LONDON (Reuters) - George Russell will be following in the footsteps of Jenson Button when the 20-year-old Briton makes his Formula One Williams race debut next year, but with more experience than his now-retired world champion compatriot had at the same age.
Williams made their announcement on Friday, finally allowing the Formula Two championship leader to talk openly about the excitement he has had to contain since last month’s Russian Grand Prix.
“I’ve been trying not to act too smug,” he told Reuters in an interview.
Russell, who turns 21 in February, is a hot property and arrives with a resume of success as long as Silverstone’s Hangar straight.
It is safe to say he is thrilled to be starting out with one of the great teams of British motorsport, albeit going through hard times at present, just as Button did in 2000.
“It’s absolutely incredible,” he said.
“I know a huge amount about the history of Formula One and watched a number of races from the 1980s and 90s and when I went to Williams recently and walked around there, seeing all of those cars, I had a massive smile on my face.
“Seeing the (Keke) Rosberg cars back from 82 and the (Nigel) Mansell and the (Alain) Prost car. To see how everything developed over those years, I absolutely loved it. Being part of this team is just absolutely fantastic.”
Button, 2009 champion with Brawn GP (now Mercedes), came in straight from British Formula Three but King’s Lynn-born Russell has collected a string of junior titles on his way up.
A British and European go-kart champion, he won the 2014 BRDC Formula Four title as a rookie and emulated Button as winner of the prestigious McLaren Autosport BRDC Award.
Last year he took the GP3 championship in his debut season and, barring disaster, looks sure to collect the F2 title at the first attempt.
That puts him in the same bracket as the likes of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, both GP2 winners, as well as last year’s F2 champion Charles Leclerc who is already Ferrari-bound.
Russell is also reserve for champions Mercedes, with whom he has a long-term contract, and has taken part in Friday practice sessions for Force India.
“I feel 100 percent ready,” he said. “Formula One has been my lifelong ambition and dream so to finally get this opportunity, I’m definitely not going to take this for granted.”
Williams, winners of more constructors’ titles (nine) than anyone other than Ferrari, are a shadow of the team they were when compatriot Mansell dominated in 1992 or Damon Hill took the title in 1996.
Last and with just seven points from 17 races, they have produced one of the worst cars in their history but Russell was not concerned.
“Williams finished fifth in the constructors’ last year and third (in 2015), so who knows what next year might bring,” he said.
“I don’t think any team can be sure of their performance. We can only judge that from March onwards, but the key thing for myself and the team is that we develop well. It doesn’t matter the starting point, but where we end up.”
The agreement is a multi-year one and Russell plans to stay, a factor that also appealed to Williams.
Highly-rated French driver Esteban Ocon, also Mercedes-backed but set to lose his Force India seat now the team is under new ownership, had been linked to Williams too but that would have been a short-term option.
“From Williams’ point of view, they want some consistency moving forward and I think myself wanting to be with them for a couple of years is something they were aligned with,” said Russell.
He always believed the opportunity would come if he kept on winning, and held on to that view despite speculation Williams might have to opt for drivers bringing funding rather than talent alone.
“I wasn’t worried, I was just focused on my own job and I knew it would come if I kept on winning,” he said.
“I think it’s great that the drivers who are performing are considered for those opportunities, and rightly so.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis