George Russell: Turning down Toto Wolff and secret DTM test led me to Mercedes F1 drive

F1

In the latest edition of the 'My Big Break' Motor Sport podcast series, George Russell recalls how a Mercedes engineer may have influenced his signing and path to F1

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Offers from Volkswagen and BMW kept Russell away from Mercedes initially

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George Russell will line up alongside Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes for the 2022 Formula 1 season but in the latest Motor Sport podcast, the Briton says that his opportunity was close to never happening.

He initially turned down a European F3 sponsorship offer from Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, choosing to drive for Carlin with Volkswagen bracing instead.

Then he was on the brink of signing a contract worth “a lot of money” with BMW. If he had joined the rival German manufacturer, Russell says he’d never have been able to race for Mercedes.

Instead, he chose the (initially) less lucrative route with Mercedes, joining its Young Driver Programme in 2017, which led to a Williams F1 seat and now the Mercedes drive.

“I was already having conversations with Toto and Mercedes prior to joining Carlin and Volkswagen,” Russell recalls.

“I actually had a deal on the table to have almost the same backing from Mercedes as I had from Volkswagen. But because there wasn’t an opportunity open at PREMA, the next team I would have had to join would be a German team called Mücke Motorsport, who I felt for my first season F3 wouldn’t be as well suited to me as a British team in Carlin.

“So after my meeting with Toto at the start of 2015, I sent him an email just to say,I really appreciate the meeting and thanks for all of your advice etc. Just to let you know, I’ll actually be joining Carlin and Volkswagen as opposed to Mücke Motorsport and Mercedes because I believe it’s better for my career.’ And I had the opinion that if I went out and did a good job, Mercedes would still be interested. So he replied back,I think you’re making a wrong decision but let’s stay in touch and let’s see where we go from there.’

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Once he’d signed with Mercedes, Russell enjoyed plenty of success on the way up to Formula 1

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“Then later that year in 2015, I had an offer from BMW to race in DTM. I did a test with BMW in December in Jerez. They sent one of their factory drivers from DTM as the reference driver. And we ended up being faster than the reference.

“Mercedes were doing a rookie test with their factory driver and their chosen rookies, Audi were there doing a test as well. Everybody could see the times by the end of that day, it wasn’t public but privately you could see that we were the fastest time of the day.

“There was an engineer who had shifted from BMW to Mercedes, and I think, potentially, he was quite influential saying ‘this guy was very fast and you need to sign him before BMW do.’

“So I had the contract on the table from BMW almost ready to sign it and that’s when I got the phone call from Gwen Lagrue, I was sat in the bath actually. He was saying ‘I want to have a conversation about joining Mercedes. And that’s where it all started really.”

The deal was far from done though. An ultimatum from Mercedes put the pressure on Russell and he found himself at a career crossroads almost instantly in single-seaters

“It was absolutely clear from Mercedes-Benz, if you signed with BMW, there won’t be an option with Mercedes in the future. So the deal on the table from Mercedes was racing Formula 3 for one more year with a Mercedes-backed team, which was Hitech, and come and do all of the simulator work for Mercedes F1, we’ll see how you get on, see how you’re performing on track, how you’re performing off track, and we’ll make a decision in October. There’s a chance we might not take you but a chance we will take you. But if you sign the BMW contract, we’re out.’

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“So I’ve got this contract on the table from BMW, which is to go and race DTM, which at the time was probably the best Championship after Formula 1. I was a 16 year old at the time. 16/17 years old with a lot of money on the table. And it was all quite shocking. It all came so sudden. I’ve done this test that went incredibly well, contract’s on the table three days later.

“I’ve not really had any communications with F1 teams and conversations with Toto are positive, but not too sure if it’s going to lead to something but this is on the table now and a decision needed to be taken. Suddenly Mercedes pick up the phone but they weren’t offering anything concrete it was ‘you’ve got to take a chance.’

“They might turn around and say I’m sorry. But then the BMW door is closed as well. But the big difference is this is Mercedes and that was Formula 1 and BMW was DTM. I was a 17 year old and you had to take that risk. I guess if it didn’t work out I’d potentially be regretting it, but it worked out.”

Russell also recalled that Williams replacement Alexander Albon was the one who helped him into the ladder to Formula 1, aiding him into the Intrepid young driver programme, a favour that Russell believes he has now repaid with helping Albon to get the Williams seat for 2022 as well as how losing to Antonio Giovinazzi made him a better driver.

Hear all about Russell’s rise through the junior ranks in the full episode of My Big Break, the latest episode in the Motor Sport podcast series here.