The non-Mercedes driver who caught Toto Wolff’s attention at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Henry Valantine
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff on the grid.

Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff on the grid.

Toto Wolff had warm words for Charles Leclerc after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, dubbing him a “real sportsman” for how he drove against George Russell in the closing laps.

Russell and Leclerc were fighting at the front with second place in the Constructors’ Championship on the line, and with a charging Sergio Perez needing to get five seconds clear of Russell to get onto the podium, Leclerc allowed the Red Bull driver by on the penultimate lap.

With a five-second penalty coming the way of Perez, Leclerc could have held Russell behind and deliberately slowed down to cost Russell the points that would have put Ferrari ahead in the Constructors’ Championship, but ultimately did not do so.

Toto Wolff hails ‘real sportsman’ Charles Leclerc for George Russell battle at Yas Marina

Additional reporting by Thomas Maher

Only four points separated Ferrari and Mercedes heading into the final race of the season, with second place in the Constructors’ standings up for grabs.

The ebbs and flows of the race meant that both teams were on top of that particular battle at different points, and it played out that if Perez finished ahead of Russell once his penalty was applied, Ferrari would have stolen P2 at the last from their Mercedes counterparts.

But as the Mercedes driver stayed within the required distance of Perez, they held onto that placing – which is worth a huge amount of prize money to the team.

Wolff praised Russell for his “impeccable” drive, but also had time to appreciate how his rival handled the final laps, without resorting to underhand tactics.

“I think we came to this weekend a little bit on the back foot when you see Ferrari’s performances in the last few races,” Wolff told media including PlanetF1.com after the race.

“For whatever reasons, it’s so difficult to have the car in a sweet spot, you’ve seen that with Carlos [Sainz], who was never there this weekend, and the same with Lewis [Hamilton].

“Then you have two guys fighting in the front, and I think George’s drive today was impeccable, also in managing the gaps at the end.

“The fight with Ferrari is a formidable fight between these two great brands, a team that we respect a lot and Charles drove like a real sportsman at the end.”

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Perez had flown through the field in the race but given his alternate strategy, a late stop was the most likely outcome and he had fresher tyres to play with.

That five-second penalty would end up proving pivotal, and the Mercedes team boss praised Russell for how he went about his drive.

But even though Leclerc and Ferrari were fighting tooth and nail with Mercedes in the Constructors’ standings, Wolff had warm words for Leclerc for not deliberately holding Russell up and allowing Perez to get away, after allowing him past for second place on the road.

“Perez for quite some time wasn’t really on the wasn’t really on the radar,” Wolff admitted.

“I mean, we knew that they probably couldn’t hang out the one stop when he was ahead and then he came out 10, 11 seconds behind us.

“At that moment, we only concentrated on ourselves and said ‘let’s extract the quickest race for George’, bearing in mind you need to manage the surfaces, if not you’re falling off a cliff.

“We knew that we had to be within five seconds of Perez, but Leclerc was so far ahead that we didn’t believe that he could manage these gaps in order to maybe keep us behind.

“And at the end, he could have pulled the handbrake on in the last sector and he didn’t, and I think that shows a character of a driver.”

Read next: Abu Dhabi GP: Win No.19 for Max Verstappen as Mercedes beat Ferrari to P2