It took 21 races, but Mercedes is finally back in Formula One's winning circle.
The toil of the team's 2022 season, which would have been unimaginable during its eight years of dominance between 2014 and 2021, has finally been rewarded with a race victory. But while George Russell's emotional win in Brazil was richly deserved, it does not represent the end goal for Mercedes. Far from it.
For a team so used to success, the reality of the 2022 season has been hard to stomach. A major regulation change over the winter saw Mercedes turn up in pre-season testing with a car that was nearly a second off front-runners Red Bull and Ferrari, and things initially seemed to get worse rather than better.
Perhaps the lowest point of the year came at the first sprint race weekend of 2022 at Imola, where Mercedes' drivers ranked 11th and 13th in qualifying, finished 11th and 14th in the sprint race and ended up fourth and 13th in the grand prix (the fourth mainly thanks to a good start and outstanding drive in mixed conditions by Russell). The performance at Interlagos, which included saw the team claim maximum points with one-two victories in both the sprint and the grand prix, was vindication of the progress it has made since.
However, that progress was only possible once some fundamental flaws in the W13's car design were fixed. The first issue was to address its "porpoising" -- a bouncing motion at high speed triggered by the car's underfloor aerodynamics -- which the team started to get on top of at the Spanish Grand Prix. Then there was the car's awful ride over bumps, which left the team off the pace in Monaco and both drivers in physical pain after the following street race in Baku.
Only once those issues had been addressed could Mercedes return to its normal process of adding performance to the car, and by that point Red Bull had pulled a significant advantage over the rest of the field. Crucially for its late-season success, a major upgrade was introduced to the car at the United States Grand Prix, which not only brought aerodynamic performance but also shed crucial weight from the W13.
Since then, Mercedes has been in the running for victories at every race, although the Brazilian Grand Prix was the first at which Max Verstappen was not in a position to exercise the full performance of his Red Bull in opposition. Verstappen's absence from the battle was of his own making when he attempted to pass Lewis Hamilton for second place at the start of lap seven and the pair collided at Turn 2, but it still raises the question of whether Russell would have held him off had he got past cleanly.
Look at the relative performance of the top three cars in Friday's qualifying session, especially in Q2 which had the most consistent weather conditions, and Mercedes was off the pace of both Ferrari and Red Bull by over 0.4s. It's been a trend in the second half of the season that the Mercedes performs better in the race than in qualifying and the Ferrari performs worse, but Red Bull's drop in performance in the sprint race and the grand prix was an anomaly.
It started to go wrong for Red Bull in the sprint when the team defied convention by opting to start Verstappen on the slower medium tyres in the belief any loss in performance in Saturday's race would be balanced out by saving two sets of fresh soft tyres for Sunday's grand prix. But the loss in performance by using the medium in the sprint was more than Red Bull had expected, with Verstappen struggling for front-end grip from midway through the race -- a problem seemingly exacerbated by Red Bull's setup choices, which were locked in for the weekend after the single practice session on Friday.
Mercedes admits Verstappen would have been a serious threat in the grand prix had he not been involved in the collision with Hamilton on the seventh lap, which forced a front wing change and dropped him down the order. His teammate Sergio Perez failed to mount a serious challenge against Russell and Hamilton, but that was because he only had one set of soft tyres for the race, so had to use the less preferable medium for final two stints, which proved utterly disastrous following the late safety car.
Verstappen, however, had an extra set of fresh softs for the final stint, which allowed him to move from tenth to sixth after the safety car and could have been the difference in a battle with Mercedes towards the end of the race had he cleanly passed Hamilton on lap seven. Ultimately, we'll never know if he could have snatched the victory from Russell, but internally Mercedes knows it would have been an incredibly tough fight had Verstappen remained in contention.
Russell becomes an F1 winner
Nevertheless, Verstappen's unusually poor weekend should take nothing away from George Russell's first F1 victory. In sport, you can only beat the opposition put in front of you and the performance of Russell in the race was exemplary.
Ever since he came agonisingly close to a victory at the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix while subbing in at Mercedes for Hamilton, there was no doubt that Russell was destined to win a grand prix when the stars aligned. His win in Brazil already felt a long time overdue and it will almost certainly be the first of many.
Russell's performance was also a sign of the strength of -- and potential headaches involved in -- Mercedes' future. If the team can learn its lessons from 2022 and get the car right for 2023, there is no doubt it has two drivers capable of challenging for victories at every round next season.
Russell is a homegrown talent for Mercedes, who first made contact with team boss Toto Wolff in 2014 after getting hold of his email address at a GP3 test and sending a speculative late-night message that he expected to be ignored. Much to Russell's surprise the following morning, Wolff had responded the same evening, which prompted a meeting in which Wolff tried to get Russell to drive for a Mercedes-powered F3 team the following year, only for Russell to ignore Wolff and opt for Volkswagen power at Carlin.
Turning down the advice of an F1 team boss at the age of 16 seemed an unlikely route to success, but Russell was confident he'd made the right choice. "I knew at the end of the day a guy like Toto is only interested in results, so that's why I chose Carlin," he told ESPN in an interview in 2018.
Speaking after Russell's win in Interlagos, Wolff also recalled the meeting.
"I thought about it at the end of the race, the time he walked in to my office as a 16-year-old in his suit and his tie and with his PowerPoint presentation.
"He is the first of our new junior programme that has won a race for Mercedes. Of course, Lewis has been there forever, but George has graduated from the junior academy and six years later he is a deserving race winner."
A sign of things to come?
The contrast between Mercedes' two drivers celebrating in Russell's success after the Brazilian Grand Prix and the Red Bull duo squabbling over who deserved to finish sixth was stark. Verstappen passed Perez after the late safety car, but when told to give the position back to help Perez's chances of finishing second in the championship, he refused. After the race, Verstappen justified his actions by loosely referencing an incident earlier in the season where he felt he had been wronged.
For a moment, you could be forgiven for forgetting which of the two teams had dominated the 2022 season and wrapped up both drivers' and constructors' titles several weeks ago.
But Mercedes is going to need to dig deeper than ever before to overhaul Red Bull's advantage over the winter and challenge for the title in 2023. The win in Brazil is a crucial step towards the team getting back to the front of the grid next year, but the final round in Abu Dhabi -- a track that should suit Red Bull more than Mercedes -- will likely be a reminder of the step still needed to fight on equal terms.
Red Bull, meanwhile, will offer no let-up in its own development over the winter, regardless of the internal politics between its drivers. If anything, once the dust has settled on the events in Brazil, the power dynamic at the team -- which is so clearly tilted in Verstappen's favour -- could be one of its greatest assets in a title battle next year. There is little doubt who will lead the charge to a third consecutive drivers' title at Red Bull in 2023, but Mercedes will have to balance the demands of a driver hunting for his first title and another going for a record-breaking eighth.
While the long wait for a Mercedes victory saw Hamilton join in the celebrations alongside Russell after the race in Brazil, just minutes earlier he had been hounding his teammate on track in an attempt to take the victory from him following a late safety car. The pair traded fastest times in those final laps, forcing both drivers to push to the limit despite a potentially race-ending water leak on Russell's car (although neither driver was aware of the issue at the time).
Ultimately, the pressure Hamilton put his teammate under only added to Russell's achievement, but it's an indicator Mercedes will likely face some on-track dilemmas of its own if the two drivers continue to fight for wins next year.
"As a team we always stood for free racing and we have never done otherwise unless a driver is not mathematically in contention anymore for a championship," Wolff said. "We were actually looking forward to them racing on par with the same tyre and we discussed it this morning in the strategy meeting."
If Mercedes can produce a regular race-winner to match Red Bull in 2023, it could set the scene for an epic title battle -- one that might even rival 2021's championship dual between Verstappen and Hamilton. Add a consistent Ferrari into the mix, and 2023 has the potential to be one of the best seasons of all time.