Sports journalist and author James Gray has recently published two biographies for Icon Books dedicated to Formula 1 drivers Max Verstappen and George Russell. These two well documented books allow the readers to fully understand all the pieces that led to the consecration of the two sportsmen.
The most recent, in particular, is at the centre of our conversation, where the author discusses how he prepared for the challenges and surprises of such a biographical work, writing about the early days of a racing career that is destined to stardom.
George Russell reaped his first successes at a very young age, tracing several milestones along the way, from karting tracks to Formula 3 and 2, before entering the Mercedes F1 realm in 2022, embracing a path that is certainly projected towards the crown of British motorsports.
James Gray explains the particularly fascinating traits of this amazing driver which convinced him to draw such a passionate portrait.
Why did you choose George Russell as the subject of your second biography?
I think he is a very interesting character, and, as he is British like me, there was a special interest, of course. He has come up in a different way compared to other racing drivers these days. I believe his personality is unusual, relatively humble, but with a competitive streak, I perceive him as a little bit introverted while still trying to rub along. I don’t know if or when he will win a world title, but he is a very talented racing driver, and I’m sure that, given the right car, he would definitely get close to that milestone.
How did you carry out your research about his life and career? What were the challenges and discoveries made along the way?
It was very different from my book on Verstappen. That was the first book I have ever written, and I worked on it during lockdown, so it was challenging, as I couldn’t go anywhere and had to write about places in the Netherlands and Belgium. I had never been before, whereas George grew up just outside King’s Lynn in a place called Tydd St. Giles, Wisbech, which I managed to visit. I got an idea of what it was like to grow up there, as I went to the local pub and enjoyed talking with people who had a connection with him, which is one of the things I love most about my job as a journalist. At one point, I also realised I knew very well someone who was at school with him whom I could talk to, and that was very helpful as well.
George was one of the hundreds of boys (as well as some girls, of course) who try and become racing drivers every year, and every single one of them has a story, which could have been very different by just the flip of a coin, and it is really interesting to delve so deeply in so many varied lives.
Go-karting is an amazing world, and even if I’m not from a racing background, I discovered there is so much data about it that you can dig through it and find a lot of information. I’m not a historian, but I imagine it must be the same for them to read through all these documents, and then a name suddenly turns out of the blue and allows you to piece together the whole puzzle.
Having worked on the lives of both George Russell and Max Verstappen, can you tell us what you think distinguishes the two personalities, in your opinion?
Max is a good combination of his father’s boldness and his mother’s sensitiveness, even if his parents are now divorced, whilst George is from a more classic nuclear family with strong core values. I perceive him as a very loyal person, and this is reflected in having had the same people working with him from the very start, for example. Furthermore, his incredible loyalty also links him to Mercedes. In fact, he had a lot of opportunities at various stages of his career, and there was also a time when he was offered a good contract to work in DTM for BTW, when he was reaching that point in a racer’s life when you run out of money and you need to start making it, but he refused it in order to stay with Mercedes, and I think this was due to his in-built sense of loyalty. In researching the book, it was clear that he has matured over the years, even though, like many drivers, he might be one-eyed sometimes when things go wrong. However, I think he is basically a very good person, and it was fun to try and paint a realistic picture of him.
Given your career as a sports journalist, what would you like readers to take away from your book?
I hope people will feel they know George a bit better. I love to go to the origins of these people and see where their character and racing traits are from. Therefore, my aspiration is that the readers will be able to connect the dots more easily after reading this book and understand him, his decisions, and actions better.
Could you tell us about your future literary projects?
I deal with a lot of tennis for my job, and, potentially, I have a project about it in the pipeline, which will be more historical. When I was writing about Verstappen and Russell, I liked the way non-fiction allows you to be transported into someone else’s story. The sports world is rich in anecdotes, particularly in the pre-second world war years, when it was mostly amateurish and unregulated. This made me want to write more about the subject and dig out these stories that are not from so long ago but somehow feel like they come from a completely different era.