George Russell: Is the Mercedes wonder kid ready?

George Russel, born in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, on 15th February, is a Formula One Driver for Williams racing. Currently competing in his third season of F1 this year, Russel is a future Formula One champion in the making. But one thing that might stop him from becoming a future champion is the car he drives.

Junior Career Racing

Russel took up karting at the age of 7, after spending a lot of time around karting tracks because of his older brother, Benjy, who was involved in competitive karting. Russel began his junior racing career in 2006. His talent was clear to see from an early age after winning his first championship, the MSA British Cadet Championship, in 2009 at the age of 11. In 2010, after he moved to the Rotax Mini Max category, he won the Super One British champion, Formula Karts Stars British champion and the Kartmasters British Grand Prix. His success in the lower classes of karting established him as one of the best up and coming talents in the world of British Motorsports.

In 2011, he graduated to the Premier Junior Karting class(KF3), where he won the SKUSA Supernationals title, and then he also won the CIK-FIA European Junior Champion in 2012 and 2013. In 2014, Russel made his single-seater debut and would claim the BRDC Formula 4 Championship at his first attempt. In the same year, Russell also won the prestigious Mclaren DBRC Autosport Award for his achievements. 

At the start of 2015, he made his debut in the FIA F3 championship, competing for two seasons. Even though Russel wouldn’t win a title in 2015 and 2016, he got his first taste of a car powered by a Mercedes-AMG engine after joining the Hitech squad in 2016. At the end of 2016, Russel took pole position at his debut at the prestigious Macau Grand Prix. Even though he couldn’t convert his pole position into a victory, his performances had caught the eye of the reigning Formula One World Champions.

Then in early 2017, he was announced as the latest addition to the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsports junior driver program line-up. That same year Russel competed in the GP3 series, a support series to Formula One, with ART Grand Prix. In his first season, he took four victories, seven podiums and four pole positions on his way to winning the Drivers’ Championship with a 79-point margin over the runner up.

Russel celebrating his F2 Championship Victory

The following year, he would step up to the FIA Formula 2 Championship with ART Grand Prix. Russel again won the Drivers’ Championship in his debut season. He would get the most victories, most pole positions, most podiums, and would lead for most laps even though his car had reliability issues.

Formula One Career

Russel at Williams

Even before Russel had wrapped up his F2 Championship, it was announced on 12th October of 2018 that Russel would compete in the 2019 FIA Formula One World Championship with Williams Racing. 

His debut season in F1 was nothing like his debut seasons in both GP3 and F2. He was in a team and a car that was not able to compete even for points. Nonetheless, Russel would continue to impress everyone around the paddock by out-qualifying his teammate Robert Kubica at every single race. 

In 2020 he would achieve the same feat by out-qualifying his new Williams teammate Nicholas Latifi in every race. Despite his car still being one of the back runners, Russel would regularly out-perform his machinery on Saturday. He would reach Q2 9 times that season and threatened points finish on numerous occasions in the Williams.

Race with Mercedes

Russel with Mercedes during the 2020 Sakhir GP

Russel’s best chance to score points in the 2020 season came when he was called to replace already crowned World Champion Lewis Hamilton during the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix after Hamilton had tested positive for Covid-19. This race was a chance for Russel to prove that he is worthy enough of joining Mercedes as a full-time driver and not just as a reserve driver. But, what followed was one of the most dramatic races in 2020.

Before the race weekend could start, Russel had to make sure he could fit into Hamilton’s car. Russel had to use an old seat from 2019 Abu Dhabi testing and race shoes a size too small to be able to squeeze into the car. After that, he was ready for the weekend, saying that he felt no pressure even after team principal Toto Wolf’s had stated during a press conference that he expects the car to finish in the top 5.

Russel started off the weekend great by getting 2nd place during qualifying, only 0.026s behind his Mercedes teammate for the weekend, Valtteri Bottas. This is the first in his career that he was out-qualified by a teammate, something that hasn’t happened since. Russel had an even better start to the race after he jumped Valtteri off the line, surging into the lead in a way that would have made fooled anyone into thinking that it was Hamilton driving the car.

Russel began to pull out a gap to Bottas and came out in the lead even after his first pit stop. Then on lap 61, Russel’s stand-in at Williams, Jack Aitken clipped the barrier at turn 15 and then came to a halt, which prompted a virtual safety car. Mercedes, seeing this as an opportunity, elected to pit both the cars on lap 63. It was to be a double pit stop, something which Mercedes had done many times before and had succeeded in also doing. But even before both the cars had entered and exited the pits, the Mercedes pit wall had realised that they had made a mistake. Because of radio communication issues, the Mercedes tyre crew got confused about which tyre crew to prepare first. They had sent out Russel on Bottas’s front tyres illegally, while Bottas remained in the pit box for almost 30 seconds before they sent him back out on the same set of tyres. Russel had to come back into the pits the next lap to fit a set of his own tyres. This error made by Mercedes left Bottas and Russel in fourth and fifth, respectively. 

The race saw its fair share of drama before the Mercedes pit stop error. In the first lap, Charles Leclerc had collided with Sergio Perez. Leclerc had to retire his car because the damage on his car was irreversible, while Perez came out unharmed but was sent to the back of the grid after a pit stop. Max Verstappen also had to retire his car after trying to avoid colliding with Leclerc and Perez but eventually collided with a barrier. 

By the end of lap 64, the top consisted of Perez at first place, who had made a remarkable comeback from the back of the grid somehow, Esteban Ocon on second, Lance Stroll on third with both the Mercedes drivers at fourth and fifth. Russel, who had to come back into the pits to get rid of Bottas’s tyres, was on fresh tyres and, after the end of the virtual safety car on lap 69, was ready to pounce on the drivers ahead of him. He passed Bottas, Stroll and Ocon, in that order by lap 73 and was already in second place just behind Perez. But then disaster struck again as the rear left tyres on his car suffered a puncture. This forced him into the pits yet again. He and the whole team were devastated by the entire ordeal. He emerged from the pits in 14th place. Russel, in the end, was able to climb back till 9th place and earn his first World Drivers’ Championship points, and he even earned a point for the fastest lap of the race. 

Russel, after the race, said that he felt that he had the pace to win the race. He also had impressed Mercedes with how he was able to cope with the pressure of the weekend in general, and the race from Russel was even described as a “brilliant drive” from Mercedes principal Toto Wolf. Even though he was cruelly denied his maiden victory twice during the race, he had made his mark as an obvious star of the future.

The 2021 season and what the future holds for him

In the 2021 season, Russel is yet again showing that he is one of the most talented drivers on the grid, even though his car isn’t up to his standards. In the 9 races that have happened till now, Russel has managed to qualify for Q2 all 9 times, which includes his first appearance in Q3 for Williams at the Austrian Grand Prix. He also has been able to out-qualify his teammate again in every race till now. In some of those races, it looked like he was destined for points but then would be denied of that opportunity by someone else or some unfortunate problem. 

In a season where Mercedes are looking second best, behind Red Bull, it seems like changing the driver lineup next year would be the best idea for them to try and rejuvenate themselves for the new regulations that are set to come in 2022. With Hamilton already having signed a new two-year contract that keeps him at Mercedes till the end of 2023, and Bottas’s future looking uncertain, Russel looks like he is in a prime position to get the second seat at Mercedes and start fighting for World Championships.

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