George Russell: From rookie to Virtual GP king

George Russell: From rookie to Virtual GP king

Part one of our series: Why Russell is one of the most overlooked prodigies in Formula 1.

Photo credit: Albon by Marc Alvarado / Russell by Marc Alvarado / Leclerc by Racingperson / Russell in Williams car by Michał Obrochta

Russell – Leclerc – Albon: The racing dreamteam. From competing against each other on the kart track as young boys straight to racing in the masterclass Formula 1, or even when entertaining fans in esports racing, the trio went their path in motorsports together. We want to put the three rookie drivers in the limelight and take a closer look at their career, esports racing experience and what makes them special. Williams young gun George Russell takes the headstart in our series about the trio.

“I definitely enjoyed this much more than I anticipated”, George Russell laughs. The 22-year-old Britain looks content. Williams’ rookie driver is sitting in front of his sim rig, his blue-white-orange helmet right next to him, representing his racing team. This scene displays his positive attitude at all times, but he also stays calm and collected, even when just winning the 2020 Formula 1 Virtual Grand Prix. George delivered a dominant performance, winning four out of the seven circuits: the Grands Prix of Spain, Monaco, Azerbaijan and Canada – an outstanding result which granted him to lift the digital trophy in the end.

But George is not only on fire on the digital tracks: He is hotly tipped as a future world champion and one of the most promising talents in the world of motorsports. The Virtual GP champion started his first Formula 1 season in 2019. George is a tall young man with light brown hair and an athletic physique. And if he’s not completely focused in his cockpit, you can catch him smiling most of the time. But the soft appearance is deceiving, as he is a though racer on the tracks.

“He looks like an unassuming, nice guy, but he has a layer of steel within him which he has been taught by his parents,” remarked his team manager Claire Williams in an interview with The Checkered Flag.

The racing trio – through all stages

George started his racing career in 2006 with karting. Back then, young George formed friendships with two other well-known rookies in Formula 1: Ferrari’s promising talent Charles Leclerc as well as Red Bull’s new member Alexander Albon. Not only did the three youngsters start their dream together, they all managed to make the cut to join Formula 1. And all of them recently conquered the virtual racing scene as well. Leclerc, Russell and Albon started streaming on Twitch and made it to the digital podiums of the races.

Especially Russell’s victory at the Virtual GP is quite impressive, given the fact that he joined the crew way later. In late 2019, he was still joking to that apparently, Lando Norris had “no life” sitting constantly in his sim rig. George said he wanted to try out sim racing, but couldn’t find the time.

George now has an impressive esports racing setup

With the exceptional situation due to the global pandemic, George suddenly had lots of time at hand – and went from trying out sim racing for fun to being a serious competitor. If you followed some of the streams of the rookie trio, you might have noticed the loose atmosphere between the racers and their playful interaction. George explained in an episode of the ESPN F1 podcast that the digital competition brought the drivers closer together again. While they are still friends , they don’t have as many opportunities to banter around since being a Formula 1 professional is incredibly time-consuming. Sim racing changed the situation:

So this does bring us back to the old days when we were karting, and I remember when we used to finish, we wouldn’t have to debrief with our team or anything; we would run off with our mates’ awning and play some games on the iPhone and mess around or play with cardboard boxes or something.

12 years of practice

First stop: The karting track

During the pandemic, George decided to stay at his parent’s house, as he revealed in a video with Sky Sports F1 where he showed his crib. The highlight of his house tour was his special sim racing room. The centerpiece that immediately catches the viewer’s eye is his professional sim racing rig. When entering, it quickly becomes evident that this is not the hobby room of a casual racer: An array of trophies, prizes and framed images showcases that a racing star sits behind this wheel.

George lets the camera pan over the plethora of pictures that are hanging on the wall and decorating shelves. Each of them shows a still image of his career. George look at his younger self smiling into the camera as a young boy, holding a garish green and orange helmet. This exact recognizable helmet got placed right in front of those memorable frames – an exact copy of his elder brother’s helmet, as he explained on Twitter.

His older brother, Benjy Russell, spent his youth karting as well, and their parents simply took George to the circuits with them. The youngster quickly learned about the tracks and mechanics, so with eight years, little George picked up karting as well, as their mother explained in an interview with TDi Media.

Second step: Speeding through the amateur classes

George had a steep development from his single-seater debut in the Formula Renault 2.0 Alps championship in 2014, right to the highest class in motorsports. He continues his slideshow and goes to the next picture which shows one of his biggest milestones: his victory at the Formula 2 championship in 2018. His outstanding performance throughout the season became his ticket to the masterclass of racing. George was able to win the championship with incredible 68 points ahead of runner-up Albon.

In the racing room at his parents’, another huge image marks the next stepstone: the British rookie sitting in a Formula 1 car for the first time in a McLaren in 2011. A few year’s later, his steps towards the highest class of racing became more serious when he joined Mercedes’ junior driver program. But with his talent, he wanted more than just a spot as junior talent. In October 2018, it became official that George got a seat at Williams for the upcoming season. Team manager Claire Williams recognized his skill and explained what makes the young Brit so special:

He hasn’t had it easy, and the family haven’t had it easy to get him to this point either. He is fairly similar to Lewis Hamilton in that sense. When you don’t have it gifted to you, it makes you hungry, it makes you fight. That brings a certain edge to a driver, but George also understands that it doesn’t just take a natural talent to achieve that.

George Russel: the superstar in the last row

In his first Formula 1 season in 2019, George was not able to get any points – as the only driver. His best result was an 11th place finish at the German Grand Prix. And yet, not only his fans but also motorsports experts are convinced that he is a potential world champion. Rumor has it he might be a candidate to take over Valterri Bottas’ seat at Mercedes. As their team principal Toto Wolff revealed to Racefans:

(…)We are absolutely certain that he has the qualities of a potential future Mercedes driver. He has the raw speed, he has the talent, he has the intelligence. There is a reason why he’s won F3 and F2 as a rookie, it hasn’t been done many times before. And he has a flawless record in Formula 1.

George gets praised for many of his qualities. On the track, he impresses with his high skill and his history in the lower racing classes are proof of his incredible talent. While he was not able to achieve any points in Formula 1, he managed to overtake his experienced team-mate Kubica in all qualifiers and achieved higher results in most matches. Once he leaves his vehicle, he shows a personality that does just to a future champion as well: George is an ambitious and confident team-leader, mature, gives the right answers in interviews and sustains a positive mentality no matter the result.

Speaking of results: Why is he considered the most talented rookie by many but still could not get a single point? It is an open secret that his racing team Williams has the slowest car of all participants. George might have been promoted to Formula 1, but basically still drives a Formula 2 car, and the racer himself openly admits to that in an interview with Racing Factory: “I doubt we are in a better position (in 2020), realistically we are still the slowest car. (…) Expectations are all under control.”

His friend and rival on the tracks Alex agrees with that sentiment. He considers George to be incredibly gifted and says he would be doing a top job, as he explained in an interview with Planet F1. But Alex says there is only so much George can do on his current team: “He can do an amazing lap, but he knows that 19th is all he can achieve. I don’t know that feeling.”

If the rumors turn out to be true, George could soon have the perfect vehicle at his hands to speed towards first place. If car manufacturer Mercedes gives their junior driver the chance many fans would wish for him, there might be another parallel between Georgen and Lewis Hamilton: Just like the F1 star, George could go from promising prodigy to dominating world champion.

Stay tuned for our next part where we will take a closer look at Charles Leclerc’s career – and his experience with esports racing!