Starting on the medium tyres, Verstappen quickly passed shock pole sitter Kevin Magnussen, just like the other front runners.
But as Saturday’s 24-lap sprint race unfolded, Verstappen began to struggle with tire wear and soon saw Russell close the gap.
Thanks to Red Bull’s superior top speed, the two-time world champion was able to hold it halfway through, but on lap 15 Russell finally completed the pass for the lead in Turn 4.
When Sainz Russell soon followed in turn 1, the Spaniard made light contact with Verstappen, damaging the Red Bull’s front wing.
That compounded the Dutchman’s problems as he dropped to fourth behind Lewis Hamilton, 10 seconds behind Russell, who took his first-ever F1 sprint win.
Verstappen admitted that Red Bull has no explanation for the excessive tire wear on what should have been a more durable compound than the soft tires its competitors were using.
“It was just degging, I had no grip from the tires,” said Verstappen. “Somehow the mediums weren’t holding up at all and we had no pace.
“I just ate the tires alive, so I don’t know why it was. Then the contact damaged my front wing a bit, but even with a complete front wing I would have finished fourth.”
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB18, competes with George Russell, Mercedes W13
Photo By: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
Russell, who will lead a full Mercedes front row for Hamilton on Sunday, expects Verstappen to “fly by” in the actual Grand Prix.
However, Verstappen believes that even on the same tire compound, Mercedes would have been really faster in the sprint.
Starting third due to Sainz’s engine penalty, Verstappen believes beating the Mercedes cars won’t be as easy as his 2022 dominance suggests.
“Even on the soft terrain, I don’t think we would have had the pace that Mercedes had, so that’s a little worrying for tomorrow,” he admitted.
“We will certainly analyze everything, but normally you can’t do much to make it better.”