George Russell gave Mercedes its first win of the Formula One season in the Sao Paulo sprint on Saturday, with seven-time world champion team mate Lewis Hamilton joining him on the front row for Sunday’s Brazilian grand prix.
The 100-km race set the grid for the main event at Interlagos, the penultimate grand prix of the season, but also carried important points for some of the top eight finishers.
It turned out to be a 24-lap thriller, possibly the most entertaining sprint so far, with the Brazilian crowd treated to wheel-to-wheel racing, overtakes and clashes between team mates.
“That’s how we roll, baby,” shouted Russell, who had started third and powered past Verstappen on the 15th of 24 laps after a thrilling wheel-to-wheel chase, over the radio as he took the chequered flag.
It was the Briton’s first victory in Formula One, even if he is still waiting for a full one.
“They all count,” he said. “It was definitely a sweet feeling to cross that line in first position... it’s so great to see the progress we’re making as a team.
“It’s such a morale booster going into the winter regardless of the outcome tomorrow. This is a huge result for us.”
Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz finished second at the chequered flag but the Spaniard will drop back to seventh on Sunday’s grid due to a penalty for exceeding his season’s engine allocation.
That will promote Hamilton from third, with race stewards clearing him and others of a potential infringement at the start.
Verstappen, who lined up on the front row at Interlagos alongside first time pole-sitter Kevin Magnussen’s Haas, finished fourth but will also move up a place on Sunday and remains a threat.
He complained of running over debris and made contact with Sainz’s Ferrari as the Spaniard overtook aggressively with five laps remaining.
Hamilton, who started eighth, also went past the Dutch 25-year-old.
Verstappen was the only front-runner to start on the medium tyres, with Russell on softs, and that seemed a mistake by a driver who has won a record 14 grands prix this season and both previous sprints.
“At the time I felt alright, it somehow didn’t work but even on a soft I think I was going to be too slow,” he said. “Really, we just had way too much (tyre) degradation here today.
“I’m not sure if we can do a lot for tomorrow, but it can’t be worse than today.”
Red Bull and Verstappen have already won both championships and are now chasing records, with the team on a run of nine wins in a row.
Mexican Sergio Perez, Verstappen’s team mate, finished fifth with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc sixth and McLaren’s Lando Norris seventh.
Magnussen, who secured an astonishing pole in Friday’s qualifying, took a point for Haas in eighth after being passed by Verstappen on lap three and dropping steadily down the order.
“It was always going to be unrealistic to keep those guys behind,” he said. “I didn’t want to try even because I knew the battle was going to be around P7 or P8. I didn’t want to lose any time getting overtaken.”
Alpine’s Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon clashed twice, with the Spaniard first being forced wide and needing a new front wing and then hitting the rear of the Frenchman’s car when trying to pass.
“I lost the front wing thanks to our friend,” said Alonso, who is joining Aston Martin at the end of the season and was handed a five second penalty plus two points on his licence for causing the second collision.
The Spaniard will start 18th and Ocon 17th.
Aston Martin had its own battles with Lance Stroll forcing four-time world champion team mate Sebastian Vettel on to the grass and collecting a 10-second time penalty. The Canadian finished 17th, and Vettel ninth.