Despite Red Bull and Ferrari flying out of the gates as it suffered badly from porpoises and extreme resistance, Mercedes repeatedly insisted until the summer break that it could win a Grand Prix in 2022. But the chances of breaking that bare spell seemed to be running out. It was hurt by the late safety car at Zandvoort, failed to take advantage of a horrendous pit stop for Max Verstappen in the United States and had its tire strategy all wrong in Mexico. It seemed like time was against the team. But while the Three-Pointed Star may have left it late, it can finally, and plausibly, back up those claims in Brazil this weekend.
For starters, protagonists George Russell and Lewis Hamilton will block the front row of the grid for the 71 laps of the Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on Sunday. That’s the reward for Russell who triumphs in the most exciting Formula 1 sprint race of the six yet.
After putting a lot of pressure on Verstappen on the opening lap to give shock pole sitter Kevin Magnussen some breathing room initially, Russell kept in touch with the two-time champion. After both steered the Haas, the Brit dived into the tow and deployed DRS. Even before the braking zone of left-handed Descida do Lago, Russell had definitely swept past Verstappen on the third time he asked on lap 15 to mark the end of their brilliant and intense battle.
As his teammate pulled away to a four-second winning margin, Hamilton drove past a now-injured Verstappen – the legacy of his front wing bent in a duel with Carlos Sainz – over the timeline for third place five laps later. That would be second on the grid, with Ferrari racer Sainz already down to serve a five-place penalty for using a fifth combustion engine of the season.
Even before the RB18 had suffered its damage, Verstappen was having a hard time. In all fairness to Red Bull, it was not a clear choice. But the decision to fit the medium-yellow tires, when all bar Nicholas Latifi made their trade on the faster soft compound, backfired.
Medium tires Verstappen used in the sprint race did not give him the performance he needed
Photo By: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
While the Dutch driver appeared to survive the critical phase of the sprint by initially holding Russell at a distance while putting some heat into the C3 rubber, the reward for using the theoretically more durable Pirellis never came. Free practice showed that the difference between the two tire compounds was marginal. The mediums were a fine 0.3s per lap slower than the soft ones, about half the usual offset. But, crucially, the soft tires didn’t wear out noticeably faster. That meant the W13s didn’t fade towards the end of the race.
This came when Verstappen was already out of his comfort zone. During the early race he reported persistent understeer in all but the fast corners. That wide wash allowed Sergio Perez to run so close to him early in the campaign, as Verstappen relies en masse on the front axle to bite. That’s why it had hurt him a lot to drive with the less sticky tires to lose even more grip.
“I was just” [degrading my tyres] way too hard,” said Verstappen. “Somehow the mediums didn’t hold up at all. We didn’t have a pace. But even on the soft ground I think we wouldn’t have had the pace that Mercedes had. That’s a bit worrying for [the full GP]. I just ate the tapes alive.”
“We thought Max would probably have a pretty easy run. We knew that if we weren’t ahead of him in Turn 1, it was going to be very difficult. I started attacking in the early laps. And I thought, as soon as he gets some temperature in his tires, he’ll be gone…” George Russell
With the car set-ups long since locked in from Friday’s qualifying parc ferme, Red Bull is largely limiting itself to modifications to the front wing to get the car back to Verstappen in time for the GP. That should give Mercedes some comfort. And while FP2 was a tedious, eventless affair by all means, that hour could give Mercedes even more cause for optimism.
Russell was initially sent out on a scrubbed set of soft tires and set an average lap time of 1m16.04s, according to TBEN’s calculations. That was second only to Perez. Admittedly, the Mexican will be drafted fourth alongside Verstappen, so he poses a significant threat. But his times came much later in the session than Russell’s, so the tenth he had in hand can be attributed in part to track evolution. Verstappen also drove late with used softs, but averaged a tenth slower than Russell, with Hamilton in between.
Perez has proven to be the Red Bull driver with the pace in Brazil
Photo By: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
And after the difficult experience on the mediums in the sprint, should Red Bull completely bypass the yellow tires for the race and consider the hard Pirellis for Verstappen, his early FP2 stint was 0.3 seconds slower than Russell and 0.5 seconds less than Hamilton’s simulations on the same connection. For reference, Perez’s times topped the charts again, as he still ran a lean five-hundredths faster than the seven-time champion.
Verstappen’s fateful tire choice for the sprint race has the advantage of having an extra set of fresh soft tires for the GP. And with the title sewn, it would be good to expect him to be as fierce as ever should Mercedes leave the door ajar. As Russell said: “Honestly, we thought Max would probably have it pretty easy. We knew that if we weren’t ahead of him in Turn 1, it was going to be very difficult. I started attacking in the early laps. And I thought, once he gets some temperature in his tires, he’ll be gone… [Tomorrow] Max really has nothing to lose. So he’s going to drive aggressively.”
But wheel-to-wheel exploits aside, Verstappen’s unease with the car, bolstered by how he fared in Saturday’s race, and then underlined by his FP2 times, all suggest that the Red Bull driver is out this weekend. won’t extend season win record to 15. So, for the first time this year, Mercedes can realistically be considered the favorite to win.
By way of brief comparison, consider Ferrari. After the team’s disastrous gamble to bet on intermediate tires in Q3, which left Charles Leclerc in 10th place, he used the sprint race to good effect to score sixth. He will be fifth on the grid once Sainz has served his sentence. He was also unfriendly about the “shit” medium bands in FP2. His soft compound times can add to that annoyance. In FP2, the Monegask was 0.6 seconds lower than Russell and only sixth. With Sainz only marginally ahead, the Scuderia’s claim that the disappointing Mexico display was a one-off doesn’t quite hold true at Interlagos so far. The decline after Spa, in line with the FIA technical guideline coming into effect, is likely to be fully visible again.
Of the two leading teams, Mercedes cannot count on Red Bull not fully recovering its lost ground overnight. That’s why Russell and Hamilton vowed to work together to try and deliver the Brackley “moral booster” that would represent a Brazilian GP victory. This can make for a fascinating storyline if it doesn’t go according to plan.
Both Mercedes drivers drove the hard tires in Mexico, which turned out to be the wrong decision
Photo By: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
As the decision to drive on hard tires in Mexico was reinforced last time, Mercedes could be accused of being too conservative with its calls from the pit wall. And strategy has probably never been the eight-time Constructors’ champions’ strongest point. For much of its dominance in the hybrid era, it just didn’t have to have such a performance advantage over the rest of the field. Now, however, the team cannot afford to make the wrong decisions again if it wants to break this duck and keep Verstappen at bay.
One option discussed by the drivers is that they follow different strategies to maximize the chances of hedging the Red Bull threat. As Russell noted, “We will definitely race against each other fairly. I’m sure tomorrow we will probably split the strategies to try and cover all the options. And, you know, hopefully one of us will come away happy tomorrow. But I think we both recognize, based on recent experience, that we probably need to go down two different paths.
“Between the two of us, we will definitely be strategic to try and get that win for the team. I think, as we saw in Mexico, we both followed the same strategy and it ultimately affected us both” George Russell
“When Lewis and I are 1-2 on the grid, we get some options from the 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 tomorrow.
“But I think that between the two of us we will definitely be strategic to try and get that win for the team. I think, as we saw in Mexico, we both followed the same strategy and it ultimately affected both of us. “
However, that divergence can lead to the pair having to spar themselves. But Russell and Hamilton have already insisted that team orders should not be used to favor one driver over another. That ‘let them race’ spirit is welcome. However, following Hamilton’s bullish first three corners in Mexico as he demoted his second-starting teammate to guarantee himself preferential treatment at the pit stops, that laissez-faire approach could also cause a headache if strategies are split and the driver on the grid. theoretically slower tire moves forward as Verstappen gives chase. If Mercedes is to have its best chance then a radio message intervention from Toto Wolff would certainly be expected and required.
Having two drivers potentially in the mix could be a headache for Mercedes bosses
Photo By: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images