match Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of seven world championships - a feat he could achieve this year. 

Hamilton-Mercedes combo an ‘incredible machine’ 

Hamilton is the current benchmark in F1, having racked up more pole positions than any other driver in history and found himself closing in on Schumacher’s tally of 91 race wins. He appears on course to land a historic seventh drivers’ world title this year after winning two of the first three races of the delayed 2020 campaign. 

While much of Hamilton’s success has been put down to his raw natural abilities, there is a side to the six-time world champion’s glory that goes unseen. Having watched Hamilton at work first-hand during a year spent as Mercedes’ reserve driver in 2018, Russell says it is his fellow countryman’s worth ethic and attention to detail that also stands out. 

“I’ve got massive respect for Lewis,” Russell told me when I sat down with him via Zoom ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix to talk about his growing prospects in the sport. 

“What he does on-track is incredible. I’ve seen him first-hand working with the guys at Mercedes when I was there as reserve driver. 

“Not a lot of people may realise it but he works incredibly hard. Obviously in recent times, what he is doing with the fight against racism and for equality, among a load of things, is great to see. 

“I have the utmost respect for him. All of us drivers are dreaming to be a Formula 1 world champion. To go on to have half the career that Lewis has had would be an incredible achievement.” 

And it was during his time observing the way Hamilton works in the Mercedes garage and in debriefs that Russell has picked up some priceless experience and valuable information that has helped him on his journey to F1.  

“I learnt that he does not rely purely on natural talent,” he explained. “From the outside a lot of people just perceive that he is incredibly naturally talented, jumps in the car and is incredibly quick. 

“That is definitely the case, but he doesn’t solely rely on that. He works incredibly hard with his engineers to get milliseconds out of that car. I think the whole package is an incredible machine. What he does with the team, his engineers around him. 

“I have had some small bits of advice from him in the past, and actually a few things that have helped me quite a lot along my journey through F2 and into F1.” 

That advice has served Russell well. Despite being yet to score a maiden world championship point, Russell has shown traits of becoming a leader at Williams through its recent adversity. 

There is a well-known saying that hard times teach the most valuable lessons in life, and it is through being involved in Williams’ recovery effort that Russell has gained responsibility for pushing the team’s development and learning skills that he believes has made him a stronger and more complete driver

Taking on Britain's F1 baton 

There is a real possibility that Russell will be tasked with taking over from Hamilton in leading Britain’s F1 charge, alongside fellow rising star and current McLaren driver Lando Norris.

While Hamilton has no short-term intentions to walk away from the sport and is likely to remain at Mercedes for at least two more years, at 35-years-old, his latest negotiations could turn out to be his final F1 contract. 

Hamilton has been at the forefront of British motorsport’s success for well over a decade since he first burst onto the scene as a fresh-faced rookie in 2007 and his absence will make F1 a poorer place, but grand prix racing is no stranger to going through a changing of the guard. 

“I guess in anything people go through the ranks and it’s obviously a great time for F1 fans to admire what he is doing,” Russell said. “But obviously one day he is going to hang up his shoes. 

“I’ve not really thought that far ahead really. I think a lot of people are hoping that day comes sooner than later because he’s making it pretty difficult for the guys fighting at the front. 

“Obviously for me at the moment in the position we are in at Williams, he’s not really my main focus. I’m just focusing on my job and trying to deliver the best I can week-in, week-out.” 

Indeed, there is also a chance that Russell could become teammates with Hamilton at Mercedes, potentially as early as 2022. And Russell would not shy away from such a prospect, stressing he would “relish” the opportunity to go up against Hamilton in equal machinery to prove himself. 

“Lewis is the benchmark and I want to be compared against the best,” he said. 

“I think I know where my level is at but until I get tested by the best, I won’t truly know. I’m sure there’s bits I can learn from him, so I’d relish that challenge.” 

Williams deputy team principal Claire Williams explained how she was determined to ensure Russell saw out the final year of his three-year contract with the Grove outfit, despite being linked to Mercedes for next year. 

“I was nervous because he is so good,” Williams told the F1 Nation podcast. 

“I didn’t want to lose him, but equally I’m not one of those people who will stand in someone’s way when they have got a great opportunity. 

“I think I proved that with Valtteri Bottas when he went to Mercedes a number of years ago… but that hasn’t happened and I’m pleased that George is staying with us. We have him for another year and he’s a joy to have around the place.”

Asked if she considers Russell to be in the same bracket as Williams greats of the past including Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill and Nico Rosberg, Williams replied: “Yes, 100 percent, and I would move heaven and earth to make George a world champion at Williams.

“George is his own person, but the talent is absolutely there. Combined with the commitment, dedication and singular focus he has, I can’t speak highly enough of him. We’re just very lucky he’s in the team with us.”

No bad feelings towards starring rivals 

While Russell has been unable to show his true talents in the struggling Williams over the past 16 months, the likes of Norris and Alex Albon have impressed at McLaren and Red Bull respectively. 

The Briton convincingly beat both Norris and Albon on his way to winning the 2018 Formula 2 title, having triumphed in the GP3 championship the previous year, though his at times brilliant performances for Williams since arriving in F1 have been overshadowed by his rivals. 

Despite witnessing Norris achieve podiums and plaudits this season, Russell has no frustration or jealousy at having to play a more under-the-radar role at this stage of his career. 

“I’m not here to wank around at the back,” he explained. 

“I’m here to do well. I have got a lot of respect and I’m happy to the likes of Lando and Alex getting these good performances. 

“The better they do, the better it looks for me as well. Obviously it’s a difficult time for all at Williams at the moment but I keep going as I am and hopefully the day will come.” 

So what exactly would Russell define as success five years down the line? When asked that very question, Russell replied: “I want to be a race-winner and a world champion. 

“So that’s still the goal and that won’t change.” 

Hamilton may be F1’s current master, but in Russell he has an apprentice waiting in the wings to take the sport by storm.

 

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