Valtteri Bottas and George Russell spat at Imola was good sign for Formula One

The Emilia Romagna Grand Prix gave us tantalising glimpse of new all-action F1

Formula One is rarely so fantastical these days there are any real surprises. But just lately it has been marching among the landmines in hobnailed boots.

Thirty years with a magnifying glass hovering over the inner machinations of some of the most ruthless characters in world sport (and I don’t mean just the drivers) has encompassed most sporting evils. And then some.

Fixed races, sackings, betrayals, £50 million ($69m) fines, bans, team orders, fights, spying. Yesterday’s bitter enemy signing a record new contract. F1 has had it all. Well almost.

On the bright side, the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola gave us a tantalising glimpse of a new all-action F1.

There was an amuse bouche for fans as Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton (sorry, Sir Lewis) went wheel to wheel for the first few hundred yards and clashed. Then the champion skidded off. Neither of those came as a surprise.

His faithful No 2 Valtteri Bottas was involved in a 200mph prang with the man most likely to be his replacement or his team leader next year, George Russell.

The Brit rushed a pass on Bottas, misjudged, triggering a mighty smash that spun on long enough to read War and Peace.

Miraculously no-one was hurt but furious Russell – usually the personification of British restraint – marched over to Bottas, still sitting in the smoking wreckage of his car, screamed in his rival’s face and “pushed” him across the helmet (in non-Russell English that means ‘slapped’).

Still not a surprise. Nor would it have were they rolling in the dirt, fists swinging.

Bottas, normally a model of Finnish restraint, contented himself with a one finger salute.

Just fantastic. I love all that. Proper rivalry. A colleague recently lamented the absence of “real characters” but an anodyne sport will do that.

Somehow F1 had taken the rivalry out of being a rival. Not any more. Imola confirmed it was is a proper sport once again.

Russell and Bottas added another silky weave to the rich tapestry of growing personal rivalries up and down the grid that can only enrich the racing. But no surprise there either.

What did surprise me was Mercedes boss Toto Wolff lashing out at Russell afterwards.

“George should have never launched into this manoeuvre. It meant taking risks, and the other car is a Mercedes in front of him. In any driver’s development, for a young driver, you must never lose this global perspective. So yeah, lots to learn for him I guess.”

Wolff was implying Russell, as a Mercedes junior driver, should not have been thinking about his duty to Williams but the ‘greater good’, the ‘global perspective’. By that he evidently meant the interests of his paymasters in Germany.

I guess, Toto, you also meant rather than his obligation to the sport, its fans and himself, Russell should have been a subservient Mercedes underling and know his place?

Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas and Williams' George Russell during the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix. Reuters
Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas and Williams' George Russell during the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix. Reuters

Russell apologised for his heated over-reaction to Bottas but argued he was not wrong in the attempt to overtake (isn’t that what he’s paid to do?) but in the execution.

I know Wolff and I like the man. He’s a genuine nice guy, has been a respectable racer and morphed into a formidable businessman with a personal fortune conservatively put at £300m.

He doesn’t get it wrong often. But sorry, Toto, this time you have. Dead wrong. Badly wrong.

The day a driver is competing for anything but himself and his team is the day he ceases to be a proper racing driver.

Jackie Stewart once famously asked Ayrton Senna about his growing tally of accidents.

Absolutely affronted, Senna said: “If you no longer go for a gap you are no longer a racing driver. We are competing to win and the main motivation for all of us is to compete for a victory, not for third fourth, fifth or sixth.”

The risk of an accident, he argued, was the cost of admission.

Were Russell to accept any other target than winning I imagine he would not be in Wolff’s stable. And would Wolff be happy if Hamilton looked at the ‘global picture’ (i.e. his looming retirement) and ease off the loud pedal for the rest of his career? Of course not.

As he plans for a post-Lewis world how can the Mercedes boss expect Russell to be any different?

Russell has already apologised to Bottas and hopefully Wolff may reflect and accept that in his heart of hearts he knows he got it wrong this time.

More concerning is the lack of consistency of Race Director Michael Masi.

In the opening race at Bahrain, it was the Turn 4 call over Hamilton and Verstappen. At Imola, Hamilton was allowed to get away with reversing (yes reversing) back on to the track in mid-GP.

In what universe is that not so criminally dangerous it’s worthy of an instant exclusion? If that isn’t a rule already it should become one this week.

Both fundamental race-deciding actions Masi got wrong.

At this weekend's Portuguese Grand Prix, Portimao’s ribbon of tarmac rises and falls like the rabid ocean on a bad day around the Cape of Good Hope, thrashing this way and that over blind crests and fast double-apex corners.

It’s thrilling and wonderful but horribly dangerous for cars this fast and with an already feverish atmosphere drivers need bastions of the sport like Wolff and Masi to be thinking straight.

Bahrain GP gallery

Published: April 28, 2021 09:27 AM

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