George Russell is a man moving in the right direction. Perhaps you get this impression from our incredibly stylish photoshoot or maybe his first Formula 1 race win in Brazil during the 2022 World Championship or possibly the fact that since joining Mercedes AMG-Petronas he has consistently matched or indeed surpassed none other than the greatest racing driver of all-time, Sir Lewis Hamilton?
At 25 years young, Russell is living out the life that many would-be Formula 1 drivers can only dream about, but he’s ready to take the next step: he’s climbed one mountain in making it to the top of the F1 podium, and now he’s determined to see what the view is like from the very pinnacle of the sport. And that means becoming world champion.
“Of course I want to win two races, three races, ten races, but if I ended my career with one win or ten wins, and no world championships, the difference is nothing,” Russell tells me during our sprawling chat in which we touch on his Formula 1 journey so far, his new mental health campaign with Meta, and his role as a director of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association.
We’re not long into our conversation when I get the sense that there’s more to Gorgeous George than his gentlemanly demeanour lets on. For one, he’s – what’s the best way to put this? – ‘patiently dissatisfied’ with the current performance of the W14 car he’s driven so far in 2023, insofar as he’s aware of the mitigating circumstances, but is hungry for more. Frankly, anything that doesn’t offer the driver the opportunity to fight for victories and the championship is below the level he’s after.
Equally, that hasn’t stopped him from enjoying the journey. He’s served it up to Hamilton with great fervour. His ‘Mr Saturday’ nickname, given to him for his eye-catching qualifying displays back in his Williams days, has smoothly translated across to Mercedes without a hint of reticence. “What a position to be in to go up against the greatest ever,” he says of Hamilton – and, indeed, Russell is performing like a driver relishing every moment of the opportunity.
He’s also an impeccable team player. Reflecting on his first victory in November last year, he tells me that his abiding memory doesn’t concern the great personal milestone, but the “tears of joy” in the eyes of his Mercedes comrades who had toiled round the clock to return the car to the front of grid after one heck of a bumpy season – and when I say bumpy, I’m not talking about ‘porpoising’.
Of course, we do need to address the current state of play at Mercedes. Their constructor rivals Red Bull are presently almost a second a lap faster on average, with Max Verstappen appearing to have the world at his feet. To make matters worse, Aston Martin Racing have leapfrogged the Brackley-based team leaving Russell and Hamilton to scrap for the lesser honours.
Team boss Toto Wolff has been quick to take responsibility for the poor performance, admitting the team had “got it wrong” when it came to its design concept. The challenge now is to put that right. “We want to [develop the car] right and that’s going in a good direction but we shouldn’t expect a miracle suddenly,” Wolff recently said, pouring cool water on the prospects of his drivers suddenly making up the deficit to the leading protagonists.
But, as we know from Square Mile’s interview with Wolff last year, the Austrian is relishing the toughest challenge of his career – and if that means making the big calls when it comes to the development of the beleaguered W14, then he won’t shy away from doing so. Expect to see a new-look Mercedes in several races as the upgrades slowly filter through.
As for Russell, he is resolute in his belief that his time will come: “If my opportunity is tomorrow, I’m ready tomorrow. If my opportunity is in three, four, five, or ten years, so be it.”
Russell might be moving in the right direction, but his journey has just begun.
Square Mile: In your first year with Mercedes-AMG Petronas, you bagged seven podiums and your first ever race win. That’s not a bad tally given the early performance deficit to Red Bull and Ferrari. How would you reflect on your first full season at Mercedes?
George Russell: I think when you reflect on seasons or years, you’ve got to be rational and objective with your performance, and if you’d told me at the start of the season I’d only get one win and finish fourth in the Driver’s Championship, I’d have been pretty disappointed with that, because I know the competence that Mercedes hold and I know how much I believe in myself.
But once we learned that we didn’t have a car to fight for a championship, I think I’ve got to be very proud of the job that we achieved to finish fourth, fighting almost for second in the Constructor Standings, winning a race with a car that was a long way off the pace. It was definitely a very good season.
SM: I think a lot of people were interested to see how Mercedes would respond to not having the best car on the grid. The thing that I took away from it was just what a team you were. There was no finger pointing, even on the weekends where a car wasn’t quite at his best; you were really supportive of the work going on back home in Brackley, and you seemed to really plug together.
GR: Yeah, absolutely. I think years like that define teams, organisations, people. I think it brought everybody together stronger. We were all tested, but I think the way we sort of stuck together and powered through and supported one another, the ‘no blame’ culture within the organisation, it really helped the team to progress.
We obviously wanted to go into this year with a car that was more competitive, but we’re kind of in the same situation again where we’re going to have to come together, dig deep within all of us to get through the relative difficulties.
SM: I don’t want to get too bogged down in the W14, because the problems have been well publicised, but in your eyes what would you take as a success given where you find yourself in the 2023 pecking order?
GR: I think it’s too early to tell, but what I’m sure about within this team is everybody wants to win and they will do anything in their hands to be able to achieve that. Clearly, we aren’t where we want to be as a team. We’ve made some big gains off the back of 2022 in many regards, but ultimately our lap time isn’t quite reflecting the efforts and the work that has been put in.
So we need to understand further and I think almost trust in the process, the amount of brilliant people within that team, just doing what they do best to find the performance, understanding what will make a car go faster, believing in themselves, because I truly believe Mercedes are the best in the business. It’s all about coming together to push forward.
What was most special to me is seeing how much the win meant to everybody in the team
SM: I think getting that win on the board last year was crucial. From your own perspective, getting that first Grand Prix victory in Brazil, especially after the year you’d had, it must have been incredibly special. Could you tell me what your feelings were as you crossed the line?
GR: It’s the moment that any young racing driver dreams of achieving, but I guess you don’t really know how you’re going to feel until it becomes a reality. When you cross that line, obviously so many emotions go running through your head. I think also for me because it’d probably taken a bit longer than I would’ve hoped or wanted because of the situation that I found myself in and let’s say the challenges I went through with Williams before. But I think what I’ll always remember from that day, what was most special to me, is seeing how much it meant to everybody in the team. There were members of the team in tears of joy, the hard work and dedication, this is people’s lives that they put into the sport. And knowing that you’ve contributed towards their fulfilment and happiness and pride was such a special moment.
SM: I think it’s very easy to forget in all the glamour of Formula 1 and the intensity of the sport, that there’s an army of individuals that have helped make this happen.
GR: Yeah, absolutely. We’re a part of a 2,000- strong team whereby every single individual is contributing towards the performance. It doesn’t matter if you are directly related to the car development and build or if you’re in the marketing department or the hospitality department, every single member of the team is key to developing and helping us achieve the results for which we’re all striving. And obviously on a Sunday, if you are lucky enough to be on that podium to represent the team, there is a lot of focus on that one individual, but that is far from the reality. You can’t do any of this without a strong team behind you.
SM: It’s a lot of pressure, though, on the driver. Carlos Sainz told me a couple of years ago that almost every driver on the grid comes to Formula 1 as a winner – whether that’s F2, F3 or another Formula series. You’ve crossed the line first plenty of times in your careers, but it’s only when you get to Formula 1 where that goes away, and you feel a sense of imposter syndrome. ‘Am I actually good enough to be here?’ Have you ever experienced that?
GR: I always believed in myself and always believed that, given the opportunity, I’ll be able to do the job. I think there’s probably six or seven drivers on the grid right now that if you gave them a championship-winning car, they’re capable of winning week in, week out. But ultimately, there’s quite often no more than two cars that are capable of winning a championship at any one time, and sometimes only one car that’s capable of winning a championship. So you’re talking about potentially only two drivers who’ve got a shot at that top glory. But as an individual, you need to make sure you are absolutely ready for when that one opportunity comes.
If I take Brazil last year as an example, we didn’t really know going into that weekend that it was going to be our strongest weekend of the year. We thought it might be a stronger one, but we absolutely did not expect that performance. So it came as a bit of a surprise, and you as a driver have to make sure you’re on your A-game every single weekend, because that just might be your weekend or that may just be your year. You can’t afford any slip-ups.
This is my fifth year already and it feels like yesterday when I was in Williams for my very first year, and I obviously got the opportunity with Mercedes a couple of years ago replacing Lewis [Hamilton]. We had a very dominant car there and, without a puncture, we would have won the race. So that was an opportunity of a lifetime and you have to make sure you are ready to capture it.
SM: Let’s talk about Sakhir 2020. I think for people who follow the sport, we knew how good you were at Williams, but putting you in Hamilton’s championship-winning car was the acid test. Talk about the perfect audition! Could you take me through that weekend?
GR: It all came very suddenly. I got the phone call out of the blue, I think it was on a Wednesday night. First, they informed me that Lewis had Covid and Mercedes wanted me to replace him, and then it probably took half a day to get the contract sorted. Obviously Williams needed to find a replacement driver. It wasn’t a straightforward change, just to say, “Yes, you are in.” And then it was a bit of a rollercoaster: learning a new car, working with a new team, understanding a completely different steering wheel, new operations. To put it in simple terms, if you get a new road car, it takes a couple of days before you know where all the buttons are, where the radio is, exactly what all the functions do.
Obviously, it was the penultimate race of the season, so trying to unlearn everything I knew at Williams to then relearn, let’s say, the Mercedes ways and the Mercedes systems and protocols. It takes time. But all in all it was a pretty smooth weekend and I felt confident from the off. You just knew how good that team was and the car was probably the best car they’ve ever built, so in that regard it was quite straightforward jumping in and being able to do the job.
We got into the lead into Turn 1, led the race for most of the duration, and then I think it was ten laps to go when I got the puncture and that was game over. It was pretty painful at the time, but I look back now and my life would be no different whatsoever if I won that race or the race ended up as it did.
I’ve won a Formula 1 Grand Prix and I sit here today as a Grand Prix winner. I could be sat here as a two-time Grand Prix winner, but to me now, in life, you’re constantly climbing this ladder. I don’t think it ever stops.
If I ended my career with one win or ten wins, but no championships, the difference is nothing
When I was at Williams, the step was to score points. And once you’ve achieved that, you want to score points more often, and when you achieve points more often, you want to achieve points in every race. And there’s the podium and then it’s a win. And once you’ve achieved the win, you want to achieve a championship.
Of course I want to win two races, three races, ten races, but if I ended my career with one win or ten wins, but no championships, the difference is nothing. I want to win more races, but the ultimate goal is to win championships – and that’s everything that we’re working towards.
SM: Do you think starting your career at Williams – we all went through that rollercoaster of emotions with you and the battle for your first points – do you actually think stepping into a car towards the rear of the grid gives you a bit of a unique edge over some of these competitors who maybe stepped into a very fast car?
GR: I think that’s something you would never know. It’s something I tell myself because I like to be glass half full and I want to take the positive out of every situation. But I could sit here and say I lost three years of my career because I was in a car that was right at the back of a grid and I couldn’t fight for wins. Or you can see all the positives from my time there. I look at those years now thinking, “Yeah, perhaps I did learn more racing at the back compared to what some of my rivals may have done being thrown in the deep end from the beginning.” Some drivers have been thrown in at the deep end early and it’s hurt their careers.
For example, Max Verstappen obviously got his promotion after 18 months, but perhaps if he went into a team like Mercedes against Lewis Hamilton at the peak of his powers, it could have damaged his career. So you’ve got to look at it from both sides, and for sure Max was a greater driver after three or four years under his belt compared to where he was after 18 months under his belt. If you’re going up against a guy who’s absolutely in his prime and dominating in the car that he’s so used to, maybe he wouldn’t be in the position he is today.
So I’ve got to be grateful for the people who have advised me and helped me and nurtured me to this position. In those three years that passed by, perhaps I could have been fighting a bit higher up the grid, but if I wasn’t in a Mercedes, I wouldn’t have been fighting for championships. So what’s the difference for me? At the end of the day, I want to win championships and if I was at the back of the grid or let’s say if I was fighting for top sevens, to be honest there’s no difference. Ultimately, I’m happy with where I am right now.
SM: The transition to Mercedes was incredibly smooth. You immediately picked up the pace. I think you showed that in 2022 with how closely you and Hamilton were on performance. In the end, of course, you beat Hamilton in the Driver’s Championship. That must have been quite validating?
GR: For me, being teammates with Lewis is such a golden opportunity. Especially now that the car isn’t performing as we want, having him as my teammate has saved me in some regard, because if he had retired or left the sport when I joined the team, and we took this step backwards, people would be pointing the blame towards me! But I feel like now I’ve proven my worth and I’ve proven what I’m capable of, so there’s no pressure in that regard. I’m out there to do the best job possible and I think that is a very fortunate position to be in. I’m not worried about any statistics or making sure that I’m on Lewis’s pace or whatever because I feel like I showed that last year, there’s already been two races this year and I qualified ahead both times, and the pace was very close between the two of us in the race. What a position to be in to go up against the greatest ever.
SM: Working very closely with Hamilton, what would you say is the one key learning that you’ve taken away?
GR: I think he’s a very good people person. He’s very good at getting the most out of the people around him, motivating the team. He’s very resilient, he’s always pushing himself further. And he has a lot of hobbies as well away from the sport, which I think is really interesting, because it allowed him to take his mind away from the racing and to be in a better head space for when he comes back.
We’re obviously at very different stages of our career, but I’m definitely taking inspiration from how he conducts himself, how he approaches his racing and how he approaches his life. He’s very impressive.
SM: That’s a very good segue into your work at the moment on mental health, which is clearly something that is very important to you. I think Hamilton has proven just how vital it is to use your platform and your voice for the power of good, and it seems you are doing the same. Could you tell us more about your mental health campaign?
GR: I think it’s an incredibly important issue. I started digging into the topic of mental health firstly for human performance, not to necessarily resolve any issues or to get anything off my shoulders, but it was to try and get more out of my professional life and my own personal performance. It was only after speaking with professionals and talking to people and taking advice that I realised taking care of my mental health was not only beneficial in my professional life, but it was also helping me on a personal level. I would walk away from a conversation feeling like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I felt in a better frame of mind and a better place to tackle the day ahead or the next challenge.
It opened my mind and I probably started to see things a little bit better in others, and perhaps the difficulties other people are going through which I may not have recognised initially, as well as the challenges of having the courage to talk to somebody about it.
That’s why I’m working on this mental health campaign with Meta, posting a number of videos on Instagram, to encourage men to discuss their mental health and to try and get help if they need it. I think especially in men, there’s an element of personal pride, particularly in the old way of thinking, of being tough and just roughing it out, but that’s not necessarily the best way. We all need to be encouraged that there is no shame in talking to somebody. If I can use my platform to have a greater impact than just racing, then that fills me with pride to be able to do that.
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SM: How do you think we break that social stigma around men talking?
GR: I think it’s about raising awareness. People in the limelight talking about mental health freely and openly gives others the confidence and encouragement to do it. How do we encourage more to do it? I definitely don’t have all of the answers – far from it – but I think the more we can talk about it, the more we can share our own experiences, I think that can only be beneficial.
SM: Formula 1 is renowned as being an incredibly mentally taxing sport. In terms of your own mental health journey, how have you handled that and who do you reach out to when things are tough?
GR: I speak to my friends, my girlfriend’s incredibly supportive, but also my trainer, Aleix Casanovas. I travel the world with Aleix, he’s been with me since 2017 now, so it’s our seventh year together, and he’s done every single race with me since that point. Just having him there as somebody who understands the journey, understands the pressures, that’s incredibly important. Also for me, the change in my professional life going from becoming an F1 driver, but one nearer the back of the grid, slightly out of the limelight, to one now who is slightly more at the front of the grid in the spotlight. The things you say are now being picked up more by the media and perhaps words may have been twisted or changed slightly, people’s perception of you changes as well, so it’s just learning how to deal with that change, because it’s not easy.
Last year, for the first time, I experienced some fans booing me on a driver’s parade. I’d never experienced that before. I’m a 24-year-old kid living his dream, just going out, working hard, trying to do his best, and you got these grown men booing you. I laughed it off, but it makes you think.
We all need to be encouraged that there is no shame in reaching out to talk to somebody
It’s a funny old world. Many of us live on social media, which is an incredibly toxic place, especially in the Formula 1 sphere. For me, it’s learning and understanding how to deal with this but also recognising the challenges that young adults or teenagers in school go through with social media. It’s very difficult, and these sort of social issues are only becoming greater over time.
So yeah, just circling back to your question, I talk with the people who I trust and love the most and they offer a huge hand. But to be honest, the one who potentially helps me the most is my psychologist, because he knows the questions to ask, he knows how to react to certain things I say because he is a professional. We use this example of, if you want to go to the gym and get fit, you may work out with a personal trainer or a fitness coach. A psychologist is a fitness coach for your mind. And the same way as a fitness coach knows what to do to train your body to help you get fitter, a psychologist knows those spots to tap into on your mind and to help you feel freer in ways.
SM: I know Nico Rosberg credited his sports psychologist as being one of the reasons he was able to beat Lewis Hamilton in 2016, so I’m not surprised to hear that…
GR: Yeah, absolutely. I feel fortunate that I’ve found myself in this position to work with such a professional because it definitely helps me in my personal life. It doesn’t matter what position you are in, what stage of life you’re in, we all go through challenges, we all have personal issues, and life isn’t straightforward for anybody. It doesn’t matter how rosy it looks on the outside, there’s always something in all of us that is challenging. So finding ways and having this sort of mental maintenance, almost keeping things ticking over, rather than seeking out help once there’s a problem, that’s really important.
SM: You are part of a generation of drivers who grew up together in karting. A lot of you knew each other throughout your teens. Do drivers in the starting grid ever sit down to talk, and kind of go, “Today was a really shit day in the car,” or something like that?
GR: Well, firstly, we’re obviously all competitors. We’re all highly competitive. I wouldn’t say there are huge rivalries on the track, but once the helmet’s on, you’re all there competing to beat one another. But there’s definitely an element of understanding between all of us, whether that’s understanding a person who’s struggling for performance personally, whether it’s understanding the person who’s struggling in their team and the results aren’t there. Or even understanding the guy who’s winning and the stresses and pressures that come with that.
One of the most mentally fatiguing moments of my year last year was actually when I won the race in Brazil because there were so many emotions that I went through during the race, so many emotions after the race, so much attention from the media and the cameras, so much love and support from friends and families and social media. It was almost overwhelming at points and it’s a completely different dynamic. That was quite eye opening for me, the pressures and the mental toll of winning a race. It’s not easy.
I think between all the 20 drivers, we get one another: we’re just one of 20, we’re the only ones in this position. We don’t necessarily offer support because the friendships aren’t quite that close, maybe between one or two, but definitely there’s an understanding.
SM: In terms of your role as director of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, I know it’s something you’re passionate about, could you talk more about what that actually looks like?
GR: I work with two of the key members, who are Alex Wurz, who is an ex-Formula 1 driver, and Anastasia Fowle, who’s the legal counsel. And I’ve got to be honest, they do the brunt of the work because they are truly representing us drivers. I think Alex and I are the eyes and ears on the ground, we’re the ones talking more directly among the drivers. We’d always get together, we’d always have a driver’s briefing on a Friday night before every race, between the FIA and Formula 1, but probably every four races, all 20 drivers would just stay together and talk about a given issue. Sometimes there are more issues at play, sometimes there’s nothing to discuss because there are no major concerns, but I think the main role is probably driver safety.
As a kid I thought, ‘I’ll win races, then I’ll be in Formula One, then I’ll be a world champion’
Then secondly, it’s trying to improve the sport, improve the racing, which is something we all feel passionate about. Then probably making sure that the sport strikes the right balance between access and exclusivity. I think there are a number of things that are being proposed to the sport that may come at the compromise of drivers, so you have to make sure that there’s a balance.
It’s something I enjoy doing; I enjoy being a part of it, and similar to the mental health topic, if I can look back in 20 years time – obviously my number one goal is to win world championships – but if I can look back and say that I’ve had a positive impact on the sport, whether it’s for the show or the racing or the safety, that’s something I can be proud of, too.
SM: All that being said, are you happy with the direction that Formula 1 is heading in after the changes to the regulations?
GR: We’re in a really unique position at the moment in Formula 1 that the sport is growing substantially, crowds are being sold out week in, week out, which is absolutely incredible. Cars are changing, they’re faster, heavier. But things evolve and you need to move with the times and we all need to look out for everybody’s interest for the global benefit of what we’re all doing.
Big-picture cap on, the sport is definitely headed in the right direction. I think Liberty Media and Stefano Domenicali, they are really great people to push the sport forward, the decisions are all being made for the right reasons, and the sport’s on the up. We just need to continue pushing. It’s an exciting journey and I can’t wait to see what’s next.
SM: What does Toto Wolff mean to you?
GR: He’s been an integral part of my career. Highly intelligent, a charismatic bloke, he’s been a huge part of the success of the team and is going to be a huge part of the return of Mercedes after what’s been a difficult season.
A huge motivator, an unbelievable leader, he gives everybody his time. It doesn’t matter if they are a chief aerodynamicist or working on the shop floor, he respects everybody. I think that’s why he still has such a team around him and so much trust. I feel fortunate to work with such a great guy.
SM: In your karting days, was the prospect of driving in Formula 1 this foggy dream or did you have total clarity that, one day, you would end up on the starting grid?
GR: I think when I was old enough to understand everything, it was absolutely clear to me that Formula 1 was what I wanted to achieve. At that age, I thought it was going to be easy. I thought, “I’ll go out and win races, and if I win races I’ll be in Formula 1, then I’ll be a world champion.” As simple as that.
It was probably only when I was 16 or 17 where reality struck me and I recognised winning probably isn’t enough. Sometimes you need to go above and beyond, especially when you’re fighting for 20 opportunities in the world out of the hundreds of thousands of kids who start out go karting at a young age, all dreaming of that one opportunity.
SM: Both Lando Norris and Max Verstappen have recently been quoted as saying that you have the potential to be a future world champion. It must be nice when people are saying things like that, but what do you think you have to do in order to actually get there?
GR: Yeah, I mean obviously it’s always nice to hear positive things being spoken about you, but as I said before, there’s probably a handful of drivers on the grid right now who are all world champion worthy, some of which are already world champions, some of which haven’t won world championships yet and would definitely win a world championship if they were in the right car at the right time.
As to what I can do to give myself the best chance, it’s just about continuing to work and keep on pushing, never giving up and ultimately making sure that I’m ready to fight when you’ve got that machine beneath you that’s capable of winning. I hope that comes sooner than later, but I believe I’ve got a good 15 years left in me and I’ve got to keep on working on my fitness, keep on working on my race craft, keep on working on how I work with my team to make sure that if my opportunity is tomorrow, I’m ready tomorrow. If my opportunity is in three, four, five, or even ten years, so be it.