George Russell left Lewis Hamilton in his shade as he produced a remarkable performance in qualifying to put his Williams on the front row for Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix.
Only Red Bull’s Max Verstappen could deny Russell Formula One’s greatest pole position of the modern era as Hamilton’s championship rival claimed the spoils on a dramatic afternoon at a rain-hit Spa-Francorchamps.
Hamilton, eight points ahead of Verstappen, had to settle for third.
Lando Norris, Britain’s other rising star, was fortunate to walk away from a terrifying 185mph crash at the fearsome Eau Rouge corner which claimed the life of French Formula Two driver Anthoine Hubert here two years ago.
A 43-minute delay ensued as Norris’ wrecked McLaren was taken away, while the winded Briton was sent to the on-track medical centre, and latterly hospital for an x-ray on his wounded elbow.
But when the action resumed it was the 23-year-old Russell who took centre stage.
In his uncompetitive Williams machinery, Russell somehow lapped the sodden 4.35-mile track quicker than Hamilton in his all-conquering Mercedes.
Indeed, for a split-second it looked as though Russell had done the unthinkable and scored a maiden pole, and Williams’ first in more than seven years, only for Verstappen to cross the line three tenths ahead in the closing moments.
Russell finished 0.013 sec clear of Hamilton, the driver he stood in for so impressively at last December’s Sakhir Grand Prix, and now looks increasingly likely to join at Mercedes next year.
“I don’t know what to say to be honest,” said Russell. “We are standing here on the front row.
“We were in Q3 which is not a norm for us. We had to go for it. We took the full maximum engine mode for the last lap and I am buzzing, absolutely buzzing, but tomorrow is the important one.”
Asked if he is ready to tackle pole-sitter Verstappen on the short run down to La Source, the Englishman replied: “That is the plan. If it is there for the taking we will go for it.”
Mercedes junior driver Russell is in his third F1 campaign with Williams, but after serving his apprenticeship, looks primed for the big time in 2022, and a ticket alongside Hamilton.
The seven-time world champion, 36, has been vocal in his support of current team-mate Valtteri Bottas.
But the Finn’s lacklustre campaign – he qualified eighth here and will be bumped back five places following his role in taking out Norris, Verstappen and Sergio Perez at the opening bend in Hungary four weeks ago – and Russell’s star displays appear to have forced Mercedes hand and delivered a mouth-watering all-British line-up.
Hamilton said: “I don’t feel any different. George has being doing a great job all year and this doesn’t change anything.
“I am sure he has got pressure on him, just as Valtteri has to do the job, and it is great to see him delivering. I cannot fault him for it.”
Russell’s likely promotion to Mercedes is set to be confirmed next month, possibly ahead of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza on September 12.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said: “Today does not make any difference because we know what we have with George.
“He has been outstanding in the junior categories, he has been outstanding with Williams, and he was outstanding for us in Bahrain last year.
“If I needed to have that ultimate proof then something would have been wrong but it is also about considering other factors.”
Wolff, who confirmed a decision on who will join Hamilton next year has already been taken, added: “Both George and Valtteri deserved to be looked after because they are part of the family, and we hold them up high.
“There are pros and cons as there is with any driver line-up and there is no such thing as a perfect discussion.
“We need to manage the situation with whichever driver is not going to be in a Mercedes next year, and make sure there is an exciting programme on the other side and manage the situation internally like we always have with Nico [Rosberg] and with George.”
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