For a 21-year-old, George Russell exudes a preternatural poise. In front of a 5,000-strong crowd in Melbourne’s Federation Square, he shows none of the rabbit-in-headlights terror common to Formula One debutants, only an insouciant certainty that this is where he belongs. Half an hour in his company soon confirms that such nonchalance is far from an act. “I always thought, not in an arrogant way, that I had a great chance,” he says, preparing for his big-league baptism in Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix. “When Williams confirmed that I was getting the drive, yes, it was a lifelong dream come true, but it wasn’t out of the blue.”
Remarkably, Russell cannot even claim to be the youngest British rookie on the F1 grid this season. That distinction falls to Lando Norris, entrusted with a McLaren seat at 19. Of the two, it is Russell who is by far the more serene. Wisbech Grammar School, his alma mater, once expressed their pride in him by describing how he had never wavered in his ambition to forge a serious racing career. And yet this still barely tells half the story.
At 16, Russell, born in King’s Lynn, was toiling in the boondocks of Formula Four, desperate to fast-track his success. He eventually found an email for Mercedes chief Toto Wolff and, showing a boldness beyond his years, fired off a message asking for a meeting. “I’ve always had the mentality that the worst they can say is ‘no’,” he says. “Or that they just won’t respond to your email. So, I’ve got nothing to lose. Sometimes in life, you need to stand out and make things happen for yourself.”
To his delight, Wolff responded, offering the chance of a graduation to Formula Three with Mercedes engines. Except Russell, with the single-mindedness that has become his trademark, sprang another surprise, opting instead for a move to rival junior team Carlin and thus rejecting the overtures of one of the most powerful men in F1. “I was going with my gut feeling,” he reflects. “Toto wrote back, saying, ‘I respect your decision, but I think you’re making the wrong call.’”
Russell’s prodigious talent would ensure that he had not thrown his golden ticket away. In early 2017, he earned a coveted spot on the Mercedes young drivers’ programme, working in such proximity to Lewis Hamilton that F1 quickly seemed less a distant fantasy than a logical next step. “In all honesty, ever since joining Mercedes, I could potentially have got a phone call saying, ‘Lewis has fallen down the stairs, you need to jump in the car tomorrow.’ So, I’ve needed to be physically ready for that. For the past two years, I have been working at that level.”