In the space of 24 hours in Hungary this weekend, Formula 1 turned upside down.
On Friday afternoon, the Mercedes team was completely lost. His car had been a second a lap off the pace in practice and the drivers stayed on the track with the team until 11 pm trying to decide what to do about it.
It was a job well done. On Saturday, his car was on pole position for the first time this season, a year in which his average one-lap pace deficit has been more than 0.8 seconds.
Mercedes was ahead of the 2022 qualifying kings, Ferrari. And the Red Bull of world championship leader Max Verstappen came in tenth place.
The man who did this was not the seven-time champion who has led Mercedes for the last eight years and set new records in the sport, but the man the team signed up to take over when Lewis Hamilton reaches the end of his career. career.
George Russell became known as “Mr Saturday” in F1 for his outstanding performances in qualifying. This year, that nickname has become “Mr Constancy,” for his record of finishing in the top five in all races. But at the Hungaroring Mr Saturday came back strong.
Until this weekend, Russell’s best of many excellent qualifying performances had been at last year’s Belgian Grand Prix, when he placed the second-slowest car on the front row in the wet, ahead of Hamilton.
Not anymore. For Russell, this one topped him.
“I dare to say [it was] better than the Spa?” she said, with a small laugh that seemed to suggest she almost couldn’t believe what she was saying.
“The feeling of this pole position and the feeling of that lap at Spa, I don’t think I’ll ever have qualifying laps that come close to those two feelings because obviously this was the first.
“As a team we fought a lot at Williams. We were way behind and to get that second was huge.”
“This is what racing is all about. That’s why I wake up every day and want to be world champion, feelings like this. It’s something you really can’t dream of.”
It may seem counter-intuitive that Russell would classify a lap around a small dusty circuit tucked away in a natural amphitheater some 12 dry miles from Budapest as better than a lap in the pouring rain around Spa, known as one of the biggest challenges for a racing driver on the planet.
But Russell said the uniqueness of the Hungaroring gave him extra satisfaction in ranking it the best of his career so far.
“I think the nature of this circuit, when you have everything absolutely connected, nothing comes close,” he said, “because it’s so fast and fluid, every corner leads to the next. So it’s hard to compare, very different conditions.” , but for pure driving, probably today’s.
He added: “I think we absolutely nailed it today 100% and made the most of every last millisecond.”
How did Russell and Mercedes do it?
Once the shock of seeing Russell’s name at the top of the time sheets registered, the next thought was how the hell had it happened?
Russell had been eighth fastest on Friday, the car lacking grip; Hamilton was a further 0.2sec back in 11th.
Things looked a little better in the rain at the final practice on Saturday afternoon.
But suddenly, in qualifying, things got better. The Mercedes were first and second quickest in the first session, relatively pointless for the top teams, and looked decent in the second session, with Hamilton fifth and Russell seventh, just over 0.3sec off the pace.
And then Q3. Mercedes was helped by Verstappen’s engine problem and a less-than-perfect final lap from Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz. If he had made it, the Spaniard felt he would have been on pole. But he didn’t. And Russell certainly did.
“I think we nailed it perfectly in the window on the last lap,” Russell said. “I went into turn one and I was 0.15 seconds up, I went into turn two I was 0.3 seconds up, and everything was perfectly in the window.
“And when you’re on one of those laps and you’re in the groove and the groove, it just keeps coming.”
In the Mercedes pit, they couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
Team principal Toto Wolff said: “The first sector [time] walked in and we watched the delta time run. And I remember saying to the engineers: ‘I think we’re playing for pole here.’ And there was silence on the other side.
“And after sector two, I thought, ‘Yeah, it’s going to be very tight.’ These are the moments I cherish the most in F1. It comes unexpectedly, but the performance is really there and we do it.”
Wolff added: “It’s George’s first pole position and it will always be something special for him and for us. It’s a moment to remember.”
“But George had these extraordinary performances in the junior series and he had them at Spa last year in the rain and today is just another milestone of many that he is going to achieve.”
Even so, this would not have been possible on Friday, so what miracles had Mercedes done to turn the car around to this point?
“Yesterday was probably our toughest Friday of the entire season,” Russell said.
“We were all here until 11pm last night scratching our heads, morale was pretty low and we felt pretty lost and to come back and take pole position 24 hours later is a great feeling, because I know what we went through last night.
“There was more talk about the general philosophy and if we are going in the right direction. As a team we have been closing the gap, but yesterday was a disastrous day.”
“We thought there were a lot of reasons why and they all added up to make us more than a second off the pace. But that felt like we were being a little generous.”
“And then to have a day like today … we definitely turned it around and probably went back to where we expected to be.”
Wolff said: “This season has been an oscillation between depression and exuberance and sometimes it has changed from one day to the next. And yesterday we tried things that didn’t work at all, but gave us a direction for today.”
He praised both drivers for their resolve in the face of difficulties this season, but had special words for Russell.
“Yesterday he showed leadership in the meeting,” Wolff said. “He was the one who remained positive about things and together these two drivers at different stages of their careers were a tremendous force to keep their spirits up.”
However, it was a bittersweet day. Russell’s delight was tempered by the feeling that Hamilton might as well have been up there, had it not been for his DRS overtaking assist in his last race.
Can Russell win the race?
A first pole in Mercedes’ least competitive season in 10 years was unthinkable until Saturday afternoon. Now that Russell is there, a first win won’t be easy.
But the Hungaroring is a track where overtaking is notoriously difficult, Verstappen likely to be out of the picture after an engine problem relegated him to 10th on the grid, and Ferrari’s fragility this season, both strategically and with regards to reliability. , always makes them look beatable. .
Generally this year the Mercedes has been a faster race car, relative to Red Bull and Ferrari, than in qualifying. Russell said he will be “very surprised” if that is the case on Sunday.
Russell admitted that Mercedes’ race pace was: “A total unknown. We’ve turned the car around since yesterday, conditions have changed, tomorrow it will be much colder.”
“Our high fuel pace was probably the worst yesterday. And Ferrari looked quite exceptional. We’re behind the corner at the moment, but we absolutely will, and victory is what we’re after.” “
He added: “To be honest, I’m already thinking about the line exit, turn one, how I can try to keep the lead and what I’m going to have to do to win the race.
“Getting pole position is great, but I learned a lot last year and I’ve learned a lot this year as well. Saturday doesn’t mean much – Sunday is when the points and prizes are won.”
“This is a place where you need good qualifying, for sure, but still, if you have a faster race car, it counts more than if you have a faster qualifying car.”
“If it’s a two or three stop race you won’t be able to defend because the other cars can go [pit] early, they can be late and they’ll find a way to get through.
Even if victory turns out to be a step too far, this has been a seismic day for Mercedes in a difficult year.
“I’m so happy for what it means to us as a team, the progress we’ve made,” Russell said.
“Obviously going into the summer break and qualifying like that was huge. So we’ll do our best to have a great day tomorrow, but we can be happy that we had at least one good Saturday out of the first 12 or 13 races.”
“It is clear that we have had a difficult season. Qualifying has historically been one of my strong points. This year I have struggled a bit, but Budapest is a circuit that I have always liked, I have always been fast here and I always knew that if the car and I worked perfectly together, there was no reason why we couldn’t achieve great things.”