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Obituary: Jim Russell, F3 champion and racing school founder

by Ida Wood

So many motorsport careers have started in some part down to Jim Russell, who sadly died earlier this week, it is a surprise that his name is not mentioned more.

The 98-year-old won Formula 3 titles both as a driver and a team boss, was integral to the success of one of the best motorsport movies of all time, and the founder of probably the most influential racing school of all time.

Norfolk born and raised, Russell only started his racing career ages 32, having previously been preoccupied by his job in the RAF. It didn’t take long for Russell to impress renowned engine tuner Steve Lancefield, which then led to strong relationships with chassis and engine suppliers Cooper and Norton.

Little over a year on from his debut Russell was winning 500c F3 races, and he went on to take the British title three times in a row between 1955-’57. He moved on to Formula 2, winning the coveted British Empire Trophy in 1959 and taking the class win in the BRDC International Trophy the same year.

At the same time as his driving career started moving beyond F3, Russell set up his famous racing school at his local Snetterton circuit. It only took a few years before Russell was running cars for others in F2, and within a decade his services were being relied upon the?Grand Prix motion picture.

Although the entry-level skills was where Russell’s racing school were most frequently used and respected for, arguably it was two examples of individual support in a different capacity that proved the school’s versatility and importance.

After success in Brazil, Emerson Fittipaldi moved to England for 1969 and convincingly won the British F3 title for Russell’s team. A year later he was a race-winner in Formula 1. Russell continued to run his team, and it folded nearly three decades on in Formula Vauxhall Junior.

Ralph Firman was a training mechanic at Russell’s racing school during its early days, and Snetterton became one of the key hubs of motorsport worldwide when Firman set up the Van Diemen race car manufacturer with Russell’s support. The school became a major customer of Van Diemen vehicles, and both crossed the Atlantic with considerable success.

The original racing school left its Snetterton home for Donington Park, but the Canadian outpost at Circuit Mont-Tremblant stays strong to this day, as do franchises in the USA. Particularly in America, the racing school’s own centrally-ran championships proved huge successes and one-off shootout events and ‘world finals’ led to drivers only starting their career going up against the best possible opposition from across the globe.

Top Jim Russell Racing School graduates?

Emerson Fittipaldi?– 1972 & ’74 F1 world champion, ’89 CART champion, ’72 Race of Champions winner
Gilles Villeneuve?- 2nd in 1979 F1, 7th in ’81 F1, ’79 Race of Champions winner, 1976 & ’77 Atlantics champion
Derek Bell?- 1975, ’81, ’82, ’86 & ’87 Le Mans 24H winner, ’77 & ’81 Bathurst 1000 winner, 2nd in 1970 European F2
Jenson Button – 2009 F1 world champion, 2nd in ’11 F1, ’18 Super GT champion, 3rd in ’99 British F3, 2nd in ’99 Macau GP
Jan Magnussen – 17th in 1998 F1, ’04, ’05, ’06 & ’09 Le Mans 24H GT class winner, 17 & ’18 IMSA GTLM class champion
Greg Moore – 5th in 1998 CART, 7th in ’97 CART, 9th in ’96 CART, ’95 Indy Lights champion
Johnny Rutherford – 1980 CART champion, ’74, ’76 & ’80 Indy 500 winner
Jimmy Vasser – 1996 CART champion, 2nd in ’98 CART, 3rd in ’97 CART, 2nd in ’91 Atlantics
Andy Wallace – 1988 Le Mans 24H winner, ’01, ’02 & ’06 Le Mans 24H class winner, ’86 British F3, ’86 Macau GP winner
Lance Stroll – currently 11th in 2019 F1, 12th in ’17 F1, ’16 European F3 champion, ’15 TRS champion, ’14 Italian F4 champion