It was a sprint rather than a grand prix, but George Russell now has a Formula 1 victory to his name after going from zero to hero at Interlagos.
The Mercedes driver had finished qualifying stuck in the gravel after skidding on a slippery circuit, but still started third on the sprint grid as no one had a chance to outshine his time.
But on a rare day when Max Verstappen was vulnerable and polesitter Kevin Magnussen was unable to capitalize on his sensational result on Friday, it was Russell who stepped up to the plate on an excellent day for Mercedes.
Carlos Sainz finished second behind the Briton, whose teammate Lewis Hamilton was third and Verstappen dropped to fourth.
Magnussen had made the biggest impact on F1 qualifying for many years when he took pole, helped by factors including intermittent rain and Russell being ‘stranded’ to trigger red flags that denied rivals the chance to run in the dry. in Q3.
Saturday’s weather conditions contrasted sharply with a gloomy Friday, with the sun shining for FP2 in which Esteban Ocon gave another surprise by going faster, and the sky remaining blue but with some clouds for the sprint.
Magnussen was on the racing line at the start and yet he knew he would have a big job staying ahead of Verstappen in the opening sequence of corners, despite the World Champion bucking the trend by starting on the medium tires in instead of the soft ones used. by everyone else except Nicholas Latifi.
However, that was not how it turned out, as the Dane led comfortably with Verstappen facing early pressure from Russell. It was lap three before Verstappen passed the Haas and the next time on the start-finish straight, Russell did the same. Carlos Sainz demoted Magnussen to fifth position, and the Dane soon had Lewis Hamilton behind.
Fernando Alonso, meanwhile, came into contact with his Alpine teammate Ocon, sustained damage and had to stop for a new front wing. “Well done,” was the sarcastic radio message from Alonso’s team, referring to “our friend,” reflecting his apparently deteriorating relationship with the Frenchman.
Two more colleagues were also put together in the wrong way when Lance Stroll aggressively defended against Sebastian Vettel, putting the German on the pitch. On his next try, Vettel made the best of that Aston Martin battle. The stewards then hit the Canadian with a 10-second penalty.
Back on the sharp end, Russell was within range of Verstappen’s DRS and midway through he launched a powerful challenge to the Dutchman. He closed in on him on two consecutive laps in exciting action, towing Sainz and Hamilton to make it a potential four-way fight at the front. “I hit some debris,” Verstappen said over the team radio, perhaps explaining his problems.
On the third time he asked, Russell passed the Red Bull aided by a slipstream as the man who replaced him at Williams, Alex Albon, became the first driver to retire, reserving P20 on the grid for the race.
Sainz then passed Verstappen for second as the duo made contact, the Red Bull suffering front wing damage for their subsequent battle with Hamilton for third, which went the way of the former champion.