George Russell claimed his maiden F1 victory and Mercedes’ first win of the season at the Sao Paulo GP; Martin Brundle reviews the race in his latest column and also talks Lewis Hamilton’s collision with Max Verstappen and Red Bull’s team orders saga…
Last Updated: 15/11/22 12:57pm
In the rarefied air at 780 metres above sea level and between the lakes and unyielding walls, this short Interlagos track, which is part drag strip part mountain pass, delivered a memorable three days of Formula 1 yet again.
I must begin with congratulating George Russell on the first GP victory of his career and Mercedes Benz’s first victory and indeed one-two of the season. It was very well won over a challenging and eventful 71 laps.
Being a ‘Sprint’ weekend mandated one hour of free practice and then straight into qualifying on Friday afternoon. With 12 sets of tyres instead of 13 on a normal weekend, and with the car set-up largely locked out under parc ferme rules as they leave the pits in Friday qualifying until the start of the Sunday Grand Prix, the teams have to make a lot of early decisions and assumptions, and even educated guesses.
To spice this up perfectly it rained and then just about dried out again through qualifying. Knowing the crossover point from intermediate tyres to full slicks was challenging due to the undulating nature of the circuit meaning a few key areas conduct water down the hill.
The start of the final Q3 was clearly ready for dry tyres as all 10 survivors lined up at the end of the pit lane eager to go. Except in Charles Leclerc’s garage they’d paid more attention to the radar forecast than the track or the sky and were outliers on intermediate tyres, which would confine him to an angry 10th on the grid.
Kevin Magnussen had impressively been seventh in both Q1 and Q2, and given that Haas were at the far end of the pitlane he was first in the queue and went on to deliver a great lap putting together all he had learned so far in qualifying, along with his considerable experience and talent. K-Mag and Haas were on pole position and I didn’t hear anybody in the paddock unhappy about that achievement.
That pole was cemented when Russell had a wild moment on the brakes down at Turn 4, narrowly avoiding beaching his Mercedes before spinning it around and definitely beaching it. With rain falling the top ten on the Sprint grid was set after Carlos Sainz’s five-place grid drop for an engine change was applied.
Russell breaks glass ceiling in Sprint as Alpines & Astons clash
After a great start to the Sprint, Magnussen would go on to lead a couple of laps before the DRS rear wings were enabled and the established front runners duly filed past until he landed in P8 for a world championship point, which was all he could realistically achieve in that car.
Once our eyes moved away from that David versus Goliath story, Max Verstappen was out front on medium compound tyres and holding station nicely over the rapid Russell on soft tyres. With the aforementioned lack of preparation and data it was easy to assume that at some point in the 24-lap Sprint, the soft tyres would fade away and it would easily be Max’s third Sprint win from three this season.
But that’s not how it played out. In what would be a key factor in both races, as the track temperatures fell in late afternoon the medium tyre neither provided the grip nor endurance. It’s all such voodoo to understand but I like the jeopardy.
Russell passed the fading Verstappen after some exhilarating and hard but fair defence and attack action. Make a note of that. It wasn’t of course a GP victory, but it still broke through a glass ceiling for George in knowing he had the car, speed, and talent to beat this lot around Interlagos.
During the Sprint there was some outrageous driving between team-mates at Alpine and Aston Martin, which could easily have wrecked the race for all four of them. Lance Stroll would take a penalty for having his fellow Aston driver onto the grass at high speed. Seb Vettel’s radio response of simply ‘ok’ after he’d made it back onto the track was exquisite. No histrionics, he just got back on with passing cars, including Stroll.
Fernando Alonso took a penalty for running into the back of team-mate Esteban Ocon, after Fernando had been run wide eight corners earlier by the same ‘friend’. He felt he was 100 per cent right on all issues but the stewards didn’t see it that way, and nor did many of us observing.
It would be the same three drivers on the podium each day, but for Saturday it read Russell, Sainz, and Hamilton, who had recovered well from a difficult qualifying and looked very fast.
As I write this, I’m mid a 14-hour flight from Sao Paulo to Dubai and I have Charles sitting in front of me, George and Carlos to my right, Lewis and Seb behind, and it would be handy to check a few things out with them all, but that’s not how it works between teams, drivers and media these days, but most of them are happy to chat about all kinds of things.
I picked up a few snippets and it’s remarkable how friendly and happy they all are with each other, even if one of them was demanding over the radio to be given his team-mate’s podium at the end of the race. Funny old world this F1 business.
Hamilton clashes with Verstappen as Russell stays calm
And so, to the main race. After Sainz’s penalty it was an all-Mercedes front row and the pair of them rocketed away, especially George, which meant that Lewis could easily slot in behind and no choreography was required to keep Max at bay.
In turn 8 Daniel Ricciardo gave the gentlest of nudges to weekend legend Magnussen and gracefully turned him around. As Kevin let the car roll backwards to get out of the way of the pack and prepare for the fastest way to re-join, Daniel exited stage right too and out of nowhere two cars were heavily damaged. Ricciardo will take a three-place grid drop for Abu Dhabi given that he took another driver out of the race and couldn’t receive an in-race penalty himself.
This brought out the first Safety Car of the afternoon but they cleared the wreckage away reasonably quickly and Russell wisely left it very late before nailing the throttle on the restart, so as not to gift a healthy slipstream. Behind, the two Red Bulls were catching Hamilton and Max initially seemed to be defending the inside against his team-mate before suddenly deciding to attack Hamilton around the outside.
Partly ahead, and then partly behind, but having the inside line for turn two – as the agreement between drivers and race control has been carefully explained to me by a key driver – being that far alongside Lewis and on the inside, Max was entitled to some racing room.
I have no doubt that Max has a different set of limits when in combat with Lewis, and Lewis has similarly decided to fight fire with fire. And so inevitably they hit but continued. The stewards said Lewis could have given ‘a little more space’, and in my view Max could have taken even more kerb, or indeed lifted off the throttle but that’s not racing. The stewards decided it was predominantly Max’s fault and he got a five-second penalty and a pit stop for a new nose. I thought it was a racing incident. Lewis’ car was a bit scruffy but all the fast bits were intact and he set off in spectacular recovery mode.
This left George pulling a comfortable and measured lead over Perez. He said to me on the plane that he felt less pressure out front than in the pack because he could control his own pace and tyres in clear air. This is what I’ve always admired about George, he has such inner confidence that he can brush off a silly spin in qualifying and just reset into ‘I can do this’ mode. We’ve seen it before with a couple of big shunts he had at Williams in Imola and some near misses and disappointments at Mercedes.
Red Bull pitted Perez on lap 23 for new mediums and Mercedes reacted likewise for Russell a lap later. The recovering Hamilton, who just loved his tyres all race, went to lap 29. Sainz was also recovering in the Ferrari after an unscheduled pit stop on lap 17 to clear a visor tear-off out of his rear brake duct, an increasing issue which needs to be addressed.
Carlos would three-stop in the end, and the team got their strategy absolutely right to put soft tyres on during the second Safety Car.
That safety car was triggered because Lando Norris’ McLaren had broken down on the exit of Turn 8 tantalisingly close to an escape road, but he realised too late. Lando had already been in the wars after contact with Charles Leclerc in Turn 6, for which he received a five-second penalty, which again I though was a touch harsh in that particular corner. Incredibly, Leclerc whacked the wall hard but carried on back to the pits.
It was initially a Virtual Safety Car but for some reason the marshals were making hard work of clearing Lando’s car, they couldn’t seem to find neutral and as usual, the F1 steering lock is very poor.
This triggered a full Safety Car which was Russell’s worst nightmare because the soft compound tyres he’d recently had fitted on lap 49 were not new, in fact they had already completed six laps on two separate runs through qualifying. Behind him at the restart would be Hamilton on less used tyres.
Just before the restart George was told that he would be racing his team-mate but to keep it fair. Because he went on to win the race the late Safety Car and that message made George’s maiden GP victory even more sweet. He’d handled everything the day and the competition could throw at him with calm aplomb.
It was a mighty comeback from Hamilton for a close second and Sainz recovered well for third. Remarkably, on his tail was Leclerc who made the best of the Safety Car concertina and some soft tyres for a flourish at the end and to help minimise the damage in Ferrari’s fight with Mercedes.
Equally remarkably was Fernando Alonso in fifth ahead of both Red Bulls, after another fiery and impressive drive and making the best uses of soft tyres at the end. Anybody finishing on medium tyres such as Perez and Vettel were struggling.
Letting Perez through would have cost Max nothing
Perez had let Verstappen easily though on the understanding that if Verstappen didn’t get any further and past Alonso or a Ferrari, then he would be let back through. This didn’t happen and so Max was duly told to let Sergio past before the chequered flag to help him in his fight with Leclerc for second in the drivers’ championship.
He refused due to some historical reason that had apparently already been discussed. I believe this to be over antics during qualifying back in Monaco. Max will also no doubt remember how Sergio held up Lewis in Abu Dhabi last year, which played a key role in Lewis not being able to pit for fresh tyres under the safety car, and how he fought Lewis so hard in Baku along with other examples which helped Max seal the 2021 title. I believe he called him a “legend” back then.
This is not a popularity contest, it’s the brutal world of F1, but you still need friends and respect, and giving Sergio a meagre sixth place when the championship is already in his pocket would have cost Max nothing. It’s the second boomerang in two races which has come back to hit Max pretty hard.
Onto Abu Dhabi now and it all feels a little edgy going into this final race, if only for the lesser championship places and much friction between team-mates.