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Formula 1

A reminder of Russell’s real level after a self-proclaimed dip

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
4 min read

George Russell’s performance to go wheel-to-wheel with Max Verstappen and win the Brazilian Grand Prix sprint race was a timely reminder of the qualities that earned him his Mercedes Formula 1 promotion.

After a fine start to life at Mercedes in the first seven or so races, despite the troubles with its car, Russell has been outshone by star team-mate Lewis Hamilton over much of the season since.

At the start of the Interlagos weekend, Russell briefly reflected on what he felt “recently has been a scrappy few races for me”. It echoed comments in Mexico, where he said he’d had “too many incidents, too many mistakes” and in Japan, where he said he had not been quite at the level he was at the start of the season.

To win the sprint race at Interlagos, passing world champion Verstappen in the process, was the perfect response to that.

He had already shown a glimpse of his willingness and ability to go toe-to-toe with Verstappen at the Spanish Grand Prix earlier this year, when defending an unexpected lead, but this time Russell was the one on the attack.

Verstappen was initially able to rebuff him but Russell got closer and closer to setting up a successful pass: he was constantly pressuring Verstappen into a defence into the first corner and using a better run through the Senna S plus the DRS to attack into Turn 4.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Brazilian Grand Prix Sprint Day Sao Paulo, Brazil

“Even though I was dying to get that victory, I didn’t want to risk it too much and end up with no points and starting at the back,” Russell said.

It was well managed and, as Russell put it, “we made it stick third time lucky”. Although there was little fortune involved.

Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin reckoned that Russell did a great job not only dealing with the pressure at the front but also “coping with racing a guy like Max, who’s probably the hardest one out there to get by”.

“George is at home racing at the front,” said Shovlin.

“He’s obviously honed his skills further back when you have a much busier time of it. I think that apprenticeship at Williams served him really well.

“It’s nice to watch him attacking, he’s really thinking about where he puts the car, he tries different things lap after lap.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Belgian Grand Prix Race Day Spa Francorchamps, Belgium

“I think he is one of the really clever drivers at working out how to pick people off.”

This is not news to Mercedes. It was very impressed with how Russell handled his time in the midfield at Williams and of course Russell had shone in a one-off for Mercedes in place of Hamilton at the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix, which he should have won.

“The real surprise was when he just started to reel him in later on and really started hounding him,” said Shovlin. That wasn’t a dig at Russell, more a reflection of the reality that Mercedes has rarely been on Red Bull’s level this year.Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Brazilian Grand Prix Sprint Day Sao Paulo, Brazil

That said, for Russell to make use of the W13’s obvious performance at Interlagos was significant. Qualifying third and winning the sprint was obviously at odds with his self-proclaimed recent dip in form.

There have been some notable issues of late, like a messy Singapore Grand Prix weekend and a clumsy clash with Carlos Sainz at the first corner in the United States, and Russell risked continuing the trend in Brazil when he went off in qualifying and got stuck in the gravel.

But his pace had been good in practice and through qualifying and most importantly Russell already set a laptime good enough for third-fastest when he went off. So, the red flag he triggered plus a downpour combined to protect him from falling down the grid.

This performance, and his speed in the sprint, was better than Russell has shown recently even if Russell has hardly embarrassed himself in the context of team-mate Lewis Hamilton setting a tougher benchmark.

It was also a reward for some honest self-criticism and getting his head down to find some answers – even if the grand prix itself is another challenge entirely, and it remains to be seen whether Russell can repeat this with Hamilton starting alongside him, rather than playing catch up from further down the grid.

“George has done a good job of dealing with the issues that the car’s had,” said Shovlin.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Mexican Grand Prix Qualifying Day Mexico City, Mexico

“It’s another thing where that period that he had at Williams was good preparation, because he never had a car that you could engineer to the perfect balance. It was a case of work out what it’s doing and make the most of it.

“But we’ve been chipping away, he’s been chipping away at it.

“And it was nice to see the fruits of all of that work.”

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