By Philip Duncan, PA F1 Correspondent
George Russell says there is no extra pressure in taking on Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes – and insists he is ready to showcase his ability to the world in pursuit of being crowned Formula One champion.
Russell will begin the first of his final four races as a Williams driver at this weekend’s Brazilian Grand Prix before his high-profile move to the Silver Arrows next season.
The 23-year-old from Kings Lynn, whose deal to replace Valtteri Bottas at the grid’s all-conquering team was announced in September, is set to form a tantalising all-British partnership with seven-time world champion Hamilton.
“The biggest challenge next year will be going directly up against the greatest driver of all time,” Russell told the PA news agency, in a glowing reference of his soon-to-be team-mate.
“But I am in such an amazing position because I can learn from Lewis and test myself against the best. Who wouldn’t want to be in that position?
“To be honest, it almost takes the pressure off. He is a proven great, but I believe in myself, I have high expectations and I have an amazing opportunity to show the world what I can do.
“And that is why I am so relaxed because I am going to a place where I couldn’t have wished for a better environment ahead of my fourth year in Formula One.”
Russell has thrived during his apprenticeship at Williams. He heads to Interlagos able to extend his extraordinary unbeaten record against team-mates’ Robert Kubica (21-0) and Nicholas Latifi (34-0) in qualifying.
Russell delivered one of the most memorable one-lap displays of recent memory when he put his uncompetitive Williams on the front row of the rain-hit Belgian Grand Prix in August.
He then followed that up by qualifying third a month later in Russia.
His superb display in Spa came just a week after he received the phone call, while out for dinner with girlfriend Carmen Montero Mundt and a group of friends on holiday in Mykonos, from Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff to confirm his elevation.
“I was never under the impression that I wouldn’t have the opportunity,” said Russell as he reflected on the life-changing conversation with Wolff.
“Toto said to me, ‘When have I ever let you down? Ever since you joined Mercedes [as an academy driver in 2017] you have always performed, and I have never let you down. Focus on performing and leave the rest to me.’
“I was aware I was having a good season, and he called me the weekend before Spa. I was relaxed, I was on holiday and I felt like I had done enough up until that point to justify getting the job.
“I didn’t need to go out there and stand it on his doorstep and ask if it was going to happen.
“In fact my parents were hassling me more than I was hassling anyone else. But I told them to trust me, I believe it will happen, so don’t worry. I always knew this was the plan.”
So, did he order a magnum of champagne to celebrate?
Russell laughs. “No, none of that,” he said.
“I have such high expectations upon myself and this is another step in the journey. There are only 20 seats in Formula One, and it is very easy to go from zero to hero and the opposite.
“I didn’t sit down and suddenly think to myself, ‘That’s it, I am going to be world champion next year’, because I don’t want to get carried away.
“I want to be a world champion, that is absolutely clear, but I am going out there to work on the process of achieving that and not waking up every morning and just thinking it will happen.
“I know if I eat the best food, sleep the best way, put the work in the simulator, work at the gym, work with my engineers, don’t do anything silly, and prepare the best as I can, then that will give me the best possible shot of what I want to achieve.”
Russell’s future team-mate has slipped from 12 to 19 points behind Max Verstappen in his race to become a record-breaking eight-time world champion. So, is it game over for Hamilton?
“Max has been exceptional this year, and realistically they should be a long, long way ahead in the championship, and they should have the title sewn up,” said Russell.
“But you can never discount Lewis and Mercedes. They have been here for the last seven years for a reason, and they are probably not feeling the pressure because they have that experience.
“I am going to back Lewis and Mercedes, purely because of that.”