It’s never happened before that Valtteri Bottas’ Mercedes and George Russell’s Williams have been racing for position. Last year the Mercedes averaged 2.2s per lap faster than the Williams and the year before it was 3.5s.
But at Imola on Sunday it happened and even before their collision the fact of their running together was pre-loaded with enormous significance and tension.
There is that prized 2022 Mercedes drive hanging over anything that either Bottas or Russell does on track. If Lewis Hamilton chooses not to retire at the end of this year, there’s only one available seat there between two of them.
Mercedes junior driver Russell will have served a three-year apprenticeship at Williams, having already made a starring stand-in appearance for the main team in which, with no prior preparation, he out-performed Bottas.
With that tantalising opportunity of total career transformation just hanging in the air without any confirmation (as far as we know) from Mercedes that the ’22 seat is Russell’s, of course there’s an element of emotion for him.
He said all the right things a few weeks ago in Bahrain when asked about it: “I will focus on myself and don’t need to be badgering them. In the past I have always tried to make things happen, but it is different now. I have been with Mercedes for six years, they are my second family, and if it happens it will happen naturally.
“It will not be any longer than the summer break [in August] for all parties involved – Mercedes, Williams and for all the drivers – so it is fair on everybody. And unless anything catastrophic happens in the coming six months, Mercedes know the position I am in and the position they are in.
“I am getting stronger year-on-year and I believe I am at a level and ready to be fighting for wins and world championships, but we will have to see.”
But saying it is one thing, actually not letting the possibility of lost opportunity get to you is quite another. Particularly when that opportunity is embodied in the car right ahead of you on track, just there, waiting to be picked off.
Toto Wolff has told Russell he no longer needs to prove anything to Mercedes, that he just should remain patient. But how do you not consider, even in the busy intensity of the cockpit, how impressive it would look for a Williams to overtake a Mercedes? Especially as those championship points remain elusive for him in his third season at Williams, something that clearly irks him.
Then the accident, a DRS run at 220mph and Russell senses Bottas beginning to crowd him out on the damp line and anticipates something that Bottas doesn’t subsequently do, and in moving imposes a lateral load the outer rear tyre wont accept on a damp surface and with no rear wing downforce acting upon it because of the DRS.
There’s the emotion of the big accident, of having been briefly scared. Then there’s the underlying emotion of his whole uncertain career path – and he was angry. The sheen of Russell the squeaky clean head boy always in control dissolved as he remonstrated with Bottas, who was still sitting in his wrecked car.
The anger was still colouring his thinking as he told the TV cameras that “it’s unheard of for a Williams to be fighting a Mercedes”.
“In his eyes, he’s not really fighting for anything. A P9 for him is nothing, but for us it’s everything. I’m going for the move, the move would have been absolutely easy and there’s absolutely no reason to jolt like that… Perhaps if I was another driver, he wouldn’t have done that.”
“Sorry, I lost my aluminium foil hat somewhere,” said a calm Bottas in response to that claim. “It’s quite a theory.”
Sanguine by nature, being the seasoned pro who’s been in the seat for four years only makes Bottas more so. He smiled when asked what the angry Russell had said to him in the aftermath of the crash. “I have no idea what he said. I still had my ear plugs in and helmet on.
“I’m always going to defend to any driver, I’m not keen to lose any positions. That was normal defending; it could have been a lot more aggressive if needed.”
It makes Bottas look the experienced, calm hand and Russell the impetuous youngster, the guy who went for an over-ambitious move and then lost control of his emotions when it didn’t work out.
The other side of the coin of course was the experienced old hand was under-performing and the junior guy arguably over-performing and the incident was the perhaps inevitable outcome.
⚠️ SAFETY CAR (LAP 33/63) ⚠️
Russell and Bottas have a huge coming together into Tamburello and are both out of the race
— Formula 1 (@F1) April 18, 2021
Russell wasn’t the only angry one, of course. Wolff was quietly fuming. He described Russell’s suggestion that Bottas wouldn’t have defended that way against any other driver as “bullshit”, and said Russell lost “global perspective” in going for the move. Yet he also acknowledged Bottas “had a bad first 30 laps and should never have been there”.
Wolff concluded: “I don’t want him [Russell] to try to prove anything to us, because one thing I can say, knowing Valtteri for five years, is that he is not trying to prove anything.”
That direct competition for the seat between specifically these two individuals of course lends a tension to their relationship.
It’s never been a problem on track because the Williams has not been in a position to compete with a Mercedes before. But this year’s Williams is a step change better than the last – both cars got through to Q2 at Imola – and Bottas was struggling badly with tyre temperatures.
It was an embarrassing situation for Bottas to be in, but if you cannot generate the tyre temperatures in the wet you will be whole seconds off the pace – just as he was in a similar situation at Istanbul last year or Nico Rosberg was in the early laps of Monaco 2016.
So Russell, in going for the move he felt he was obliged to – the move that any self-respecting racer would have done, given that he had a run on Bottas and with DRS was travelling around 20mph faster – has possibly placed question marks in Wolff’s head that were not there before. Russell didn’t need to prove anything, but now perhaps he does.
Some thoughts on yesterday: pic.twitter.com/xU07da7DCz
— George Russell (@GeorgeRussell63) April 19, 2021
In the calm light of a new day and a fuller understanding of Wolff’s position, Russell has been contrite.
“I apologise to Valtteri, to my team and to anyone who felt let down by my actions,” he wrote. “That’s not who I am and I expect more from myself, as I know others expect more from me.”
Russell is a world-class driver who could have won a grand prix already in a Mercedes. He knows that and proved it to the world at Sakhir last year. He feels he could be fighting for titles but is in a third year of scrabbling for an elusive solitary point with Williams.
It was perhaps inevitable that given the trigger of racing wheel-to-wheel against the very car he feels should be his, there would be an incident. No matter how mature beyond his years or how many assurances have been made.
He’s probably been held in reserve that extra year too long to keep a lid on the cauldron. That ambition and fire are all part of what makes him the driver he is, the driver that could be fighting for world championships.
As Wolff has said before: “You cannot have bulldogs in the cockpit and expect them to behave like puppies.”
You can train the bulldog to sit and stay when demanded. But is it reasonable to expect him to remain there if a piece of raw steak is waved in front of him?