George Russell set to take part in Virtual Chinese Grand Prix

‘The biggest difference to reality is that if you crash you can just press the restart button’: George Russell set to take part in Virtual Chinese Grand Prix… but F1 driver admits fears over lack of preparation for real-life season

  • George Russell would normally be getting ready to take part in the Chinese GP 
  • But due to the pandemic, the British F1 driver will instead compete virtually 
  • Russell will face up to a host of other sporting stars on the track on Sunday 
  • Six F1 drivers will take part, along with Ian Pouler and Lazio star Ciro Immobile
  • But Russell admits that the simulator pales in comparison to the real life race 
  • Learn more about how to help people impacted by COVID

In normal times, George Russell would ready to belt up and take on Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel at the Chinese Grand Prix.

Instead, the British F1 driver will race Real Madrid and former Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois around the Shanghai International Circuit from the comfort of his parents’ living room in Rutland.

With the coronavirus crisis obliterating the start of the F1 calendar, with the first nine races now cancelled, Russell is one of six F1 drivers confirmed to take part in the third outing of the Virtual Grand Prix series on Sunday.

George Russell would have been getting ready to belt up for the F1 Chinese GP this Sunday 

But the race was cancelled, along with the first nine of the season, due to the coronavirus crisis

Ryder Cup golfer Ian Poulter is also on the grid as is Lazio striker Ciro Immobile. Ashes and World Cup hero Ben Stokes took part in the previous outing but has not come back for more after finishing last in Australia.

Russell, who finished third on his virtual debut in Melbourne, is in lockdown in his family home. His trainer is staying with them too as Russell keeps fit with a makeshift gym that includes some shelving units transformed into a squat rack.

Keeping fit can only go so far, though. Unlike footballers who can take a ball for kick-ups in the back garden, Russell and other F1 drivers are unable to pop off for a drive around a track.

Russell does what he can on a home simulator — ‘a chair, a steering wheel, a set of pedals and a TV’ — which he has been using to race against fellow F1 drivers Charles Leclerc and Alexander Albon.

Many other sporting stars, including Ciro Immobile (above), will compete with Russell instead

But racing in your front room can only go so far. At some point racing will begin again and racers will have to get used to being behind a proper wheel again — and the dangers that come with it.

‘The biggest difference to reality is that if you crash you can just press the restart button or rewind it a couple of seconds and go again,’ says Russell. ‘In reality you have a crash at 200mph you are going to do a fair bit of damage. There’s a bit of a, I wouldn’t say fear factor, but adrenaline that goes in with driving at that speed. When you are sat in your living room, there’s not a huge amount of adrenaline!

‘It is not the real thing. The thing I love about driving is the adrenaline rush, the speed, the small fear factor of saying you are going to try this corner flat out and see if it sticks, and that feeling when it does is amazing.

‘That is one of the biggest difficulties with F1 is not being able to do it on a daily basis. Even though it’s not the real thing, it’s not awfully realistic, it is still driving. You’re still focusing on braking late, getting around corners as fast as you can, and in the race situation against other cars. That is all we can do to be honest. I am doing some cognitive exercises to keep my mind sharp.

But Williams star Russell admits that the simulation pales in comparison to the real life circuit

‘As time progresses we are definitely going to have to find other ways to stay on it. By the time, or if we do go back racing, I will have done about four days driving in the space of eight, nine months or so. In any other sport that is unheard of.’

At least the simulator will be put to further good use on Sunday when he joins Leclerc, Albon, Lando Norris, Nicholas Latifi and Antonio Giovinazzi as well as Courtois, racing for Red Bull, and Poulter, for Renault, in the Virtual Grand Prix.

The 28-lap race is competed on the PC version of the F1 2019 video game with all cars running with equal specifications and reduced damage on any crashes. Viewers can not only watch the race but see the faces, voices and reactions of the drivers.

‘Driving with these guys, like Courtois and Stokes, it’s odd,’ says Russell. ‘It’s odd to be on track with superstars in their sports. But they are really good guys, they have got that competitive edge. When they got their simulators, they were on it practising a huge amount because they wanted to be good and not make themselves look silly. It just shows what high-level athletes are like.

England cricket hero Ben Stokes will not compete this time having finished last in Australia

‘It also gives us chance to show a bit more of your personality. Quite often when we get to a race weekend we are all super professional and not a time for laughing and joking around. This gives us an opportunity to be ourselves. That is great to show our true colours a little more.

‘Hopefully they will like me more now, I don’t know! Maybe they’ll think I’m a bit of a d**k, who knows! In these tough times, lots of people are stuck in at home and, hopefully, we are providing a bit of entertainment. The most important thing is that we are all healthy, we are looking after ourself, staying home and that is more important that F1 and everything else.’

The 22-year-old Russell completed his first season in F1 last season after winning the Formula 2 Championship in 2018. However, he finished bottom of the Drivers Standings with no points as the Williams car struggled heavily against the competition.

‘It’s a surreal feeling. We all looked at these superstars driving and if we saw one in the distance at a track you couldn’t believe it. Now we are racing against the guys we looked up to, the likes of Lewis and Sebastian. At one point, part of you thinks they are superheroes. But now it is great to be in that group of people.

Russell completed his maiden campaign in F1 last season but finished last in the standings

‘I have got aspirations to go on and my dream is to become F1 world champion. I need to keep doing the business to the best of my ability. I know what I can achieve and I just need to make sure I go out and achieve that.

‘The fact is I’m a Williams driver at the moment, the team gave me my opportunity into F1 and I will forever be grateful for that opportunity. I am loyal to them but longer term I want to become a race winner, I do want to become a world champion.

‘Racing against guys who I raced with in Formula 2, and who I had good battles with, it is tricky sometimes seeing them at the front but on the other side, I am not here for one year in F1, I am here hopefully for 15 or 20. My time will come. I have one goal in life and that is to be Formula 1 world champion.’

You can catch George Russell racing at the Virtual Chinese Grand Prix on Sunday evening at 18:00 BST. 

The Virtual Grand Prix will be broadcast live with international broadcast partners in over 100 countries including in the UK on Sky Sports and in the US on ESPN.

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