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Why Mercedes can realistically resist Verstappen to win in Brazil

It had looked like Mercedes' chances of taking a Formula 1 grand prix victory in 2022 were rapidly fading but impressive performances in both the sprint race and free practice in Brazil suggest the Silver Arrows could be the cars to beat at Interlagos

George Russell, Mercedes W13, battles with Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB18

George Russell, Mercedes W13, battles with Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB18

Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

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

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 running had revealed that the difference between the two tyre compounds was marginal. The mediums were a fine 0.3s per lap slower than the softs, about half the usual offset. But, critically, the softs weren’t wearing out markedly 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. Throughout the early running, he reported persistent understeer in all but the high-speed corners. That washing wide is what allowed Sergio Perez to run him so close early in the campaign, as Verstappen massively relies on the front-axle to bite. Therefore, running the less sticky tyres to shed even more grip had hurt him dearly.

“I just was [degrading my tyres] way too hard,” said Verstappen. “Somehow, the mediums, they didn't last at all. We had no pace. But, even on the soft, I think we wouldn't have had the pace that Mercedes had. That's a little bit worrying for [the full GP]. I was just eating the tyres alive.”

“We thought Max would probably have quite an easy run. We knew that if we weren't ahead of him at 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 tyres, he'll be away…” George Russell

With the car set-ups long since locked in from Friday qualifying parc ferme, Red Bull is limited largely to adjustments to the front wing to bring the car back towards Verstappen in time for the GP. That should provide Mercedes with some comfort. And, although to all intents and purposes FP2 was a tedious, eventless affair, that hour might give Mercedes even greater cause for optimism.

Russell was sent out initially on a scrubbed set of soft tyres and posted an average lap time of 1m16.04s, according to Autosport’s calculations. That was second only to Perez. Granted, the Mexican will line up 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 partially attributed to track evolution. Verstappen also ran with used softs late on but was on average a tenth slower than Russell, with Hamilton in between them.

Perez has proven to be the Red Bull driver with the pace in Brazil

Perez has proven to be the Red Bull driver with the pace in Brazil

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

And after the trying experience on the mediums in the sprint, should Red Bull bypass the yellow tyres altogether for the race and consider the hard Pirellis for Verstappen, his early FP2 stint was 0.3s slower than Russell and 0.5s off Hamilton’s simulations on the same compound. For reference, again Perez’s times were top of the charts as he ran a slender five hundredths quicker still than the seven-time champion.

Verstappen’s ill-fated sprint race tyre choice does carry the benefit of him having an extra set of fresh softs for the GP. And with the title sewn up, it would be right to expect him to be as fierce as ever, should Mercedes leave the door ajar. As Russell said: “We thought Max would probably have quite an easy run, to be honest. We knew that if we weren't ahead of him at 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 tyres, he'll be away… [Tomorrow] Max has got nothing to lose, really. So, he is going to be driving aggressively.”

But wheel-to-wheel heroics aside, Verstappen’s unease with the car, backed up by how he fared in the Saturday race, and then underlined by his FP2 times, all suggests that this weekend the Red Bull driver won’t be extending his season win record to 15. For the first time this year, then, Mercedes might realistically be considered the favourite to win.

By way of brief comparison, consider Ferrari. After the disastrous team gamble to bet on intermediate tyres in Q3, putting Charles Leclerc down in 10th, he used the sprint race to decent effect to score sixth. That will become fifth on the grid once Sainz has served his penalty. He too was uncharitable about the “shit” medium tyres in FP2. His soft-compound times can add to that chagrin. In FP2, the Monegasque was 0.6s down on Russell and just sixth fastest. With Sainz only marginally ahead, the Scuderia claim that the disappointing Mexico display was a one-off doesn’t ring entirely true thus far at Interlagos. Its post-Spa decline, aligned with the FIA technical directive coming into force, is likely to be on full show once more.

Of the leading two teams, Mercedes cannot bank on Red Bull not fully recovering the lost ground overnight. Hence why Russell and Hamilton have vowed to work together to try and deliver the Brackley “morale booster” that a Brazilian GP victory would represent. This could make for a fascinating storyline if it doesn’t go to plan.

Both Mercedes drivers ran the hard tyres in Mexico, which proved to be the wrong call

Both Mercedes drivers ran the hard tyres in Mexico, which proved to be the wrong call

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

As the decision to run on hard tyres in Mexico last time out reinforced, Mercedes can be accused of being too conservative with its calls from the pitwall. And strategy has arguably never been the eight-time constructors’ champion’s strongest suit. For much of its hybrid-era dominance, it simply hasn’t needed to be with such a performance advantage over the rest of the field. Now, though, the team cannot afford to get its calls wrong again if it is to break this ground-effects duck and keep Verstappen at arm’s length.

One option being discussed by the drivers is for them to run different strategies to maximise the chances of covering off the Red Bull threat. As Russell commented: “We’ll race each other fairly, for sure. I'm sure we'll probably be splitting the strategies tomorrow to try and cover all options. And, you know, hopefully one of us comes away happy tomorrow. But I think we both recognise based on recent experience, we're probably going to have to go two separate ways.

“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, that we both did the same strategy and ultimately it affected us both” George Russell

“Having Lewis and I 1-2 on the grid is going to give us some options of the strategy. And I think we're going to have to work together to do something different for one of us to try and get the victory for the team tomorrow.

“But I think 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, that we both did the same strategy and ultimately it affected us both.”

However, that divergence might lead to the pair needing to spar themselves. But Russell and Hamilton have already insisted that team orders will not be deployed to favour one driver over the other. That ‘let them race’ spirit is welcomed. However, going by Hamilton’s bullish first three corners in Mexico when he demoted his second-starting team-mate to guarantee himself preferential treatment at the pitstops, that laissez-faire approach too could cause a headache should the strategies be split and the driver on the theoretically slower tyre get ahead while Verstappen is giving chase. Surely then, if Mercedes is to convert its best chance, a radio message intervention from Toto Wolff would be expected and required.

Having two drivers potentially in the mix could create a headache for Mercedes' bosses

Having two drivers potentially in the mix could create a headache for Mercedes' bosses

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

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