George Russell has hailed the “exceptional” qualifying turnaround on his side of the Mercedes garage after he secured a front-row start for Sunday’s Qatar Grand Prix.
Russell has wound up inside the top three in qualifying at three of the five rounds since Formula 1 resumed after the summer break.
The Briton had only previously achieved that feat once this year and had failed to advance to the pole position shootout four times.
Russell managed to deliver again on Friday evening at the Lusail circuit, clocking the third fastest time in Q3 before he was promoted to second when Lando Norris had a time deleted for exceeding track limits.
With the second McLaren of Oscar Piastri also losing his best effort, Lewis Hamilton was elevated to third, leaving Russell stunned by Mercedes’ competitiveness.
Asked if he was surprised by the result, Russell said: “Yeah, I think it’s been interesting, the second half of the season. The quali pace has been really quite exceptional compared to the start of this year. And I’m feeling really confident in the car.
“But this weekend, we definitely weren’t expecting to be lining up P2 and P3 on the grid for Sunday. So that is a real pleasant surprise.
“Of course, Lando was ahead of us and his marginal off wasn’t the different for his pace advantage. So, we know that we’re half a step behind McLaren.
“But equally, our fight is with Ferrari at the moment. That’s our aim for the remainder of the season. And we just need to secure as many points as possible to seal that off.”
Despite only occupying a place as high as fifth in the opening two segments, Russell insists that he was always confident of competing at the sharp end come Q3.
“I think in Q1 I actually made a mistake on my lap,” he explained. “I lost three-tenths, so I think I could have been right up there in the top three.
“Q2 I ran the used tyre. And yeah, in Q2 it was the used tyres, so I think P5 was a strong result. So, it was no big surprise to be sort of fighting for the top three in Q3.”
Although Norris will start eight places behind Russell on the grid, the ex-Williams racer predicts that the McLaren driver will be Mercedes’ “biggest threat” in Sunday’s race.
Questioned on whether he believes Mercedes possesses the race pace to beat McLaren, Russell replied: “Yeah, definitely. I think we see that the pace converges a little bit come Sunday. Lando was exceptionally fast in Suzuka, so he’s really going to be the biggest threat. But there’s no reason why we can’t both fight for a podium.
“But there’s a lot of unknowns. We don’t know how the tyre degradation is going to be, the tyre wear, if it’s a one-stop or two-stop.
“And the track is just constantly changing. And you know, the very first lap in qualifying was, I think, two seconds quicker than the quickest lap in FP1, which was probably the biggest jump I think I’ve ever experienced in Formula 1, so we don’t know what tomorrow and Sunday are going to bring.”
Russell, however, was unable to do anything to challenge polesitter Max Verstappen, who swept to top spot by half a second despite only completing one run in the Q3 session.
The Dutchman can secure the title by scoring three points in Saturday’s Sprint Race and Russell suspects he will “probably [be] waving him goodbye after Turn 1” on Sunday.
“Max has done an exceptional job,” he continued. “He deserves to be champion this year.
“Of course, you know, Formula 1, we love the competition, but we can’t take anything away from what he and Red Bull have done. And we need to look at ourselves in the mirror and raise our game into next year and give them a challenge.”