With nearly 70 competitors and the majority of the 2008 seeded drivers all in attendance the 2009 Formula Kart Stars MSA British Cadet Championship was always going to be intensely competitive. The eventual winner would have to show speed, consistency, maturity, the ability to overtake and reliability across the nine rounds. Luck would also have to play its part as for six of the nine rounds, the heat grids would be random, meaning all drivers would find themselves starting towards the back of the field at some point during the day. For the other three, the Cadets would have to master the art of qualifying, thus throwing an extra tactical spanner in the works.
For eleven year-old George Russell, 2009 contained plenty of speed, as six heat wins and two overall final victories can attest. Russell also proved that he could stay mature in a pack and overtake his way to the front of the field on numerous occasions. But 2009 was by no means plain sailing for the younger brother of 2007 Rotax World Champion Benjy Russell who was one of no less than 15 drivers to win a race over the course of the season.
After spending his first season in Comers with the familiar BRM he had become accustomed to during his WTP career, 2009 would see the Wisbech based driver switch to a Zip chassis for the first time and join Ultimate Motorsports’ expanding squad.
“We did the February clubbie at Kimbolton, that was my first test with Ultimate,” says Russell. “We did well until the chainguard came off in the final. The carb had dumped in one of the heats so I started near the back but I was up to eighth in the final. I was confident that Ultimate were the right team.”
That confidence would prove to be well placed when Formula Kart Stars rocked up at Kimbolton for the season opening doubleheader weekend in April, although wet conditions threatened to make things something of a lottery on Saturday.
“The heats were good,” continues Russell. “I won two of them. In the final Josh White was following me but on the last lap I defended and managed to win.”
So with his first FKS victory in the bag things looked good for the Sunday round where, in theory, there would be less risk with drivers competing in a qualifying session that would directly decide the grid for the finals meaning no ‘hold your breath’ heats where another drivers mid-pack error could spell disaster.
But on a damp and drizzly day, theories quickly went out of the window.
“I went out on slicks in qualifying, which was the wrong choice,” recalls Russell. “I started tenth in the C Final but I worked with Lando Norris and got up to second. I wanted to finish second as it meant I would be on the inside of the grid for the B Final but someone ahead didn’t race so I was on the outside going into the first corner. I got attacked from behind and spun but came back to seventh.”
Sadly seventh wouldn’t be good enough for a place in the A Final so Russell was in the unenviable position of being the championship leader but helpless to do anything as his main rivals ate into his advantage.
“It’s not like any other racing where if you come last your 20th, if you’re last in FKS you are 60th.”
With White taking the win Russell left Kimbolton second in the championship but happy that, when luck was on his side, he was fast…very fast.
Formula Kart Stars’ first visit to Glan Y Gors in North Wales provided some welcome change of scenery and the majority of drivers, Russell included, arrived at the undulating venue with limited experience. The fact that on race day conditions were wet/dry/wet/dry with the finals being run on a sodden track only added to the challenge and it was a challenge that Russell relished.
“I did a clubbie at GYG where I came 2nd behind Jake Walker in the dry. For FKS it was wet all weekend but I seemed really quick. I won all my heats, got fastest lap and won the final! It’s my style of track it’s got a bit of everything. It’s long and twisty but fast and flowing at the same time. That put me back in the lead of the championship.
Three rounds down and Russell had already bagged five heat and two final victories. Firmly in front in the points chase, some timely advice from big brother Benjy set the tone for the rest of the year.
“I was thinking I just needed consistent rounds, my brother said I didn’t need to win each round just stay in the top five.”
At the next round at Rowrah Russell set about putting his new strategy into place and, sporting his recently won O-Plate, things went well…to start with.
“I got second and third in my first two heats. In my last heat I was starting last and the chain just came off. I started 14th in the final but I got up to sixth even though we didn’t have a perfect set-up but I got hit and the chain flicked off again.”
Russell would watch the remainder of the final from a marshals post as Matthew Graham decimated the field by 15-seconds to take his first win of the year and launch himself into the thick of the title picture.
So from the first four finals of the year Russell had won two of them, retired from one and failed to qualify for one. Despite the continuous roller coaster of emotion though, thanks to Harry Webb’s retirement from the Rowrah final and White disqualification (for his part in the crash that claimed Russell), George headed to PFI and the mid-point of the FKS season with a slender 18-point lead.
“The first heat was dry but the carb wasn’t right and I was 12th but I got second in heat two and third in heat three. I was nervous before the start as there was a delay so the final was dry but the track was damp. You just have to find the dry patches because if you put one wheel on one of the damp patches you’d slide off.
“I got the lead with two laps to go and on the last lap I had a little gap but Harry Webb got the slipstream on me and went round the outside of me on the straight. At the second hairpin Alex [Gill] and Matt [Graham] were behind and I defended, got on one of the damp patches, understeered wide and they got me.”
He may have been disappointed, but fourth place was still enough to keep him just a couple of points ahead of race winner Webb as the FKS brigade headed to the continent and the sunnier climes of Genk in Belgium for the second doubleheader weekend of the year where he arrived as the newly crowned Kartmasters GP champion, emulating his 2008 WTP success.
”Genk was an average weekend,” says Russell who, on his previous visit in 2008 ended Saturday’s final trapped under his inverted kart following a first corner melee. “I had good heats and was fourth on the grid. Going into turn one Sam Vanderpump got into Max Vaughan who went into me and spun me down to last.”
A fine recovery to 12th couldn’t prevent Webb, Gill and Graham from gaining even more ground meaning Sunday’s timed qualifying then straight into the final format had to be mistake free. It wasn’t.
“In qualifying I did five laps but then changed carb. Afterwards we realised the spark plug was bad. I started 20th in the B Final but I was really quick and I won that, which put me in the A Final. Again I was really quick and got up to fourth but Josh White did the switchback on me at the last corner and I fell to sixth.”
Despite another bout of qualifying disappointment Russell actually gained ground on Webb who could only finish ninth but with Graham taking his second final win of the year and Gill finishing on the podium again, any one of them could take the title at Whilton Mill in the final two rounds of the season.
“Coming back from Gerk I was looking forward to Whilton Mill because I’ve always been quick in the club events I’ve done there so I was feeling confident.”
Just a couple of weeks before Whilton, the darker side of Motorsport reared its head when Webb was injured in a crash, doing damage to his liver that would rule him out for the rest of the season leaving Graham now as Russell’s closest threat, less than 20 points behind.
Saturday was dry, bright but breezy and both main title contenders stuttered their way through the heats, neither wanting to risk making a move that wasn’t guaranteed to come off. Adding to the tension was the fact that an unrelated protest caused a delay to the final, which was set to run in wet conditions, until Sunday morning when conditions were perfect.
“I qualified ninth on the grid but we had to wait until Sunday morning as it started to rain and the light was going. They had re-tarmac’d the track three weeks before so I was pretty confident about racing in the wet so it was a bit annoying having to wait.”
Picking his way up the order Russell found himself in fourth place, a long way behind the top three and while a ferocious battle raged behind him he was able to keep everyone else at bay to claim the spot.
With Graham finishing seventh Russell went into the final round ahead, but mindful that one slip-up could change everything. The format? Timed qualifying…
“I wasn’t looking forward to it [qualifying] but I soon found we were quite quick and finished third in my group. Matthew has a chain come off which was bad for him but good for us. It was just a relief to get through qualifying OK for once.”
Now it was Graham’s turn to have to battle his way up from the B Final, which he did but even so, from 25th on the starting grid and Russell starting from the third row the title was Russell’s to lose, and, showing the maturity that had already carried him to O-Plate and Kartmasters glory, he didn’t disappoint.
“In the final five of us got a gap but I wasn’t going to risk anything so I stayed behind. I just stayed calm and brought it home. I realised Matt was behind me so I knew I would win the title.”
Despite a heroic charge from Graham, Russell was the 2009 MSA British Cadet Champion at his second attempt thanks to a fifth place finish. As the chequered flag waved he reached to the skies and the emotions poured. But when the interviews and lap of honour had been completed, both he and the team realised just how close they had come to losing it all.
“When we stopped we noticed the chain wasn’t resting on the sprocket but it was on top of the teeth so if I had hit one kerb the chain would have come off,” says Russell. One kerb and that would have been it.”
With TV cameras, magazines and a live crowd to satisfy, the next couple of hours were a bit of a blur and it wasn’t until late in the evening that Russell finally got to reflect properly with his family and his team.
“I only got to speak to the team at 8pm as I had loads of interviews and the presentation to do. The whole team were really happy as it had been a good year. I didn’t think I could do as much as I did.”
When asked to pick a highlight from a truly spectacular year Russell can’t decide, and who can blame him.
“Glan Y Gors was the best moment of the year as well as the last round at Whilton. I had done the Little Green Man for three years but switched to Comer for 2008 and 2009 so this was a really good end to Cadets for me.”