Mercedes protege and current F2 championship leader George Russel has secured a drive in F1 for 2019 at Williams Racing.
The 20-year-old British driver has signed a multiple year deal with the Grove based team. Becoming the first British driver to race for a full season at Williams since Jenson Button in 2000. He will however continue on in his current role as Mercedes test and reserve driver.
“It is a huge honour to join a team of Williams’ prestige and heritage,” said Russell in a press release shared by the team. “I would like to thank Claire and everyone at Williams for their faith in making this decision, as well as Toto and the team at Mercedes for their fantastic support throughout GP3 and Formula 2. I am incredibly excited to start working with everyone at Grove and to take my first steps as a Formula 1 race driver.”
Russel had a successful career in karting before stepping up into single seater racing in 2014. He quickly went on to win the BRDC Formula 4 Championship in his rookie season, as well as becoming the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award winner that year too. Following this, Russel progressed into Euro F3, where he stayed for two seasons before heading on to GP3. Like in his BDRC Formula 4 year, Russel took the 2017 GP3 championship in his rookie season with two races to spare. Following GP3 he stepped up into F2 for this season. Currently, with just two races to go, he has a command of 37 points at the top of the championship ahead of Alexander Albon and 2019 McLaren driver Lando Norris.
If he can hang on and win the F2 championship this year Russell will join an illustrious club with fellow F2 and GP2 champions Nico Rosberg (2005), Lewis Hamilton (2006), Nico Hulkenberg (2009) and most recently Charles Leclerc (2017), as drivers who have all won that series in their rookie year.
Russel has admitted that it was he himself who approached the British team just before the German Grand Prix this season. He spoke to Williams’ Chief Technical Officer Paddy Lowe, whom he knew from his time at Mercedes, and who he had a good relationship with.
He explained that he wished to be in Formula 1 next year driving a Williams, and that he wanted to know what he needed to do to secure a meeting with the likes of Frank and Claire Williams as well as other senior staff at the Williams team. Lowe responded by providing the opportunity for the meeting where Williams laid out their plans, including simulator work and expectations, for Russel if he wanted to secure the seat.
Russel did have one big advantage during his negotiations with Williams, which was Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff was singing his praises. However, this was as far as Wolff was willing to go to support his young driver apparently. The Mercedes boss made it clear that the team would not simply pay for its junior drivers to have a seat in Formula 1. A decision that has impacted the prospects of the other Mercedes young driver Esteban Ocon as well as Russel.
Russel knew what he had to do though if he wanted the 2019 Williams seat, and set about proving himself in his current series F2. Despite not yet clinching the drivers’ championship, by the weekend of the Russian Grand Prix Russel had done enough for the team to make up their mind. And Deputy Team Principal Claire Williams gave him the call to let him know he’d secured the drive for the 2019 season.
At the beginning of this year Williams were criticised as a team for taking two relatively young and inexperienced drivers in Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin. Facing yet another potential backlash again over their decision to promote a young driver, Claire Williams said that the team has “always tried to promote and develop young talent at Williams, and George fits that ethos perfectly”.
She added in the same press release: “He is already highly regarded in the paddock and a driver whose career we have been watching for a while. In the time we have spent with him so far, we believe that he will be a great fit for our team; his commitment, passion and dedication is exactly what we need to drive the positive momentum building at Grove as we focus on the future. We are extremely excited to welcome George and working with him moving forward.”
Williams are currently enduring one of their worst seasons in their 41 year history as they sit last in the Constructors’ Championship this year with just seven points to their name. To put that into perspective the team ahead of them in the championship, Sauber, currently have 27 points.
Williams are yet to announce their second driver for 2019, but there are a few names linked to one of the few seats still available in F1 for next season. These names include Sirotkin, Artem Markalov, and Robert Kubica. Stroll does not look like he will continue driving for Williams next season, as he looks poised to leave the team to move to Racing Point Force India. The team went bankrupt before the Hungarian Grand Prix this year, and were saved by a consortium of business men. The leader of which is Stroll’s father Lawrence Stroll.
In his rookie season with the team Sirotkin has held his own well enough. Understandably though it has been hard for him to show his full potential due to the rather slow nature of the car. But stunning defensive driving in Singapore led many to see there was some talent there. While according to sources it was in fact rookie Sirotkin who identified the issue with the Williams car, and not team mate and podium finisher Stroll.
Another Russian, Artem Markelov, has been linked to the Williams seat. However this is beginning to look increasingly more unlikely. Markelov is a Renault young driver, and with so much Mercedes interest at Williams it is unlikely they would take a young driver from a rival program.
The other name liked with the seat is current Williams reserve driver Robert Kubica. Kubica is a popular choice for the second seat among F1 fans as he battles to get back into F1 following a horrific rally accident in 2011. However according to the team when they faced a similar decision last year, Sirotkin was able to outperform Kubica in their testing sessions. Meaning if they face a similar choice again this season, Kubica will have to outperform Sirotkin who now has a season of experience under his belt.
Unfortunately Russell’s appointment means it is unlikely fellow Mercedes junior Ocon will race in F1 next year. Ocon has previously stated that his last and most realistic option for a seat on the grid in 2019 was Williams. But with Russel there the Frenchman is now looking at a year on the side-lines picking up reserve and test driver roles ahead of a highly likely return to the grid in 2020.