George Russell has revealed that his move to Mercedes this year may never have happened were it not for a phone call convincing him not to join Volkswagen in the DTM series.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff had offered the Briton a sponsorship deal to compete in Formula 3 in 2015, but the 23-year-old decided to join the Carlin team which was powered by Volkswagen.
Following one victory and three podiums that year en route to a sixth-placed championship finish, Russell was offered the opportunity to test a DTM car in December, and to say he impressed would be an understatement.
“I did a test with BMW in December in Jerez,” he said in conversation with the Motorsport Magazine Podcast.
“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. I remember [Antonio] Giovinazzi was doing that test back in 2015.
“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.’”
The former Williams driver then revealed that head of the driver programme at Mercedes, Gwen Lagrue, called him up and issued an ultimatum on behalf of the team.
“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 in January 2016. I was sat in the bath actually,” he explained.
“He was saying, ‘I want to have a conversation about joining Mercedes.’ And that’s where it all started really.
“It was absolutely clear from Mercedes. They said, ‘If you sign with BMW, there won’t be an option with Mercedes in the future.”
They then laid out to him how his development with the Brackley-based team would play out.
“So the deal on the table from Mercedes was [to] race in 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,’” he said.
“‘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.’
“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, [and] the contract’s on the table three days later.”
In the end, the 23-year-old knew he had to take the leap and try to secure a drive in the pinnacle of motorsport.
“I’ve not really had any communications with F1 teams, and the 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,” he stated.
“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 will partner Sir Lewis Hamilton at the serial constructors’ champions this season, replacing Valtteri Bottas who has left for Alfa Romeo following five seasons with the team.