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Russell: A close fight between everybody apart from Max

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In his quest to claim the Mercedes team leader role during this final season of Lewis Hamilton’s presence in the team before his move to Ferrari, George Russell ticked the first box by out-qualifying the older Briton for the 2024 Formula 1 season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

Russell has a big F1 season ahead, where he needs to prove to Mercedes and his boss Toto Wolff that he is indeed the man to take over Hamilton’s role for Mercedes. This means delivering a far better season than he did last year.

After Friday’s Qualifying under the floodlights of Sakhir, Russell will start the season-opening Grand Prix from P3 and hoping for a little mayhem in his quest for a podium, and perhaps even a second victory if the stars align on Sunday night.

Speaking to reporters after Qualifying, Russell said: “Everybody at the factory has done an amazing job to give Lewis and I a car that we feel much happier with and a base we can build upon. Ultimately, Max is still out there in front and we still have a lot of catching up to do.

“When we look at our qualifying performances in the last two years in Bahrain, and the race pace, starting in P3 for tomorrow is a great place. There’s been a huge amount of work. We have obviously made a big step forward in one lap pace and we hope we haven’t compromised the race pace.

“I think it will be a close fight between everybody apart from Max. Red Bull are so strong at the moment and Max is doing a great job. He’s got the new tyres. If there’s an opportunity to take the lead but ultimately the race for all of us is for second.

“But, nobody knows, it’s the first race of the season, I’m so excited to be back and let’s hope for some craziness,” concluded the 26-year-old.

In the other Mercedes, Hamilton was only good for P9 on the grid. The seven-time F1 World Champion was half a second down on the P1 time, and a couple of tenths shy of teammate Russell.

Hamilton: It’s amazing to have a car we can fight with

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Nevertheless, Hamilton was upbeat in the TV pen afterwards: “It was not great. But I was genuinely really excited to be here. I think George’s position and pace really highlights, and is a real testament to the team, how hard everyone has worked over winter.

“It’s amazing to have a car we can fight with. It really unites the fire and flame within us drivers. For me, Bono and everyone did a great job, and I struggled in qualifying today.

“Yesterday, was really good. Me and George were on the same setups but he went left and I went right. Right was definitely not good for a single lap but I felt more comfortable with more fuel, so I hope that reflects tomorrow.

“I’ve definitely sacrificed more than I hoped to and I hope it pays off. It’s a lot of work to do to get past all those quick cars ahead of me but it will be fun,” predicted Hamilton, on the occasion of his 333rd F1 Qualifying session.

Wolff: We are still learning about this car

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Of Russell’s P3 effort, Mercedes boss Wolff said: “I think P3 is ok, we thought we had a little bit more pace, three-tenths off pole. Yesterday looked better, but we put the car in a sweet spot for tomorrow’s race, at least that’s what we hope. So, with P3, P9 so close the gaps, but we hope for more.”

Regarding Hamilton’s P9, Wolff explained: “Tiny margins, you get a tyre in the optimum window, it’s just two, three-tenths difference and then you’re right in the game. The set up changes today contributed to the performance.

“In the beginning, we thought, oh maybe we took too much of the performance off and sacrificed for tomorrow’s race, but by the end, we got it quite ok with George. Race day should be better, but we are still learning about this car,” admitted Wolff.

Hamilton finished P5 in Bahrain last year, with Russell in P7. Mercedes will be hoping for much more on Sunday night this time around, especially George from the second row on the grid.