EDITORIAL: Why Mercedes had no choice but to sign George Russell

© LAT Images for Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Ltd

By Adrian Mann

The speculation is finally over, George Russell has signed a “long-term” deal with Mercedes for 2022 and beyond. Taking everything into account, this was the only possible option for the team.

Everybody knew George Russell would sign with Mercedes eventually. He has been  a Mercedes junior driver since 2017, and has always been the team’s pick for the future.

His amazing performances in a subpar Williams only helped his chances. After two years of struggling at the back of the grid, and now finally dragging the struggling Williams closer to the midfield, Russell proved he is not only a superb driver, but also a team leader.

His first outing in a Mercedes at the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix proved without a shadow of a doubt that he was ready for the big time, and him putting a Williams on the front row at the Belgian Grand Prix qualifying only cemented that conclusion.

To further explain what calibre of driver we’re dealing with here, let’s examine the young Briton’s career so far.

George was born on February 15 1998 in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England and his love for motorsport was evident from an early age. His career started on the karting track in 2006, where he went on to win the MSA British Cadet Championship and the British Open in 2009. In 2010 he started racing in the Rotax Mini Max category where he became the Super One British champion, Formula Kart Stars British Champion and he won the Kartmasters British Grand Prix. The following year George graduated to the Premier Junior Karting class (KF3) and won the SKUSA Supernationals title. In 2012 and 2013 he became the CIK-FIA European Junior Champion and ended his karting career on a high note.

In 2014 George started his single-seater career with a bang and won the BRDC Formula 4 Championship title in his first year. He also picked up a number of podium finishes in the Formula Renault 2.0 ALPS Championship and a win at Jerez in his one-off appearance in the Formula Renault Eurocup finale. Adding to his accolades in 2014, he won the prestigious McLaren BRDC Autosport Award.

In 2015 George made the switch to the FIA Formula 3 European Championship for two seasons driving for HitechGP. The car was powered by the Mercedes-AMG Formula 3 engine and in his second year he finished the season in third position, scoring two victories and ten podium.

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It didn’t take long for George to get noticed by the reigning Formula One World Constructors’ Champions Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport, who signed him to their Junior Programme in January of 2017. However George didn’t just wait to get noticed, he took his destiny into his own hands and famously e-mailed his CV to team boss Toto Wolff, who immediately proceeded to arrange a meeting.

In the same year George started competing in Formula One’s support series, GP3, racing for frontrunners ART Grand Prix. He won the GP3 Driver’s championship, taking four victories, seven podiums and four pole positions in the process. This won him the opportunity to take part in two Formula 1 Free Practice sessions with the Sahara Force India Team.

In 2018 the young Briton moved up to compete in the FIA Formula 2 Championship, also with ART Grand Prix, while also taking the role of Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport Test & Reserve Driver. In F2 George took seven victories, eleven podiums and five pole positions and won the 2018 F2 Driver’s championship.

In October of 2018 it was announced that George signed a multi-year deal with Williams Racing and would make his Formula 1 debut in the 2019 season. Reportedly George once again took matters into his own hands and called up former Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team Executive Director, technical, Paddy Lowe and went on to make his case for a drive in 2019, with a little help from a Powerpoint presentation.

Unfortunately Williams’ car in 2019 was fundamentally flawed and George and his team-mate, returning Formula 1 legend Robert Kubica, were relegated to cruising at the back of the grid. However Russell managed to consistently beat his more experienced team-mate in qualifying and the race. He has also shown the patience and team leader qualities that are well beyond his years.

The 2019 season came and went without a single point scored, but in 2020 George would stun the Formula 1 world by consistently dragging his still not very cooperative Williams into Q2. His performances earned him an opportunity to jump into a Mercedes for the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix, after Lewis Hamilton got diagnosed with COVID-19. The young Briton impressed everyone by qualifying in P2, only 0.026s behind long-time Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas.

Considering this was the young Briton’s first qualifying outing in a new car, the result is mighty impressive. On Sunday it was more of the same, as he was the primary contender for the win for most of the race. Even the pit crew’s tyre mix-up, which required him to pit once again on the next lap, didn’t deter him. He quickly recovered and proceeded to close in on race leader Sergio Perez, when his tyre blew out on lap 78 of 87. He had to pit again, came out in P14 and ultimately finished in P9. Those were his first two points in Formula 1, and he added another one for fastest lap.

Russell continued to impress throughout the 2021 season. Q2 and Q3 were now the norm, while he once again shocked everyone by dragging his Williams into P2 at the rainy Belgian Grand Prix qualifying. He also brought Williams their first podium since 2017, albeit in a “race” that lasted for two laps behind a Safety Car.

Taking all of this into account, as well as the fact that his original three-year deal with Williams was expiring at the end of the year, Mercedes was faced with a choice – to provide Russell with an opportunity to grow and learn from arguably the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time, Lewis Hamilton, or to go the completely safe route with Valtteri Bottas and risk frustrating and ultimately losing Russell to another team.

It’s obvious that Mercedes sees their 23-year-old junior driver as a future team leader once Lewis decides to hang up his helmet, so their decision is not surprising. Now, with this amazing opportunity, Russell has a chance to finally show what he can do in a competitive car in a full Formula 1 season and it will be fascinating to watch.

Some are fearing that a fiercely competitive driver like Russell could cause friction within the team if he clashes with his team-mate, a seven-time world champion, but I believe this will not be the case. However, that will be the subject of my next editorial and, until then, let’s enjoy the infinite possibilities this new line-up brings!

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