George Russell celebrated the first Grand Prix victory of his Formula 1 career with an excellently controlled victory drive at the Sao Paulo Grand Prix.
The Brit drove from pole with flying colors and managed two safety car restarts to take victory ahead of teammate Lewis Hamilton, giving Mercedes their first win of the year and their first one-two since 2020.
“This is just the beginning,” he radioed his team. “I’m so proud of you all. I knew we could do it.”
Russell held the lead at the start but the race was neutralized almost immediately for a crash between Daniel Ricciardo and Friday’s pole-getter Kevin Magnussen.
Ricciardo tried to sneak down Magnussen’s inside at Turn 8 but instead hit the rear of the Haas car and sent it spinning. It rallied the McLaren as Ricciardo attempted to make swerves to avoid the carting car, getting both into the wall and out of the race.
More drama ensued after the restart when Max Verstappen ran all over the rear of Hamilton at Turn 1 and made side-to-side contact at the apex of Turn 2, breaking the front wing of the Red Bull Racing car and causing some bottom damage to the Mercedes .
“What can I say – you know how it is with Max,” Hamilton joked after the race.
Verstappen received a five-second penalty for the cause of the crash and had to pit for repairs and dropped to 17th, while Hamilton dropped to eighth but was able to continue.
Then, in Turn 6, Lando Norris hit Charles Leclerc in a failed overtake attempt against the wall. The McLaren driver was also handed a five-second penalty, while Leclerc had to stop for a new wing and dropped to 18th.
All of this resulted in Russell leading Perez and Sainz in the top three and the Ferrari driver pitted first, stopping on lap 17 to clear a visor tear from his smoking rear right brake duct and switching to the soft ones Tires. It pushed Hamilton back up to third after a quick recovery, although the Brit was 10 seconds off the lead.
Perez tried to undercut Russell for the lead on lap 23, but the Mexican came back just behind Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas and then Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel, killing his chances. The leading Mercedes reacted easily on the following lap to maintain the net lead and further extend its lead.
Hamilton had inherited top spot but dropped to fourth behind Sainz with his first stop and the two undercut Perez after the last scheduled stops to start an exclusive battle for second place in the final stint.
But the race was reset on lap 52 when Norris stopped on track with a retired McLaren. It forced a safety car restart on lap 60 and again put Russell’s lead in jeopardy, this time from his teammate behind.
The team told him they were going for the win instead of trying to get a one-two and Hamilton followed him closely into the first corner on the restart. But Russell’s mid-sector pace was stronger than his teammate’s, enough to keep him from hitting DRS on the main straight. The gap never grew more than 1.5 seconds, but it was enough to secure first place ahead of Hamilton and take his first Grand Prix win.
“What an incredible feeling,” he said. “I felt in control. Lewis was super fast and then when I saw the safety car I thought, ‘Gosh, this is going to be a really difficult ending.’
“He put so much pressure on me but I’m so happy to have walked away with the win.”
Hamilton paid tribute to his team and teammate after a long and difficult year for the 2021 Constructors’ Championship.
“Congratulations to George,” he said. “What an amazing ride he made today. He really deserves it.
“To my team, I am so proud of everyone at the plant and here. That’s an incredible result. We worked so hard this year to get a win so it’s totally deserved.”
Sainz finished third after passing Perez after the safety car after falling behind the Mexican with a stop during the fresh soft tire warning. It was a strong recovery from a disadvantaged seventh on the grid and a forced early stop, but the Ferrari driver said it was worrying to see Mercedes so far up the field.
“I think overall it was a good race,” he said. “Good podium after starting from P7. Shame Merc is so quick but congratulations to George.
“Merc was untouchable today. They were just the fastest car – faster than Red Bull and faster than us.”
Leclerc was enjoying an even stronger recovery from his crash with Norris with a series of undercuts through the field – and he wanted it to be even stronger, asking the team to let him past Sainz for his second place in the drivers’ standings strengthen. The team declined to put him on the podium as Fernando Alonso was right behind him and on newer soft tyres, making a team order too risky.
Alonso’s superb comeback from 17th on the grid was helped in part by early chaos and then an aggressive strategy of early stops.
Verstappen rotated his early stop for repairs to sixth thanks to the safety car, but controversially refused a team order to let Perez back through on the final lap to keep the Mexican second in the drivers’ standings. The Dutchman slammed the team on the cool-down lap for asking him to make a swap, saying he had previously made it clear he would not let Perez through.
Esteban Ocon finished eighth which combined with Alonso’s points tally meant Alpine were 19 points ahead of McLaren in the constructors’ standings after the British team failed to score.
Valtteri Bottas scored two points for Alfa Romeo in ninth place ahead of Lance Stroll, who scored the final point in tenth.