Almost every racing driver would love to be in George Russell’s position. A drive with the most successful team in the GP3 Series? Check. Young driver programme with the reigning Formula 1 champions? Check. But how does it feel to be in the young Briton’s shoes? “It definitely gives me a lot of self-confidence, and makes me feel appreciated for my career and the job I’ve done up to that point.”
But getting the deal is only part of the job: now the hard work begins. “Yeah, exactly,” Russell confirms as we sit down in the back of the ART truck in the Barcelona paddock, with the young Mercedes driver about to make his GP3 Series debut. “They’re obviously invested in me, and they need me to be successful to take me to the next stage of my career, so from their side they want me to just focus on GP3, and to do my job here.”
So for all of those drivers out there hoping to replicate his success, how do you go about building a relationship with a company like Mercedes? “It all kind of started from racing in Formula 3 really,” Russell begins, “and my first relationship with Mercedes was at the end of 2014, where I did a test for them in F3. I consequentially raced with Volkswagen in my first year until at the end of 2015, when they approached me to be a Mercedes Formula 3 driver, which is a pretty common thing: they usually have 1 or 2 a year.
“I then moved to Hitech in 2016 with a Mercedes engine, and they sent me an email asking me if I would like to do a simulator test on their sim. I had a good couple of days of assessment, they thought I was pretty good, and then I had more of a sim role throughout the 2016 season with them before they then decided at the end of the year to make me a Mercedes F1 junior driver.
“So a lot of it was basically off the back of my being with a Mercedes engine in F3, to my role with the simulator and doing a good job there and with my results, and then getting the phone call really.”
What did it mean to get that call? “I wouldn’t say it was a massive relief, but I had been working so hard on my career to let’s say reach Formula 1, and as you go up the ladder you kind of realise it’s not as easy as you think it is: you think if I win I’ll get there, but it’s sometimes not as easy as that at all.
“Throughout the 2015 season I kind of set my sights on DTM: I had a small link with BMW at that time with the DTM scene, and that became my focus. I just thought Formula 1 is out of reach now, and that’s where I’m focusing towards. And suddenly the opportunity came, they offered me the deal to be a Mercedes young driver in Formula 3, and then they said there’s an opportunity of the F1 simulator stuff depending on how you get on.
“I was quite confident at this point, and I thought I need to take a risk here: if I turned it down and committed to the DTM route then the Mercedes thing was off, and I thought I have to take a risk, do a good job, and hopefully they’ll decide that I’m capable enough to be a part of their F1 driver programme.”
Racing careers turn on decisions like that, and so far it seems to be working out well. What has been the most eye opening part of working so closely with an F1 team? “I do a lot of sim work for them, and I’m learning an awful lot just doing that work: how to develop a car, the amount of work they do, and just how a Formula 1 team works.
“Obviously the guys at ART do a wonderful job, but in Formula 1 they just have so much extra data and resources they can use, and just to see how they use that is mind blowing really. To get an insight into this has made me take a bit of information from there, which has helped a lot on the GP3 side of things.
“It’s definitely been a benefit: their sim is so good, so realistic, that it’s almost like doing laps and laps around a real circuit! If I feel like I need to go to Silverstone, for example, and do a couple of laps at the end of the day because I’m not too comfortable with Silverstone, then I ask if they mind doing a couple of laps, they click a button on the computer, and there we are: we’ve gone from Barcelona to Silverstone in five minutes! From that side of things it’s great.”
And away from the circuit do they give you any help? “Yes, what they’ve done is give me a Hintsa Performance coach: a lot of the F1 guys, I think 12 of them, use Hintsa Performance, so I’ve been really lucky because I’ve been given a guy who has moved over to the UK to be my full time trainer, and that’s been a massive help.
“Obviously I was already doing full time training before, and eating well, but since having him here alongside me everything has just gone to another level really. At the stage I’m at in my career now that’s been really important: there’s such a fine line with everything. And I know that at any time I could potentially get a call saying ‘we need you to test here’, and I’ve got to be ready for that, and for the next stage of my career.”
But the focus has to be on the here and now, and Russell knows that, no matter how tempting it would be to hang around the F1 scene, his real priority has to be on his current job. “They’ve given me a pass for the [F1] paddock, which is great and I can go over there anytime I want, but I’ve decided to myself that I’m here to do one job: my main job is GP3, my Mercedes role is secondary, and they’re completely on board with that.
“From their side they need me to go out and be successful this year, and then the next stage of my career will follow from that. But for now my number 1 priority is GP3, and my Mercedes role is secondary.”
He got a double points haul on his debut, and the recent test at the Hungaroring demonstrated that the hard work is starting to pay off when he topped the first day: next stop Austria, to turn the testing results into racing success.
Watch this space.