Mercedes Finally Showed What It Can Do
2:17 PM EST on November 14, 2022
Maybe Brazil is magical or, alternatively, the nation's collective adoration of Lewis Hamilton—which culminated in him receiving an honorary Brazilian citizenship prior to the race—is enough to manifest Mercedes domination, but the Brazilian GP has delivered yet another wonderful race that, same as in 2021, swung in Mercedes' favor. The only way it could have played out more perfectly for the narrative, or the Brazilian crowd, would be if Hamilton had won the race. But if George Russell winning his first-ever grand prix in a Mercedes 1-2 is what you're settling for, it's pretty damn good.
Mercedes winning can't be called a surprise, at least not in good conscience, after Russell took actual/fake-actual pole position, depending on your stance on sprint races (they are bad). Max Verstappen even went so far as to call the Mercedes "unbeatable." But the Brazilian GP did feel like a heavy rain after a drought. The past races have been boring, Mercedes has never been truly close to winning this season, and teammates haven't spent nearly enough time tearing each other's throats out.
All of a sudden: Kevin Magnussen (kind of) gets pole position! Then he loses it. But at least Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon touch in the sprint! Russell and Hamilton fill up the front row of the grid, thanks to Ferrari engines! Daniel Ricciardo spins out Magnussen, the poor guy. Not to be outdone, Lando Norris and Charles Leclerc crash! Verstappen and Hamilton touch! Undercuts galore! Leclerc wants Carlos Sainz Jr. to give up P3 to him! Verstappen refuses to give his place back to Sergio Pérez despite team orders! Mercedes 1-2! Russell race win! Pérez hits back at Verstappen with the scathing "It shows who he really is"!
Over the course of this season, Russell has swung from being beloved in a vaguely pathetic wet-dog sort of way to public enemy No. 1. (A noted exception to this rule is Defector's Luis Paez-Pumar, who has wholeheartedly committed to trekking in the opposite direction.) The list of petty grievances was already long after 21 races. In Brazil, Russell putting his car in the wall in a wet qualifying in order to elevate a Haas to pole position might've worked in his favor, if it hadn't also guaranteed him P3 starting the sprint race by barring all of his competitors from having another go via red flag.
Of course, the red flag shenanigans kicked off the "Indycar deletes their drivers' lap times if they cause a red flag!" discussion again. But the good thing about good races is that you don't have to address the silly little peripheral stuff because there's something else to talk about. Russell made good on the opportunity provided to him, a rather extreme version of "you make your own luck." He took pole (kind of) during the sprint race. From there, his work done, Russell no longer contributed to the fun of the race because he insisted on being consistent and good and winning from pole—the horrors!
Thankfully, the cars behind Russell picked up the slack. Some 30 laps into the race, the dust had mostly settled from the major collisions. Hamilton had minor damage after his collision with Verstappen, but managed to tear through the midfield and easily catch Sainz and Pérez. It's promising for Mercedes, and a testament to the car's speed this weekend, that Ferrari shifted the focus from winning the race to beating Pérez. The gorgeous, gorgeous word of "undercut" repeatedly came up in the Sainz-Pérez battle. An undercut isn't necessarily romantic, sure—it's literally just pitting earlier than your opponent while behind them with the hope of pumping in much faster lap times on fresher tires so that when your opponent pits, they would be behind you—but it's delicious strategy that matters most on tracks with high tire degradation (which Interlagos is) and cars evenly matched in pace (which Sainz and Pérez, second-drivers-in-arms, were). It makes watching the interval timer on the side of the screen fun.
With damage on his car, Hamilton never got close enough to Russell to fight wheel-to-wheel for the race lead. The closest he got was getting just under one second of Russell after the final safety car restart, before DRS was enabled. It would've made the race all that more fun if he could have had a go, but for Mercedes—who did tell their drivers that they were allowed to race one another—it was likely a relief. Better a guaranteed 1-2 than two cars risking crashing one another out.
Most promising for Mercedes is that the race win was no fluke. There was no rain or egregious strategy mishap or exploding engine. Yes, various race- and engine-related factors helped. Russell ending qualifying by binning his car helped. But the Mercedes was the fastest car on the grid. They started P1 and P2 and finished there, and in his climb up during the race, Hamilton passed both Pérez and Sainz. Because of funding allocation and development time, performance the next season is never as simple as your performance in the last, even with the same regulations—after Red Bull easily cinched the championship, they could switch gears to next season's car earlier than Ferrari or Mercedes, who are battling it out for second right now—but this is promising for 2023.
Now Mercedes is only 19 points behind Ferrari for second in the Constructors' Championship. (Other close championship fights include McLaren only 19 points behind Alpine and Leclerc and Pérez tied after their various team orders debacles.) Russell and Hamilton will be a strong duo for the near future. Before this season, they knew exactly what they were getting from Hamilton (seven-time World Champion, history walking, the like). And, oddly enough, they knew exactly what they were getting from Russell, too.
Which brings us back to George Russell. He did, truly, languish during his years at Williams, stuck time after time again in the worst car on the grid. The only reason why you wouldn't say that Nicholas Latifi languished is that he was paying to be there, and even then you wonder why his parents enabled that decision. But at Mercedes, Russell has been everything the team could have wanted. The young driver who managed to wrangle a Williams out of Q3 each week and nearly won the first chance he had in a Mercedes was given a fast car and a track that suited it, and he delivered, if with some unconventional steps along the way.
It can be easy in F1 to get mired in some season-long technical or contractual drama, to start mining controversy and call that entertainment. But sports should be fun and, if it's not too embarrassing to say, even a bit touching or revelatory at times. Maybe your reaction to Russell's win is still dislike! That's fine. Being a hater is one of the most well-sustained sporting lifestyles and, if well-managed, fun. A race win—the first race win—is capable of inspiring any feeling, just secondhand. Viewers carry their own baggage as they watch, but inside the car—well, I'm not quite sure how to even imagine being in the car.
That is to say, however you feel about George Russell as a driver or dude or wet dog, it means something, in the end, that he finally got that race win.
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