“Formula One is a ruthless sport. You’ve got to excel in all aspects otherwise you’re going to be eaten up and spat out the other side,” says Formula One prodigy George Russell. “I want to be a winner, I want to be a world champion, that’s the goal.”
Supremely focused and erudite as he talks to The Sportsman in an exclusive interview, the young Brit is clearly a determined, confident and ambitious man. In December, the 22-year-old Williams driver stepped up to Mercedes at the Sakhir Grand Prix to fill in for Lewis Hamilton, who was absent after testing positive for Covid-19.
Gripping the chance presented to him with both hands, incredible bad luck was the main factor in him not clinching a maiden victory. Leading the race for large spells, he was only scuppered when a pit-stop error saw Mercedes put Valtteri Bottas’ tyres on his car. While having to pit again for the mistake to be amended slowed him down, a puncture later in the race was what ultimately consigned him to a ninth-place finish. He had impressed immensely regardless.
“It was incredible how it all came about so last minute,” he recalls of the experience. “It was confirmed on the Wednesday night and I was in the car on Friday. The weekend went as well as it could have done until it didn’t, let’s say.
“I went into it with the approach that it’s not going to break my career but could potentially make it and I think it was a massive stepping stone to, I hope, a long future in F1 to come. I was really grateful for the chance, obviously not in the circumstances I would have wished, but nevertheless with the short notice we had, it gave me a chance to show what I can do from the front.
“We had the opportunity to win the race twice, but unfortunately it was taken away both times. You believe in yourself as a driver, but until you’re winning there’s always a small element of unknown. You just never know, if Lewis was to jump in a Williams, where would he end up? Just getting that chance definitely boosted my confidence.”
After his handling of those nightmare setbacks in Bahrain, it’s no surprise to hear Hamilton describe Russell as “the future” of F1, and some have even tipped him to succeed the current champion at Mercedes. But the young racer from King’s Lynn won’t let such adulation go to his head.
“Lewis is a legend, obviously the greatest and statistically he will be the greatest of all-time by the end of this year, I’m sure. I’ve got the utmost respect for him, for what he does on the track, how he deals with the engineers, and so my respect for him has grown tremendously in the last four years or so.
“To receive such high praise means a huge amount, but equally I don’t let it affect me because Lewis isn’t going to make a difference in my career. I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to go out there and perform on the track. It doesn’t matter if every single driver says I’m the greatest if you don’t perform. You do your talking on the track.”
While Michael Schumacher was a hero for Russell growing up, “it’s obvious he was a legend,” he says, the youngster takes inspiration from a number of modern-day drivers too.
“I used to look and take the best aspects from each driver,” he reveals. “Lewis’ outright speed and what he does on the track, someone like [Fernando] Alonso who gets the most out of every situation, [Juan Pablo] Montoya, who is really aggressive.” It’s not just racing attributes Russell has studied, either, admitting, “Even off the tracks everybody loved Jenson [Button] and how he dealt with the media. He was a fan favourite.”
Having made the step up, Russell is well aware of the gruelling sacrifices he will have to make to be a champion and takes his physical and mental fitness seriously.
“It’s massive for us,” he says about the need to look after himself. “Formula One is a very fatiguing sport, we’re driving flat out for two hours at a time. The physical demand is tremendous and the mental fatigue that you’ve got to take in with information, managing the tyres, the car, talking with your engineer, changing the button on your steering wheel, makes it incredibly difficult. But then to top that all off we’re travelling around the world - half an hour on the way to the airport, a two-hour wait, jumping on a plane for a 14-hour flight. Doing that once is fine, but to do that 46 times a year over the course of a 23-race season, it takes its toll on you.”
Then there is the pressure. One can prepare for weeks but then it all comes down to one lap, ninety seconds long, which can “make or break you weekend” as Russell puts it, “Psychologically you’ve got to be prepared and ready to absolutely nail it.
So, dealing with those high demands, how does this new kid on the block chill and get himself ready for race day? Well, Russell is a music fan and has recently put together an Apple playlist of tracks he listens to during practice.
“I’ve been listening to quite a lot of Drake recently - I think he’s got a good balance between upbeat and chilled, which is almost what you need in the race car really,” he laughs. “You need to be ready to do the job but equally you can’t be too hyped because you need that element of being relaxed to be right on your limit. I also like Justin Timberlake, Ed Sheeran, even old school hip-hop sometimes. I like a variety.”
With music on the agenda, we ask Russell which song sums up being a Formula One driver?
“Eminem - Lose Yourself,” he replies after some time, now definite in his answer. “In this sport every opportunity could be your last or the one which makes your career. That song is a constant reminder that every single race is an opportunity to showcase what you can do and prove to the world that you deserve to be in F1.”
Lose Yourself may best describe the life of a racing driver, but Formula One has found a super talent in George Russell. And who knows, perhaps he is the heir to Hamilton’s throne?
You can listen to George Russell's curated F1 Tracks playlist, exclusively via Apple Music: f1tracks.lnk.to/GeorgeRussell