George Russell’s post-Imola apology to Valtteri Bottas and those he “let down” after their crash, and subsequent comments ahead of Formula 1’s Portuguese Grand Prix, have triggered undue criticism.
Russell furiously remonstrated against Bottas after their high-speed accident in Italy, confronting the Mercedes driver while he was still in his wrecked car and giving Bottas a small slap on the crash helmet in the process.
Williams driver Russell felt Bottas had squeezed him and even suggested it was a deliberately aggressive move carried out because Russell is a rival for the Mercedes drive – a theory Mercedes boss Toto Wolff called “bullshit” and Bottas mocked.
Russell apologised for his off-track behaviour the following day, and while it is fair to continue to hold Russell at fault for the crash, a clear trend of specific criticisms towards Russell has emerged that is unjustified.
As both Russell and Bottas have sought to draw a line under the incident ahead of this weekend’s race in Portugal, it’s worth highlighting the four criticisms that are worth ending at the same time.
‘His climbdown is embarrassing and/or insincere’
This criticism extends the belief that Russell’s post-Imola remarks are either because of Mercedes’ influence or because he is trying to protect some kind of false image of himself.
There are even some suggestions that he should stick to his original position over the crash because the toughest drivers never admit they are wrong.
This is a toxic attitude, prevalent online, that fails to comprehend why someone may review their initial position and understand what was damaging about it. It’s not embarrassing behaviour to change your opinion and admit fault. It actually shows growth and maturity.
‘That’s not the way I want to be looked at from fans, from other people within the sport” :: George Russell
Russell also hasn’t said he’ll never race against a Mercedes again, he’s simply accepted there was a risk involved in what he did. More importantly, he’s admitted he’s disappointed in how he handled it afterwards.
To respond in any other way would be a betrayal of the qualities that have got him where he is today.
True, he is confident in himself and is very intelligent, to the point where he is capable of using the media to his advantage – like all the best drivers can.
But he is also self-critical and willing to hold his hands up to a mistake. He could not do that in the moment. He has since recognised the error in that judgment.
If it has required a slap on the wrists from Wolff, that does not mean the words are insincere. It may be that it took a combination of time and a serious chat with Mercedes’ top dog for Russell to grasp the severity of what transpired and the part he played in it.
Russell certainly accepts that what he did immediately after the crash stoked the animosity that followed through the rest of the day and turned the whole affair into a bigger story.
No doubt Russell stating he sees himself as a “role model” will cause some to bristle and they will view it as evidence he has an ego.
The less cynical view would be to understand this is a young man who takes his off-track responsibilities in F1 very seriously – otherwise he would not be made a Grand Prix Drivers Association director – and who cares deeply about doing the right thing. And it’s confusing that some seek to belittle that.
“The way I felt like I reacted afterwards was not my true self,” Russell says. “And that’s not the way I want to be looked at from fans, from other people within the sport.
“That wasn’t me, and the on-track thing is one thing, but how you conduct yourself off track is a very different matter. And that’s why I thought it was important to apologise for those actions.”
‘Russell has ruined his reputation’
It might only be from a minority of fans but there is also a line of criticism that Russell has irreversibly damaged his reputation, not necessarily through the crash but in his actions afterwards.
It’s quite clear that Russell is not proud of how he handled the fallout, from the physical confrontation of Bottas in the moment to the comments afterwards where he made some suggestions he probably regrets.
He wouldn’t have apologised and called out his own behaviour – which isn’t a particularly enjoyable thing for anyone to do in front of a big audience – if that wasn’t the case.
“If people get emotions they don’t want emotions and they think ‘How can you? How dare you? Why did you do this? Why did you do that?’” :: Sebastian Vettel
The idea that he has now got a permanent black mark on his record because he is a 23-year-old who had a 200mph crash, lost a good result, and reacted emotionally, is at best unsympathetic. Frankly, it’s unfair.
“Emotions go both ways,” points out four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, who was sat alongside Russell in Thursday’s press conference pairings.
“They go positive and they go negative otherwise they wouldn’t be emotions. I don’t think they can swing only one way. There would be no highs without lows and no lows without highs.
“The real question I guess is what do people want? Because on the one hand they want emotions and on the other hand if they get emotions they don’t want emotions and they think ‘How can you? How dare you? Why did you do this? Why did you do that?’.
“The secret is you can’t please everyone, and just be yourself. Obviously there’s limits to all actions that we do on track and maybe off track, but I don’t think he should worry that much.”
This was far from Russell’s finest hour but any damage that was done was likely short-term and is entirely repairable, especially as he was wise enough to swiftly admit fault.
‘Williams will be better off without him’
The argument goes that Williams doesn’t need a ‘Mercedes driver’ who isn’t driving independently for its team.
Yes, we can all draw the easy conclusion that Russell only took the risk he did at Imola because it was Bottas and he wanted to prove a point. He says otherwise and it’s not right to condemn him on an assumption.
There are three fundamental reasons why this criticism is unjustified.
Williams is better for having Russell and will do all it can to keep him for 2022 and beyond
First, and the most obvious, any team who wishes away a top class driver is foolish. And Russell is a top driver.
Having him in the team is in Williams’s best interests and has almost certainly given it stronger results, development and motivation over the last two years or so. Williams knows this otherwise it would have happily let Russell go by now.
The second is that it’s a nonsense claim that his Mercedes-linked presence hurts the team. Williams being a Mercedes customer has far greater potential for political manipulation than housing a Mercedes driver.
Finally, there is simply no evidence that Russell has ever acted selfishly and puts his own ego or interests in front of Williams’s. He talks about Mercedes because he is asked about it directly.
There have been several occasions where he has even stressed his potential Mercedes future is not a priority because he sees himself as a Williams driver until his contract says otherwise.
He says he has Williams’s full support and there is no reason to believe otherwise. The team is better for having him and will do all it can to keep him for 2022 and beyond.
‘He’s choked yet again’
The notion that Russell blows big opportunities and doesn’t have the stomach/judgment/concentration to be a top driver is one my colleague Edd Straw tackled in detail after Russell missed out on chances to get Williams in the points at Mugello (pictured above) and Imola last year.
And the theory lost all credibility in the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix when Russell showed tremendous ability and mental resolve to put in a performance worthy of winning the race on his surprise Mercedes substitute appearance. He’d have won if not for the team’s errors (plural!).
There is admittedly a small pattern of Russell erring on big occasions for Williams. He might well be someone who misjudges the odd risk. No driver’s perfect.
That’ll unfortunately show up more at Williams when those chances are few and far between – but equally one would argue a driver in his position needs to take those risks to make something happen.
The bottom line is while it’s tough in the midfield, there’s nothing like the mental challenge he had at Sakhir and he aced that. So, it’s simply unfair to cast him as someone who couldn’t cut it at the front in F1 when he has already proven he can.
It stings Russell that he has yet to produce points for Williams and the last race was another missed opportunity. He cares about that.
It’s part of why he reacted so emotionally, and kicked off the bulk of this saga, in the first place.