George Russell should have won his first ever race start for the Mercedes Formula 1 team. The 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix was always going to be a one-off cameo, but only outrageous misfortune denied him victory in what was still a stunning first drive for the Silver Arrows.
Then, in the Saturday sprint race for the Brazilian Grand Prix, Russell got just a taste of the feeling by taking the chequered flag to secure pole position. With team mate Lewis Hamilton lining up alongside him on Sunday, Russell started the day knowing it would present his best chance to become a grand prix winner since that crushing night in Bahrain almost two years ago.
But before Russell, Hamilton, and thousands of Mercedes team members in Interlagos, Brackley and Brixworth could dare to dream of victory once again, they first had to contain the threat behind. As world champion with 14 wins to his name just this season alone, Verstappen had earned the status of pre-race favourite no matter his starting position in 2022.
This time, Verstappen was the one staring at the Mercedes ahead of him on the grid. Red Bull’s bet on the medium tyre compound failed them on Saturday. They did not intend to suffer the same problem two days in a row, and Verstappen joined Russell and Hamilton in starting on soft tyres.
When the five red lights vanished after less than a second, Mercedes soundly beat Verstappen to the first turn. Rounding the Senna S, Verstappen had more reason for concern from his team mate Sergio Perez, who lightly clipped Verstappen’s left-rear tyre with his front wing. Luckily for both, no damage was done.
The field meandered through the serpentine middle sector for the first time. Friday’s pole winner Kevin Magnussen swept into turn eight only to be awkwardly pitched into a spin by Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren. As the Haas was looped around, Magnussen let the car roll backwards, aiming to keep his car out of the firing line. As it happened, Ricciardo had swerved right to avoid the obstacle he had created and was slammed by Magnussen and into the adjacent tyre wall.
“Sorry guys, I’m out,” Magnussen radioed to engineer Mark Slade, one of the best weekends of his career now over. “I got a massive shove from someone.”
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“Damn shame, Kev,” Slade replied. “Good run, up to there.”
The unexpected appearance of the Safety Car was a welcome sight for those on softs. With track temperature a toasty 50C for the start of the race, those on the softs – virtually everyone bar Ferrari – had the opportunity to nurse their tyres at slow speeds, rather than subject them to flat-out racing on full fuel loads.
After a protracted clean-up period, the race was ready to resume at the end of last six. With the prospect of two multiple world champions in his slipstream for the restart, Russell delayed his launch until he see his car was crossing the final slots of the starting grid, hoping it would be enough to protect his lead into the first corner. But it while it worked in his favour, it has left Hamilton vulnerable to attack from Verstappen behind into turn one.
As the pair rounded the Senna S, Verstappen held the inside for the right-hander and refused to give ground. Meanwhile, Hamilton held the outside and refused to give ground. The inevitable clash sent both cars scrambling. Hamilton took to inside run-off as Verstappen floundered back onto the track, front wing in need of replacement. Both lost several positions.
“He left me no space!” Verstappen fumed, diving into the pits at the end of the lap for a new wing,
Hamilton panicked – he sensed a puncture before he was assured that all looked clear on the data. “That was no racing incident, mate,” Hamilton insisted.
Despite the incident appearing for all the world like the two champions writing yet another chapter into their compendium of avoidable collisions, the stewards felt it necessary to penalise Verstappen five seconds for the clash. Further around the lap, there was a Ferrari in the Ferradura barrier, Lando Norris having hit Charles Leclerc as they battled over third place. Despite the hefty hit, Leclerc managed to recover back on-track and into the pits, dropping to the very back of the field behind Verstappen as a result.
Out front, Russell could have hardly asked for better fortune than his two biggest opponents for the afternoon taking each other out of contention. Now in second place, Perez maintained the gap to Russell to around two seconds until it suddenly began to grow approaching lap 20 as Perez’s lap times faded. But if Perez was starting to feel his tyres degrading, the leader appeared more than comfortable.
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“Tyres are very good,” the race leader insisted to engineer Riccardo Musconi over Mercedes’ radio waves. “Let’s go long. Let’s go long.”
Perez pitted at the end of lap 23, emerging on a new set of mediums. Mercedes responded by ignoring their driver’s pleas to extend his opening stint and instead bring their leading driver at the end of the next lap, also moving onto mediums. By the time Hamilton had eventually relinquished the lead back to his team mate with his own stop, Russell’s lead had crept up to around five seconds.
On the mediums, Russell seemed just as happy as before. Mercedes’ season-long tyre warm-up problems appeared to be have been lost in transit over the Atlantic Ocean and Russell was quickly on a better pace than Perez behind him and Sainz following in third on the softs. In fact, approaching half-distance, only Hamilton was faster than his race-leading team mate, catching up to the Ferrari up ahead in third. That was, until Ferrari called Sainz in at the end of lap 36 for medium tyres.
Running with the freshest tyres of anyone in the top 10, Sainz was instantly the fastest driver on-track. In no time at all, he gained enough time on Perez to complete a virtual undercut on the second-placed Red Bull. But Perez had more immediate concerns than Sainz to worry about, as Hamilton had caught him, fittingly enough, by lap 44.
With Sainz making progress behind, Mercedes knew it would be vital to clear the Red Bull quickly. Fortunately for Hamilton, he only needed a single attempt at slipstreaming Perez up the hill and along the pit straight to flick his rear wing open and breeze passed the Red Bull as they began the 45th lap. The Mercedes one-two was back on – at least, for now.
Red Bull pitted Perez for the final time, putting a new set of mediums onto his car. Eager to retain track position, Mercedes chose to call Hamilton in as well to cover him, but Hamilton was less keen.
“My tyres are good! My tyres are good!,” Hamilton insisted, but Mercedes’ minds were made up. They fixed a pre-used set of softs onto his car before sending him on his way 2.7 seconds later.
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“Why? What the hell?,” queried Hamilton, although his own question would have been answered when he blended out onto the track to see Perez in his mirrors. Less than a minute later, Mercedes did the same for the race leader, bringing him in to fit nine-lap old soft tyres for the final 22 laps of the race.
Sainz had been gaining on the leader at a rate of around half a second a lap, so if Mercedes had been trying to get Russell back in front of the Ferrari just outside of DRS range, they picked the perfect lap to do it. Russell instantly pulled away from the Ferrari, setting a new fastest lap in the process. Russell was now far more concerned by how fast his team mate was behind the Ferrari and asked for a lap time update for his team mate. But before he could get a response, Russell had to react to sudden yellow flags at Bico do Pato.
Norris had lost all power in his McLaren and had crawled to a halt on the exit of the right-hand hairpin. Due to the layout of the Interlagos circuit, there was no quick and easy way to recover the car from the infield as there would have been had Norris stopped around the outer rim of the course. Passing by the scene, Russell sensed a Safety Car looming. A prospect he was less than thrilled by.
“It’s not in a dangerous position,” Russell argued over the radio. But despite what the leader thought, it was obvious to anyone watching that the race would need to be neutralised to get McLaren away from its position. Nonetheless, it took just over a minute from the first yellow flag being waved to the Virtual Safety Car being deployed.
Despite Russell’s anxiety over his precious lead, the VSC was not bad news for him. It did work well for Ferrari, however, as it allowed them to pit Sainz for a final time and join the Mercedes on used softs for the end of the race. He rejoined behind Perez in fourth, but would have been licking his lips knowing he was on far preferable tyres than the medium-shod Red Bull.
Crossing the line to start lap 55, the VSC was upgraded to a full Safety Car. Suddenly, Russell was presented with the exact scenario he had been hoping to avoid – holding off his team mate and whoever may be behind him over the final laps of the race on tyres that were past their best.
“I knew how quick Lewis was and when that Safety Car came out, I thought ‘God this is going to be very, very tricky now’,” Russell later admitted. But with Hamilton having stressed on Saturday that his own priority was a Mercedes one-two in any order, Russell checked what the rules of engagement would be ahead of the restart.
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“So what are we doing?,” Russell enquired. “Are we racing, or securing the one-two?”
“So you are racing,” race engineer Riccardo Musconi informed him. “Just be respectful.”
With his strategy for the initial Safety Car restart having successfully kept his lead, Russell opted for the same approach again when the race resumed at the end of lap 59. Russell hit the throttle a moment earlier than he had the first time, allowing him to maintain his distance to Hamilton through the Senna S. He then produced the fastest middle sector time of the race so far, allowing him to grow his lead to just over a second and insulate himself from Hamilton’s DRS.
While Russell was under no immediate threat, Perez is third definitely was. Sainz was swarming all over him with his soft tyres and once DRS was activated, he shot passed the Red Bull down the Reta Oposta to move into a podium position. Less than a lap later, Perez was demoted to fourth by Leclerc – a remarkable reversal of fortune for the Ferrari driver who had been pitched into the barriers almost 60 laps earlier.
With just six laps remaining, Russell was maintaining his lead over Hamilton, the two matching each other for pace. But while the Mercedes were racing openly for the win, far greater tension was brewing between their rivals behind.
Leclerc, fourth, was anxious about his championship standing relative to Perez, and urged his team to consider telling Sainz to let him into third. “Think about the championship if the positions are like this,” Leclerc offered, the subtext clear.
Further back, Perez on his mediums was being asked to sacrifice his sixth place to Verstappen, who had finally recovered from his earlier clash with Hamilton to sit seventh after the Safety Car.
“So don’t fight Max,” engineer Hugh Bird instructed his driver before offering him a promise. “If on the last lap you’re together, we’ll swap back.”
Perez duly obliged and Verstappen set off in pursuit of Alonso ahead. But Sainz was only pulling further away from Leclerc behind. “Please think about the championship,” Leclerc pleaded with his team. “Every point.”
However, with the race now entering its final lap and Sainz three seconds clear, Ferrari were concerned about a potential five-second time penalty for their third-placed driver after confusion over a quirk of the Safety Car rules had left Sainz under investigation. “We believe it’s too risky,” Leclerc was told, although the lack of context did little to help his mood.
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But one driver whose mood was sky-high was George Russell. So focused had he been on hitting his marks over the final laps, he had to confirm “is this it?,” as he crested the hill for the final time. He soon got his answer, though, when he spotted his team lining the pit lane fencing, gleefully awaiting his arrival.
Russell took the chequered flag first for the second time in just under 24 hours, only this time it was for a true grand prix win. In realising a dream he would have envisioned thousands of times in his mind since he first signed a Mercedes contract as a teenager, the raw emotions of the moment prove overwhelming.
“I was pretty impressed at how quickly I started crying, to be honest, once I crossed the line,” the winner said after the race. “It was literally by the time we were at turn two. Tears were flooding.”
After the race, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff revealed that a water leak on Russell’s Mercedes had threatened to deny him his maiden victory, the team choosing not to concern him with the information. Mercifully, nothing came from the problem, the racing gods perhaps judging Russell had been made to wait long enough for his triumph.
Hamilton was only 1.5 seconds behind at the flag, securing a one-two for Mercedes. Having won more than 100 grands prix, Hamilton could recognise how important the result was for his team and his team mate at the end of the most challenging season Mercedes had faced since he first joined the team.
“This is an amazing result for everybody,” Hamilton told his team as he soaked up the cheers of the Interlagos crowd. “Congratulations to George. I’m really so happy.”
Sainz took the final podium place, two-and-a-half seconds behind Hamilton. No action was ultimately taken over the Safety Car mix-up, with Ferrari sporting director Laurent Mekies having to try and placate an irate Leclerc on the cooldown lap.
“Well done for the race, it was the best we could do,” Mekies consoled his driver. “There was another reason why we didn’t do the swap at the end. We’ll speak later.”
“Yep, I don’t know what reason we’re speaking about,” a frustrated Leclerc replied. “I’m sorry, but… whatever. It’s fine.”
But by far the biggest storm was brewing at Red Bull. Verstappen had been allowed by his team mate in order to attack Alonso, but been unable to pass the Alpine. Four times over the final half of the final lap Verstappen was told to give his position back to Perez, but he did not so much as lift off the throttle until he crossed the finishing line, keeping sixth position to himself.
Perez was disgusted. “Thank you for that, guys,” he spat sarcastically through the radio. “Thank you.”
Team principal Christian Horner immediately came on the radio to apologise to his driver, reflecting the extent to which Verstappen had gone rogue. But it was of little comfort to Perez. “It shows who he really is,” he stated.
Verstappen was asked to explain himself to the team on the cooldown lap. “I told you already last time,” he retorted. “You guys don’t ask that again to me. Okay? Are we clear about that? I gave my reasons and I stand by it.”
In fifth, Alonso was like an island of content among turbulent seas, having recovered from a messy sprint race to put Alpine all-but clear of McLaren in fourth place in the constructors championship heading into the final round. Team mate Esteban Ocon added four more points for eighth, with Valtteri Bottas securing the two most important points of the season for Alfa Romeo, one place ahead of rival Aston Martin driver Lance Stroll in tenth.
But there was no question that the day belonged to Mercedes and, particularly, to Russell. He’d had to wait 43 races since that night in Sakhir to finally get what had been denied him and while Wolff may not have been at the circuit to see Russell score his breakthrough win, he was thrilled to see his protégé fulfil the race-winning potential he had already proven he had two years ago.
“I don’t know if it’s ‘redemption’,” Wolff explained, “I think he deserved to win in Bahrain and we let him down with the car. That’s why, today, this victory makes us happy because he could have had one on the clock two years ago, and he didn’t, and now he has that first victory.”
But while Russell celebrated a win that meant as much to his team as it did to him, he was already shifting his focus to even bigger prizes next year.
“Since Austin, we’ve, as a team, fought for victory or had the possibility for victory every single race,” said Russell. “So, the boost it’s given all of us and the confidence it’s given everybody back at the factory… the factory is going to be pumping over the winter. And we’re going to be given everything we’ve got to come out in that very first test with a car that that can compete from race one.”
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