It all started with a phone call back in July. With his heart set on racing in Formula 1 next year, Mercedes junior George Russell rang Williams Chief Technical Officer Paddy Lowe and said “Paddy, I want to be in F1 next year and I want to be in a Williams car – can we arrange a meeting with Claire [Williams, Deputy Team Principal] and yourself to discuss this further?”
A week later, at Hockenheim ahead of the German Grand Prix, Russell sat down with Williams and Lowe to set out his case for why they should sign him. The process had begun.
Around three months later, the Briton, who currently leads the F2 championship race with one round to go, has a contract in his back pocket. He becomes the first driver to be confirmed by Williams for 2019, replacing Lance Stroll who is expected to head to the Force India team now owned by his father Lawrence.
But what did the reigning GP3 champion do to convince Williams he deserved a seat? “I spent a day on the simulator,” Russell told Formula1.com. “They were assessing my feedback and speed and how I interacted with the team. “They told me afterwards that it went extremely well. My track record in GP3 and F2 has been a major factor, too.”
The team were impressed with Russell’s performance across the board and so the negotiations began. “It was left to Mercedes to negotiate terms,” he said. “I had involvement. This is my career so they involved me a lot. It was a joint discussion.” Then, it was a waiting game, until the Saturday of the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi.
VIDEO - Get to know George Russell
“It’s been on the cards for a little while and I had small indications that this could be happening, but you never know,” he said. “My manager from Mercedes Gwen Lagrue messaged me to say Claire wants to have a chat with you.
“I was a bit unsure, I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I was hoping for the best and thinking it was going to be some good news. I went into her office and she had a smile on her face, so I had a good idea what was about to come. When she told me that she wants me for 2019, I was extremely chuffed.
“Signing the contract was surreal. The more time is passing, the more it is hitting me that this is really happening. F1 has been a lifelong dream for me. To get this opportunity with Williams is beyond words.”
He shared the news with his parents first – they were in Sochi for his F2 race. Then there was the chat with Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff, who was up against it to find seats on the F1 grid in 2019 for his protégés – Russell and Esteban Ocon. “He was absolutely delighted. After everything that has gone on, it’s a huge relief that we managed to get this across the line and we’re going to be on the F1 grid.
“Mercedes have always had the approach that if we’re performing and doing the job, they will do everything in their power to give us the opportunity. Regardless of what happened to Esteban, I was reaching all my targets set for me from Mercedes and they believed I deserved an opportunity. And did everything they could to help me secure that.”
Staff were told at Williams’ factory in Grove on Friday morning before the news of Russell’s multi-year contract was publicly announced, giving the 20-year-old an opportunity to meet the people that he’ll be working with next year. However, he knows his main focus has to be the F2 finale in Abu Dhabi, where he leads Alexander Albon by 37 points with a potential 48 on offer.
“I’m definitely going to meet all of the factory before Abu Dhabi,” he said. “I’d love to walk around the factory and meet everyone who makes this team go racing. It will be when the flag falls in Abu Dhabi when I will start focusing on my role at Williams.
“This is my dream, F1, but I can’t lose sight of the fact I still have a championship to win. I’m a racer, I’m a winner, and that is still, right here and right now, my focus. Once that box is ticked, it’s full focus onto F1.”
His debut year will be challenging, Russell having joined Williams at one of the most challenging times in their long and illustrious history. Currently, they lie 10th – and last – in the constructors’ championship with four races to go. But attention has been on next year and curing their problems for a long time now - and Russell is ready for the fight.
“I’m extremely motivated for everything,” said Russell, who added he plans to talk to Mercedes’ team mate Valtteri Bottas in Austin about the Finn’s time at Williams. “It’s no secret it’s been a difficult season for Williams this year, but I’m 100% sure there’s a huge amount of talented within this factory.
“There will be a number of changes within to try and improve the team and I’m extremely looking forward to being part of that journey.”
IN CONVERSATION: Claire Williams and 2019 signing George Russell