George Russell enters high-profile role at Mercedes, ‘inspired’ by Lewis Hamilton

George Russell Mercedes Bahrain

Eight years after emailing Toto Wolff as an audacious teen keen to showcase his driving talent, George Russell has a chance to show the head of the Mercedes F1 team exactly what he can do on the track.

His opportunity comes next Sunday when the Formula One season begins in Bahrain. Coincidentally, that is where Russell drove brilliantly as a one-off replacement for Lewis Hamilton in late 2020.

They are now teammates after Russell, 24, replaced Valtteri Bottas at Mercedes, and it’s his turn to learn from a multiple world champion.

“That’s incredibly inspiring and motivating for me to try and reach the heights that Lewis has achieved,” Russell said.

Bottas never won the world title and only rarely pushed Hamilton. Russell might do better, but circumstances could play a part.

For while Mercedes say their drivers are free to compete against each other, it seems logical that Russell’s task also will be helping Hamilton to wrestle back the title he narrowly lost to Max Verstappen on the last lap of 2021.

“Lewis is a fighter and his absolute priority is to be the best version of himself when he hits the track in Bahrain,” Russell said. “He knows what it takes.”

Although Hamilton missed out on a record eighth title, which would have moved him ahead of Michael Schumacher, he has long been an inspiration to Russell for his endless work ethic.

“It always amazes me how someone so talented and successful as Lewis continues to strive for more,” Russell said. “I think we can really work well together to push the team forward.”

Presumably not against each other, like when Hamilton and former teammate Nico Rosberg fell out so badly in 2015 and ’16 – the last year Hamilton was beaten to the title until Verstappen ended his run last season.

Hamilton and Russell might have more work than envisaged, given how preseason testing went this week. Red Bull and Ferrari appeared quicker, and Mercedes struggled with “porpoising,” a new F1 term describing how cars bounce around on the track.

Mercedes have won eight constructors’ titles in a row, so it seems absurd to consider them panicking.

But there is genuine concern.

“We do seem a step behind our rivals and we do have a lot of work to do,” Russell said. “Red Bull are looking incredibly strong, Ferrari looking really solid.”

That’s precisely the kind of honesty Hamilton appreciates in Russell.

“He seems very genuine, and he’s just focused on being the best team player he can,” Hamilton said. “It’s been seamless, and we’re communicating a lot.”

Mercedes is a different world for Russell compared with his previous team, the modest Williams. But the meticulous-minded Englishman is in sponge-mode and absorbing all he can.

“They’re absolutely on top of every single detail,” he said. “It’s so impressive, from the simplest of things to the most technical. I really do feel like I’m at home.”

Russell joined the Mercedes junior program in 2017 before starting out in F1 with Williams, which uses Mercedes engines, in 2019.

He produced some impressive performances in a much slower car, particularly at the Belgian Grand Prix last year when he qualified second with outstanding driving in the wet.

Russell’s talent is no secret.

When Hamilton was ruled out of the Sakhir Grand Prix late in 2020, after contracting the coronavirus, it was Wolff contacting Russell this time.

“I got a phone call from Toto at 2 a.m.,” Russell said. “I was in the bathroom, which was slightly awkward.”

Russell stunned many observers with the level of his driving. He outshone the vastly more experienced Bottas, set the fastest lap and likely would have won if not for a badly timed pit stop that was entirely the team’s fault.

That driving was even more exceptional because, not only had he never raced in Hamilton’s car, he also has bigger feet and to fit in the car he had to go down a size and squeeze into size 10 racing boots.

Over two seasons in 2019 and ’20, Russell beat his teammates in every qualifying.

It seems impossible he’ll blank Hamilton, the F1 record-holder with 103 pole positions.

But Hamilton rates Russell as “incredibly talented” and sees in him a similar drive to succeed.

“You see that picture of him when he was a kid, when I was at McLaren,” Hamilton said. “Of course, he’s had an amazing run getting into Formula One. I have no doubt he’s going to be a strong competitor.”

Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing

To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

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“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.

Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”