Russell then controlled the race over the opening few laps, although was under pressure from team-mate Lewis Hamilton who, in turn, was being pursued by Verstappen after the Briton had passed the Dutchman into Turn 3 on lap one.
On lap eight, after Alex Albon had careered into a barrier at Turn 7 in his Williams, Mercedes took advantage of the safety car and brought in Russell, relegating him to seventh but believing it had made the right call at the time.
Surprisingly, two minutes and 40 seconds after the safety car was deployed, race director Niels Wittich decided to red flag the race, compromising Russell as those ahead of him were given a free stop.
Declaring Russell's stop to be “right on the cusp” of whether it would help a driver or leave him “a little bit worse off,” chief technical officer James Allison added: “You can see when that happened, we chose to split our cars.
“We brought George in but left Lewis out because at that point it's very finely balanced whether you are going to get a benefit from the stop or not, and by bringing one in and not the other, then you are splitting your risk – it's like an each-way bet.
“As it happens, it looked post that decision that we probably did the right thing with George to bring him in, just from getting the best out of a cheap pit stop under the safety car.
“But all that was rendered completely null and void when the red flag was then pulled out just a few seconds later.”
Albon incident should have been cleared under yellow – Allison
Allison has conceded to Mercedes being “very surprised” at the red-flag decision given there was a lap behind the safety car as the incident was being cleared prior to it being shown.
“To us, that looked like the sort of incident that could have been cleared up under yellow,” said Allison.
“Of course, the moment that it goes red, although you then get a cheap stop under a safety car, it's nothing like as good as the free stop you get under a red flag.
“I think the decision stands on the merits that we were considering when we made it, but obviously once the red flag came out, then it clearly meant that George lost out a little bit.”
Mercedes' decision was fully negated when Russell retired later in the race with a power unit failure.
As to where he could have finished but for that problem, Allison added: “He was obviously a little ill-served by that red flag, lost a few slots on the grid instead of benefitting from the safety car stop that we hoped we would give to him.
“But he would have had a strong race. He showed good pace all the way through the weekend, good in qualifying, strong start, good race pace.
“He was set fair for a good result even if he had been ill-served by the fortune of the red flag.”