A failed attempt to battle for the ninth position ended both their races on the 34th lap of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix
By Yuri Coghe
When George Russell saw the chance to take on Valtteri Bottas for ninth place on the 34th lap of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, he didn’t think twice.
Overtaking the Finn would send a strong message to Mercedes as to who should be the rightful owner of their 2022 second seat. The long-time protege of the German team would make two cases at once by completing the move on Bottas, the always-questioned current holder of his much-desired spot.
But the manoeuvre didn’t go as planned, and what followed was a chain of events perhaps even the sharpest Hollywood minds couldn’t script.
First, a massive crash that put an end to both their races and caused a red flag. Then, both drivers immediately pointing fingers on team radio as to who to blame. It escalated to Russell marching straight to the Mercedes’ car to shout some words at Bottas, who didn’t hesitate to flip him the bird.
The press took care of the following chapters.
“We have a gentleman’s agreement if a car approaches fast and comes up behind, you don’t jerk the wheel or try to push it off the line,” said Russell after the race. “We’re doing 340 kilometres an hour, maybe more. I’m probably going 40 kilometres per hour faster than he is. At the smallest movement at 340 kilometres per hour, you are already moving a lot.”
Not only did the 23-year old Briton didn’t like the way Bottas shared the track with him before the contact, but he also took it personally. “I’m frustrated because if I had been any other driver, he wouldn’t have reacted like that,” he said, alluding to how they are both explicitly competing for the same Mercedes seat next year.
The Williams driver also took the opportunity to question what was the Finn doing in P9 in the first place, since he is expected to be fighting for way higher prizes as a Mercedes driver. “He should be fighting for podiums and wins every race. You would do that move at most if you are fighting for the win.”
Bottas denied behaving differently just because Russell was the one challenging him. “I am always going to defend against any driver. I am not keen to lose any positions,” said the 31-year-old after the race. “It was normal defending. It could have been a lot more aggressive if needed, so I don’t agree with any of that at all. I was doing my thing and whoever I was defending, it would have been exactly the same.”
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After looking at the incident once again with a cooler head the day after, Russell backtracked on his comments.
“Having had time to reflect on what happened afterwards, I know I should have handled the whole situation better,” said the Briton on a social media statement. “Emotions can run high in the heat of the moment and yesterday mine got the better of me. I apologize to Valtteri, to my team and to anyone who felt let down by my actions.”
Russell’s words triggered a response by seven-time world champion and fellow Englishman Lewis Hamilton (see below).
Before issuing the apology, Russell said the accident wasn’t going to harm his relationship with Mercedes. “I’ve already spoken with them, and there’s understanding from both sides.” Unfortunately for him, the man responsible for picking the German team drivers didn’t seem to take the incident lightly.
“I keep teasing him, I said if he does a good job he (Russell) can be in a Mercedes (next year), if not we’re doing the Renault Clio Cup and today we’re more close to the Renault Clio Cup,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff joked after the race, prompting a witty response by the series (see below).
“The whole situation should have never happened,” Wolff continued. “Valtteri (Bottas) had a bad first 30 laps, and shouldn’t have been there. But George (Russell) should have never launched into this manoeuvre, considering that the track was drying up. It meant taking risks, and the other car is a Mercedes in front of him.”
He also has financial and performance reasons to be unhappy with the crash, as the money Mercedes will spend to fix Bottas’ car is now figures they won’t be able to use for upgrades due to the new $145m budget cap introduced by F1 in 2021. “Our car is a write-off in a cost-cap environment, and that is certainly not what we needed. And it’s probably going to limit upgrades that we’re able to do.”
Speaking to F1-Insider, 1997 F1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve said he’s not on the Mercedes boss’ side. “Why does he blame the young Brit in the collision with Mercedes junior Russell?” said the Canadian. “Bottas knew that his potential successor was about to overtake him and risked a serious accident with his slight move to the right. He mustn’t do that under these difficult track conditions.”
In his opinion, the Finn is the one to blame – and the one who should be let go of the Mercedes rankings. “This shows how tense Bottas is already in the second race of the season. And that’s not going to get any better. Because he is simply too slow. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have had to defend his position so hard against a Williams.”
Further listening: PODCAST l The Chicane Crew Podcast reviews the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix
After all that’s been said and done and the F1 grid moves on from the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, one thing is for certain. The accident in Imola will remain as a dent in Russell and Bottas’ cases for signing with Mercedes for 2022. The Finn needs to step up and battle for much higher things than a ninth place, and the Briton can’t afford to pose as an unreliable, unstable driver once again if he’s to succeed Hamilton’s reign at Mercedes one day.
Fans got a worthy sequel to their rivalry, which started at the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix when Russell replaced Hamilton in Mercedes and overshadowed Bottas by almost winning the race. And while it isn’t common for Williams to battle Mercedes for positions nowadays, chances are the 21 remaining rounds of the season will poetically enough see they meet again for an inevitable third chapter.