George Russell said his victory in the Sao Paulo Grand Prix sprint race was a “milestone” for Mercedes – and that he and Lewis Hamilton will work together to try to repeat it in Sunday’s Grand Prix.
Russell’s win at Interlagos on Saturday was Mercedes’ first this year, for most of which the car has been uncompetitive and unable to challenge up front.
The 24-year-old admitted he was surprised to be able to catch and pass Red Bull’s Max Verstappen – the first time anyone has done this in a direct fight against the runaway world champion since Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc won the Austrian Grand Prix in July.
Hamilton finished third in the sprint event behind Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz but will start second alongside Russell in the front row for Sunday’s Grand Prix, with the Spaniard penalized on the grid for using too many engine parts .
Verstappen finished fourth and will line up for the Grand Prix third on the grid.
Russell said his victory underscores the progress Mercedes has made since the start of the season, drawing a comparison to the first ‘sprint’ event of the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix in April, which he and Hamilton finished 11th and 14th .
“It’s a pretty big step for the whole team when we look back on the very first sprint of the year,” Russell said.
“And here we are going to do a double tomorrow. It’s really exciting. I’m so proud that the whole team continues to deliver with the car.”
“It’s the first time we’ve crossed the finish line first in a race.
“It’s a bit of a shame it’s not tomorrow’s race, but it really shows the work we’ve done and we’ll definitely be excited for tomorrow.
“And having Lewis and I one-two on the grid is going to give us some options on strategy and I think we’re going to have to work together to do something different for one of us to get the win for the team. “
Hamilton, whose record of Grand Prix wins in every season of his career is under threat this year, backed Russell’s view.
The seven-time champion was made an honorary citizen of Brazil earlier this week and said it would be the “biggest dream” to win on Sunday to mark the occasion.
But he added: “It will be difficult to race George. We hope to have a bit of a battle but either way we have to make sure we get a brace and get the points for the team. “
Russell said there would be no team orders at Mercedes, but said he expected the drivers to adopt different strategies to give the team the best chance of victory.
He contrasted that approach at the last race in Mexico, when he and Hamilton started second and third behind Verstappen but followed the same strategy as each other and lost.
Russell said: “We don’t know what the right strategy will be. We’ll play each other for sure, and I’m sure we’ll probably split the strategies to try and cover all the options.
“Hopefully one of us comes out of this happy, but we both recognize, based on recent experience, that we’re going to have to go down two different paths.”
Hamilton, who came through the ranks from eighth on the grid in the sprint, added: “To get a one-two anyway I’ll be happy. George has done an amazing job this year and of course we’ll drive safe and clean.
“You always have to have at the heart of it all, at the front of our minds, the team that gets the result. But of course individually we will do our best to try and get the best result.”
What happened to Verstappen?
Russell admitted that heading into the sprint race he expected Verstappen to “have a pretty easy run” to victory.
Russell started third and Verstappen second behind surprise pole winner Kevin Magnussen of Haas. But after the two passed the Dane in the third round, Russell found he could keep up with the world champion.
Red Bull had chosen the medium tire for the Dutchman rather than the softs chosen by the rest of the top 10.
But Verstappen encountered higher tire degradation than the Mercedes drivers and lacked pace.
“It was a bit more difficult than expected,” Verstappen said. “But even on the softs we wouldn’t have been fast enough, so we were clearly struggling to keep the tires alive.
“It’s something we have to try and fix for tomorrow, although there’s not much you can do (to the car). It can’t get much worse than that.”
Verstappen said he felt “at the moment they (Mercedes) look unbeatable” in the race.
Red Bull’s decision to use the medium tire for the sprint gives them a potential advantage for the grand prix.
The soft has proven to be the fastest racing tire in Brazil and Verstappen has two new sets for racing, rather than just one new and one used for Mercedes riders.
Second sets for Russell and Hamilton are only lightly used – a full lap in Hamilton’s case and two in Russell’s – but Verstappen’s new set will be both slightly faster and have a longer potential life. .
Russell said: “We all agreed that the soft was the best performing tire in the race, which is quite odd. But that means if you use one app today, you’ll have one less tomorrow.
“So even though Max and Red Bull haven’t had a strong race, they’re probably in a slightly better position than us for tomorrow’s race because they have this extra set of new softs.”
And Mercedes fear Verstappen because Red Bull have won every race since Austria – nine in a row, eight for Verstappen.
Russell said: “It’s going to be interesting – obviously Max is the main man at the moment and those medium tires just didn’t seem to be working.”
Mercedes chief engineer Andrew Shovlin said: “What we would say from what we’ve seen this year is that Max is going to be fast.
“If the track is warmer, that will probably solve some of their issues. They looked like they were front limited (lacking front grip). It will go down a bit.”
“It doesn’t follow that they didn’t know the medium was a weaker tyre, it could be that they knew it was weak and they were eliminating it. So I think they were strategically aiming the lesser of two evils.
“We all have to use a medium or hard tire as well as a soft one (in the grand prix) so we expect a tougher battle but we couldn’t have put ourselves in a better position. We had a pace of decent race. We don’t expect it to be anything other than a tough battle.”
Justification of Mercedes’ progress
Russell’s victory underscored the milestones Mercedes has achieved with a car that started the year well into the second behind.
Hamilton said: This is such an amazing result for us as a team. We have all worked so hard throughout the year. Were we thinking of leaving on the front line of the Brazilian Grand Prix at the end of the year? No way. But that’s what everyone is working towards.
“It’s a good day. Tomorrow we have to work hard to try to keep them behind us.”
The team put their last major upgrade package on the car at the United States Grand Prix two races ago, and they were in contention for victory in Austin and Mexico a week later.
Shovlin said: “The upgrade at Austin has given us a good performance step. The car still has some flaws that we need to get over and those are still there, but we’re just going a bit faster with the same issues. and fix them. we’re going to need a new car to do that.”
And he said it gave the team hope of heading in the right direction for 2023.
“From a technical point of view, we have a kind of confidence that what we are doing is right, that we can bring an update and that it makes the car faster, that has been extremely reassuring,” Shovlin said, “because we’re going into a three-month period where you don’t have those tests to know if you’re good and if you’re going in the right direction.
“So putting us on a path where you know you can deliver performance has been helpful.
“It’s been a very difficult year for all the staff. We’re working harder than ever and we had nothing to show month after month and you’re just pushing to try and find direction and results and that’s extremely satisfactory (to do so).
“There’s huge confidence in the team and that will certainly fuel the motivation this winter to try and get back to where we want to be, which is up front.”
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