George Russell was toying with the competition once again as he went from P15 to victory in the Virtual Sao Paulo Grand Prix.
The Mercedes junior, driving the Williams FW43, took full advantage of a multi-car crash at the feature race start to swiftly improve to P3, and it was not long before the Briton was into the lead.
Despite early strategy fears Russell controlled the pace out front, keeping Enzo Fittipaldi firmly in his rear-view mirror, though P2 for Fittipaldi helped Haas on their way to taking the team’s title and $20,000 for the Grand Prix Trust.
Alex Albon, despite a three-second time penalty, completed the final podium of the 2021 Virtual Grand Prix series.
Haas went into the final event around a virtual Interlagos with a 15-point buffer over FDA Esports, but it was Alpine’s Nicholas Longuet, in the Renault, who led the Esports pros away in the sprint race.
As has been the case throughout the series, a five-lap sprint race, contested by the pro gamers, was used to determine the grid for the feature race.
And it delivered the most mixed-up grid of the series so far. An epic last-lap battle between Longuet and Ferrari’s Brendon Leigh saw Longuet hold his nerve and put comedian Arnaud Tsamere on pole for Alpine. Last weekend’s winner Russell was left to start all the way down in P15!
It was of course good news for FDA though with Leigh setting Arthur Leclerc up for P2 on the grid.
Leclerc immediately took the lead of the feature race, but a huge pile-up heading into Turn 2 saw the other Ferrari of Dino Beganovic take over the lead.
Taking full advantage of the chaos though was Russell who jumped up to P3, and into Turn 1 of Lap 2 he made that P2. Enzo Fittipaldi picked off Tsanmere for P3, keeping Haas in the mix.
There was no stopping Russell though from this point on! Quickly he repeated the trick at Turn 1 on Beganovic, and at the start of Lap 3 Russell was the new leader of the Virtual Brazilian Grand Prix.
Russell quickly built up a buffer over the pack, while Albon desperately tried to pick his way through the traffic to mount a challenge to the Briton. By Lap 6 Albon was up to P4, while Fittipaldi went up the inside of Beganovic to improve to P2.
“Mate I’m fully focused here, I think I’m on completely the wrong strategy,” said Russell. Perhaps the Briton was not going to stroll to victory in 36 virtual laps of Interlagos after all? We would find out this was mere mind games.
As the race hit one-third distance Russell was continuing to stretch his lead over Fittipaldi, while Enzo’s brother Pietro in the other Haas stripped Leclerc of P6, only for them to trade places again on the following lap as the Haas/FDA battle continued.
Further up the road Albon had closed right in on the battle for P2. He was critical of Fittipaldi’s driving, but finding a way past Beganovic first was proving quite the challenge.
Finally Albon had a run on Beganovic as the pair battled side-by-side through the opening three turns of Interlagos, but neither driver wanted to blink into Turn 4 causing both to go off the circuit, meaning Beganovic held on to P3.
“What are you doing Dino? We are like so far in front, we don’t need to fight,” Albon exclaimed.
He did not hear the Red Bull reserve driver though. Still they battled on but come Lap 17 Albon finally improved to P3, fighting off a Beganovic lunge around the outside of Turn 4.
Watching from the Guenther Sauna, our Team Principal is right behind the @FittiForce today ?
The #VirtualGP series finale is LIVE NOW! ??#HaasF1 pic.twitter.com/Z6fPqnKdPn
— Haas F1 Team (@HaasF1Team) February 14, 2021
Driver and team face coverings are available now on the official Formula 1 store!
Russell made his stop on the following lap, coming out on fresh medium tyres in P5 ahead of Leclerc. He would have to nurse them Sergio-Perez style to the end.
But disaster for Albon then lifted that pressure from Russell’s shoulders. The Thai driver had been hit with a three-second time penalty for multiple warnings, and by Lap 20 Russell was back into the lead, passing the Mercedes of Jake Dixon. How he would love to pass a Mercedes for the lead in real life this year!
Leclerc was next to pass Dixon after plenty of wheel banging, improving to P6, but rather than chasing Pietro Fittipaldi and team-mate Beganovic up the road, Leclerc was not finished with Dixon yet. The pair continued to trade positions, that was until a Lap 34-spin for Dixon ended that battle.
Up ahead though Russell was in a class of his own, taking the chequered flag to make it six Virtual Grand Prix victories in a row.
Enzo Fittipaldi claimed P2 as the team’s title went to Haas, along with the $20,000 top prize for their charity the Grand Prix Trust.
Despite his penalty Albon completed the podium for Red Bull.
“I was nervous before the race and then obviously the starting grid wasn’t the best and I went onto the alternative strategy which I had no idea how it would pan out,” Russell reflected.
“Until I got halfway through that final stint I was still a little bit nervous they were going to come back through, but I’m sweating, proper sweating. It was a good race.”
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