George Russell exclusive on joining Mercedes, partnering Lewis Hamilton and his 2022 title chances

MONZA, Italy -- George Russell was out for dinner the week before the Belgian Grand Prix when Toto Wolff's name flashed up on his phone. The Williams driver had stayed late at the gym in preparation for the upcoming race, decided he couldn't be bothered to cook and met a friend at a nearby restaurant.

The music in the background was loud as he picked up the phone -- "Toto thought I was out clubbing or something" -- but by the time he put it back down, he knew he'd be partnering Lewis Hamilton as a Mercedes driver in 2022.

It's the call every young Formula One driver dreams of: confirmation that you will be driving for the best team in F1 with a chance to prove yourself alongside the most successful driver in history.

Russell, who has driven for Williams in F1 since making his debut in 2019, has been a part of Mercedes' junior programme since 2016, and a step up to world champions was expected at some point. Last year he stood in for Hamilton at the Sakhir Grand Prix when the seven-time champion tested positive for COVID-19, and would have won the race had it not been for a mix up with his tyres at a pit stop.

Even so, in the weeks before the phone call, Russell was not assuming anything.

"It had been going for a while and we weren't naive to the fact it was a real possibility, especially after the race in Sakhir last year," Russell told ESPN in an interview in the Monza paddock ahead of this weekend's Italian Grand Prix. "But equally, until pen was on paper and I had signed on the dotted line, until it was announced, we were just managing expectations."

Lining up against Hamilton next year, Russell will not only be going head-to-head with the most successful driver in F1 history, but also one of his boyhood heroes. When Hamilton first started in F1 back in 2007 with McLaren, Russell was just starting out in go-karts and 13 years separates them in age.

After Russell's contract news was made public on Tuesday, Hamilton welcomed his new teammate to Mercedes by posting a picture on Instagram of himself alongside an 11-year-old Russell at McLaren's factory.

It's a day Russell remembers clearly.

"When you are an 11-year-old kid and you want to be a racing driver and you see a Formula One driver, they are a superhero to you," he said. "I still remember that day, right now. It just sticks in your memory and it will stick in my memory forever.

"You look up and you think, 'Wow, it's Lewis Hamilton, a Formula One driver'. So I guess it is quite surreal that I will be lining up against him next year.

"But equally, as you grow up and you get inside the paddock, you realise that everybody is a normal person, even if they may be incredibly talented in their given industry. But definitely at that time I thought he was a superstar."

He added: "I'm incredibly excited about going up against Lewis, but equally I am under no illusions of how difficult it is going to be. Lewis, in my opinion, is the greatest driver of all time and to get the opportunity to go against him is massive.

"To be honest, I am going to go in there with an open mind and try to learn from him, because at the end of the day he is a seven-time world champion for a reason and it is not going to be easy."

Part of the reason Russell holds Hamilton in such high regard is because he has a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what makes him so successful. Before he joined Williams in 2019, Russell sat in on Mercedes' engineering meeting to learn what goes in to winning races and championships.

"[I learned] a huge amount," Russell said. "The time I spent with him at Mercedes prior to joining Williams, seeing how he deals with his engineers, how hard he works.

"I think so many people think Lewis just turns up on a Friday morning, jumps in the car and does something exceptional. But he works so hard, he is one of the first and last out of the track, every day, all the tiny little details to find that last millisecond.

"That really opened my eyes for the first time when I saw that for the first time, thinking, 'Blimey, this is probably the most talented driver ever and he is still pushing for more'. That's why I know the challenges that are going to face me."

Much has been made of whether Russell joining Mercedes will create fireworks between the two teammates. The man Russell replaces, Valtteri Bottas, ushered in a five-year period of team harmony following the divisions created by Nico Rosberg taking the fight to Hamilton in 2016 -- but Bottas has never pushed Hamilton as hard as Russell promises to do.

At this stage, Russell says the relationship is good with his future teammate and that he is under no pressure to beat Hamilton straight away.

"I think our relationship is good, to be honest," Russell said. "We have not really had any real dealings over these past few years, but we've always said hello when we passed each other.

"But I'm sure our relationship is going to grow over these years, and to be honest I just want to learn from him to begin with and help me develop because for me personally, I also see this as a long journey.

"I want to be fighting for victories and championships for the next five, ten or 15 years to come and it's important to keep developing."

One thing Russell has on his side is three solid years learning his trade at Williams. He has excelled at the team, joining in 2019 when it was struggling to get off the back row of the grid and taking it all the way to a second-place finish at last month's Belgian Grand Prix (by virtue of qualifying second for a race that was so wet it only consisted of three laps behind the safety car).

By contrast, his karting contemporary and good friend, Alex Albon, was promoted to a seat at Red Bull alongside Max Verstappen in just his second year in F1 and struggled. After just a single year in a top car, Albon was dropped by Red Bull for 2021 but will get a second chance in F1 by taking over Russell's car at Williams next year.

"I think I've been really happy with how Mercedes has given me this opportunity to go out there and learn," Russell said. "Obviously, the way Red Bull do things is pretty reckless and ruthless at times, and that's why I'm so grateful that I have had this opportunity to go out there and learn, build and develop.

"Every driver dreams of getting into Formula One and winning races from day one, but equally when you are going up against the best in the business, it sometimes doesn't happen like that.

"I feel in such a stronger place right now that, even if I jump in and I'm a bit off the pace, I feel strong enough mentally to not let that affect me. I know I'll get there. When I will get there, I don't know yet, but I think I'm mature enough and old enough now to deal with that, whereas one or two years ago I probably wouldn't have been."

Russell is hoping he can repay Mercedes in results on track, and says he joins the team feeling support from the very top.

"Toto has always been there [for me in my career]," he added. "He's always a phone call away to talk to and he has always given me really good advice and pushed me and been hard on me in certain moments, but patted me on the back when the result has been good.

"As a team they have been so great to me, which is why now I feel so appreciative of the opportunity and why I am going to go that extra mile to try and repay me for the faith they put in me over these past few years.

So, does he believe the ultimate goal -- a world title -- is possible in his first year at Mercedes?

"I have no idea, to be honest. I will be working with a completely new set of engineers, new set of regulations, new car, new teammate. There are a lot of new things that I am going to have to adapt to and get used to.

"But right here, right now, we can't say this is the goal. Obviously, the target for everyone is to win and that will always be the target, but equally there has got to be a realistic aim. Certainly, over the course of the next three to five years, that is absolutely the goal."