In the space of 24 hours in Hungary this weekend, Formula 1 turned upside down.
On Friday afternoon, the Mercedes team were completely lost. Their car had been a second a lap off the pace in practice and the drivers stayed at the track with the team until 11pm trying to work out what to do about it.
It was work well done. On Saturday, their car was on pole position for the first time this season – a year in which their average deficit to the pace over one lap has been more than 0.8 seconds.
Mercedes were ahead of the qualifying kings of 2022, Ferrari. And world championship leader Max Verstappen’s Red Bull was down in 10th place.
The man who did this was not the seven-time champion who has led Mercedes for the past eight years and set new records in the sport, but the man who the team signed to pick up the baton as Lewis Hamilton comes towards the end of his career.
George Russell became known as “Mr Saturday” in F1 for his outstanding performances in qualifying. This year, that sobriquet has become “Mr Consistency”, for his record of finishing in the top five in every race. But at the Hungaroring Mr Saturday was back with a vengeance.
Until this weekend, the best among many excellent qualifying performances from Russell had been at last year’s Belgian Grand Prix, when he stuck the second slowest car in the field on the front row in the wet, ahead of Hamilton.
Not any more. For Russell, this one topped it.
“Dare I say [it was] better than the Spa one?” he said, a little laugh seeming to suggest he almost couldn’t believe what he was saying.
“The feeling of this pole and the feeling of that Spa lap, I don’t think I will ever have qualifying laps that will come close to those two feelings because obviously this was my first.
“As a team we struggled so much at Williams. We were so far behind and to get that second was massive.
“This is what racing’s about. This is why I wake up every day and want to be world champion, feelings like this. It’s something you can’t really dream of.”
It might seem counter-intuitive that Russell would rank a lap around a dusty little circuit tucked in a natural amphitheatre about 12 miles outside Budapest in the dry, as better than one in the pouring rain around Spa, renowned as one of the greatest challenges for a racing driver on the planet.
But Russell said the uniqueness of the Hungaroring gave the extra satisfaction for him to rank it as the best of his career so far.
“I think the nature of this circuit, when you get everything absolutely hooked up, nothing comes close,” he said, “because it’s so fast and flowing every corner leads on to the next. So, it’s difficult to compare, very different conditions, but for pure driving, probably the one today.”
He added: “I think we just absolutely nailed today 100% and got every last millisecond out of it.”
How did Russell and Mercedes do it?
Once the shock of seeing Russell’s name at the top of the timesheets had registered, the next thought was how on Earth it had happened?
Russell had been eighth fastest on Friday, the car lacking grip; Hamilton was another 0.2secs back in 11th.
Things looked little better in the wet in final practice early on Saturday afternoon.
But suddenly in qualifying, things were looking up. The Mercedes were first and second fastest in the first session, relatively meaningless for the top teams, and looked decent in the second session, with Hamilton fifth and Russell seventh, just over 0.3secs off the pace.
And then Q3. Mercedes were helped by Verstappen’s engine problem, and by a less-than-perfect final lap from Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz. Had he nailed it, the Spaniard felt he would have been on pole. But he did not. And Russell most certainly did.
“I think we just got it perfectly in the window on the last lap,” Russell said. “I went round Turn One and I was 0.15secs up, went around Turn Two, I was 0.3secs up, and everything was just perfectly in the window.
“And when you’re on one of those laps and you’re in the groove and the rhythm, it just keeps on coming.”
In the Mercedes pit, they could not quite believe what they were seeing.
Team principal Toto Wolff said: “The first sector [time] came in and we saw the delta time running. And I remember saying to the engineers: ‘I think we are playing for pole here.’ And there was silence on the other side.
“And after sector two, I thought: ‘Yes, it’s going to be awfully tight.’ These are the moments I cherish so much in F1. It comes unexpectedly, but the performance is really there and we do it.”
Wolff added: “It is George’s first pole and it will be always something special for him and us. It is a moment to remember.
“But George had these extraordinary performances in the junior series and he had it in Spa last year in the rain and today is just another milestone of the many he is going to achieve.”
Even so, this would not have been possible on Friday, so what miracles had Mercedes pulled off to turn the car around to this extent?
“Yesterday was probably our toughest Friday of the whole season,” Russell said.
“We were all here until 11pm last night scratching our heads, morale was pretty down and we felt pretty lost and to come back and come grab pole position 24 hours later is such a feeling, because I know what we went through last night.
“There were more chats of overall philosophy and if we’re going in the right direction. As a team we have been closing the gap but yesterday was a disastrous day.
“We believed there were many reason as to why and they all added up to making us well over a second off the pace. But that felt like we were being a bit generous.
“And then to have a day like today… we definitely turned it around and we are probably back to where we kind of hoped to be.”
Wolff said: “This season has been an oscillation between depression and exuberance and sometimes changing from day to day. And yesterday we tried things that didn’t work at all, but which gave us a direction for today.”
He praised both drivers for their resoluteness in the face of difficulty this season, but had special words for Russell.
“Yesterday, he showed leadership in the meeting,” Wolff said. “He was the one that kept being positive about things and together these two drivers at different stages of their career were a tremendous force to keep the spirits high.”
It was a bittersweet day, though. The joy for Russell was tempered by the feeling that Hamilton could have been up there, too, had it not been for his DRS overtaking aid breaking on his final run.
Can Russell win the race?
A first pole in Mercedes’ least competitive season for 10 years was unthinkable until Saturday afternoon. Now Russell is there, a first win will be far from easy.
But the Hungaroring is a track where overtaking is notoriously difficult, Verstappen is probably out of the picture after an engine problem consigned him to 10th on the grid, and Ferrari’s fragility this season – both strategically and with regard to reliability – always makes them look beatable.
Typically this year, the Mercedes has been a quicker race car, relative to Red Bull and Ferrari, than in qualifying. Russell said he will be “very shocked”, though, if that is the case on Sunday.
Russell admitted that the Mercedes’ race pace was: “A total unknown. We have turned the car upside down since yesterday, conditions have changed, it’s going to be much cooler tomorrow.
“Our high-fuel pace was probably the worst it’s ever been yesterday. And Ferrari looked pretty exceptional. We’re behind the curve at the moment, but we will be absolutely going for it, and victory is what we’re going for.”
He added: “To be honest, I’m already thinking about the run off the line, Turn One, how I can try and keep the lead and what I am going to have to do to win the race.
“Getting a pole position is great but as I learned quite a lot last year and as I’ve also learned a lot this year. Saturday doesn’t mean a huge amount – Sundays are when the points and prizes are won.
“This is a place where you need a good qualifying, no doubt, but still if you have a faster race car it counts for 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 go late and they will find a way past.”
Even if the win turns out to be a step too far, though, this has been a seismic day for Mercedes in a difficult year.
“I am just so happy for what it means for us as a team, the progress we’ve made,” Russell said.
“Obviously going into the summer break and qualifying like this was huge. So we’ll do our best to have a great day tomorrow but we can be happy we have had at least one good Saturday from the first 12 or 13 races.
“It’s clear we’ve had a difficult season. Qualifying historically has been one of my strengths. This year I have struggled a little bit, but Budapest is a circuit I’ve always liked, I’ve always been fast here and I always knew if the car and myself were working perfectly together, there is no reason why we can’t achieve great things.”