The elation was instant. Having manoeuvred his topsy-turvy Mercedes around the Hungaroring for the final time, George Russell knew in his heart of hearts that he had nailed it. And some. It was tight – 0.044 seconds to Carlos Sainz says so – but the 24-year-old had earned the first pole position of his career in some style and will start Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix from the front of the grid.
The epic conclusion summed up a chaotic Saturday for Mr Saturday himself. Toiling with grip in a wet third practice, and after a season of disappointments in qualifying, finally the Silver Arrows slotted into their groove. With the tyres in the optimum window on a dry track, and Russell twisting at one with the much-maligned W13, the Brit roared “you beauty” after confirmation that his lap of the year was, on the money, first-class. The emotion in the immediacy of the realisation was profound.
“I am over the moon, absolutely buzzing,” Russell beamed as he spoke to interviewer Naomi Schiff. “Yesterday was probably our worst Friday of the season but that last lap, turns 1 and 2 were mega, lap time kept on coming – it was an incredibly feeling!
“We need to understand where that came from. There’s no points from qualifying. We have good race pace but the Ferraris are quick – it was a very special day no doubt!”
If it wasn’t for a DRS issue for Lewis Hamilton on his second run in Q3 – limiting the long-term team leader to P7 – it could well have been even better for Mercedes. Not that they’ll be complaining; this is the breakthrough Toto Wolff and his team of engineers have been striving towards since March. The big question now is: are the constructors champions back in the title race?
“It’s really difficult to say,” Wolff told Sky F1. ““We need to write down everything we did this morning including the food and drinks we had! We saw from the beginning of qualifying our tyres were in the right window. Confidence was there with the car.
“If we can keep the pace, I believe we are part of the games at the front again. We have a very big points gap behind Max but then you can see how quickly it goes today – we will never give up! We oscillate between depression and exuberance!”
If it was a dream day for Mercedes, it was an afternoon of anguish for Red Bull. Championship leader Max Verstappen had his worst qualifying of the season and starts in a lowly 10th, after a power-related issue in Q3. His teammate Sergio Perez couldn’t even make it to the top-10 shootout with a reinstated lap time not able to save the Mexican’s blushes. He starts from 11th.
“Very frustrating,” Christian Horner said. “A lock up on the first run for Max immediately put us on the back foot. We felt confident but unfortunately a power-related issue on his out lap… it wasn’t to be.
“Theoretically, I think Max was at least fourth, we could have had a shot at the front row. It’s happened today not tomorrow, we’ll race hard from there and give it everything.”
Lando Norris once again eked the maximum out of his McLaren and starts in P4 alongside Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc on the second row of the grid, with the Alpines of Esteban Ocon – last year’s winner in Budapest – and Fernando Alonso positioned in the third row.
Yet come Sunday, all eyes will be on Russell. In his fourth season in Formula 1, the Brit will be targeting a lights-to-flag victory with a first win beckoning in his 73rd Grand Prix. For inspiration, the Mercedes star-to-be needn’t look much further than Sainz, starting alongside him on the grid.
The Spaniard was a debut winner at Silverstone four weeks ago having notched his first pole. That was in his 150th F1 race; Russell now has the opportunity, the dream, to achieve a race triumph in less than half the attempts. The job is far from done at a circuit notorious for incidents and drama but a victory for Russell and Mercedes on Sunday could well make this weekend a catalyst for something new in 2022. Game-changing.