Despite Red Bull and Ferrari flying out of the gate while it suffered severely with porpoising and extreme drag, all the way to the summer break Mercedes insisted repeatedly that it could win a grand prix in 2022. But the opportunities to break that barren spell appeared to be running out. It was hurt by the late safety car at Zandvoort, couldn’t capitalise on a horrid pitstop for Max Verstappen in the United States and got its tyre strategy all wrong in Mexico. It seemed as though time was against the team. But, while the Three-Pointed Star might have left it late, it can finally, and plausibly, back up those claims in Brazil this weekend.
For starters, its protagonists George Russell and Lewis Hamilton will lock out the front row of the grid ahead of the 71 laps of the Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on Sunday. That’s the reward for Russell triumphing in the most exciting Formula 1 sprint race of the six staged so far.
Having put Verstappen under intense pressure during the opening lap to initially give shock polesitter Kevin Magnussen some breathing space, Russell kept in touch with the two-time champion. After both had dispatched the Haas, the Briton then tucked into the tow and deployed DRS. Even before the braking zone of the Descida do Lago left-hander, Russell had definitively swept past Verstappen at the third time of asking on lap 15 to mark the end of their brilliant and intense battle.
As his team-mate scarpered off to a winning margin of four seconds, five laps later Hamilton pulled past a now-wounded Verstappen – the legacy of having his front wing bent in a duel with Carlos Sainz – over the timing line for third place. That would come to mark second on the grid, with Ferrari racer Sainz already down to serve a five-place penalty for using a fifth internal combustion engine of the season.
Even before the RB18 had picked up its damage, Verstappen was struggling. In fairness to Red Bull, it was not a clear-cut choice. But the decision to fit the yellow-walled medium tyres, when all bar Nicholas Latifi plied their trade on the faster soft compound, backfired.
Medium tyres used by Verstappen 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 keeping Russell at bay at first as he put some heat into the C3 rubber, the payoff for using the theoretically more durable Pirellis never came. Free practice…