By Alan Baldwin
BARCELONA (Reuters) – Formula One rookie George Russell’s earliest motorsport memory is of pedalling a toy tractor around Britain’s go-kart paddocks.
Now 21, the Williams driver has come a long way since then and will make his grand prix debut at the season-opening race in Australia next week after winning last year’s Formula Two title.
One of the tallest drivers, at six feet two inches(1.88 metres), Russell has been in motorsport ever since he and his parents followed older brother Benjy’s rise to karting world champion.
“My parents supported him and travelled with him and as I was a child I sort of tagged along,” he told Reuters in an interview.
“When I was about three or four years old I used to have a little tractor I used to pedal around the kart tracks. I used to have a water tank on the back and I used to go around and collect water for the teams to fill up their radiators with.
“Karting was just a very natural step for me and motorsport was all I ever knew.”
When Russell lines up on the starting grid in Melbourne, probably at the back given his team’s poor testing times, the Mercedes-backed youngster is unlikely to be fazed by his surroundings.
He has already driven seven different F1 cars in testing for four separate teams.
“Three Mercedes, two Force Indias, one Williams and one McLaren. So I’ve driven seven F1 cars. That’s quite a surreal little fact,” said Russell.
“Even now just saying that, it kind of hits me. You think blimey, that’s quite a privilege. Even though my career’s only just started its already been an amazing achievement.”
Russell, winner of the 2014 McLaren Autosport BRDC award, is part of a new, young generation who have raced each other through the junior series and are now preparing for battle again at the top.
Compatriot Lando Norris and Anglo-Thai Alexander Albon have followed him up from last year’s F2 championship, at McLaren and Toro Rosso respectively, while fellow 21-year-olds Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen came through earlier.
Italian Antonio Giovinazzi, at Sauber, and Frenchman Esteban Ocon, currently without a seat after leaving Force India, are other old rivals as is Canadian Lance Stroll, his direct predecessor at Williams.
“I think it’s a nice dynamic between us,” he said of Norris and Albon.
“We all get along well, we text each other quite often and just talk about normal stuff. And also with Charles, even Max, Esteban — we were all on the track at the same time together.
“We’ve kind of come up together, we’re all decent mates and we all get along. Hopefully we’re that next generation that will be in F1 for the next 10-15 years.”
Born in Kings Lynn, the home of former racer and commentator Martin Brundle, Russell grew up in the eastern fenlands around Wisbech but now lives near the Williams factory in Grove, Oxfordshire.
He has no plans to move to Monaco — not that he would mind doing so.
“If you move to Monaco, it means you’re having quite a successful career so let’s hope so. But at the moment that’s not my goal,” he said.
“My goal is to enjoy myself, spend time with the team and build up a great relationship with everybody.”
In a ‘surreal’ paddock of multi-millionaires and billionaires, Russell described himself as an ordinary guy who would not have made it without the support of Mercedes who are also his current team’s engine suppliers.
Williams, the team that gave 2009 world champion Jenson Button his debut at the age of 20 in 2000, were a good fit even if the former champions are going through a troubled spell and finished last in 2018.
They are not expected to do much better this year but Russell has time on his side.
“Who knows how it’s going to turn out, but we can only cross our fingers and hope for the best. I’ve got a good feeling. My gut tells me something good is on the way,” he said.
“It might not be the first race, sixth race or this season. But I believe in the team and I believe that we will get there.”
Russell said his worst races in Formula Two were at the start of the year but the experience stood him in good stead and paved the way ultimately for the strong races.
“I learnt so much from a difficult moment and that grew me into a better driver and I believe something similar is going to happen here,” he said.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Clare Fallon)