F1 needs more of George Russell's raw emotion

F1

George Russell's reaction to his Imola crash was wrong — but we should still encourage more drivers to speak their mind with unfiltered opinions, says Chris Medland

George Russell with helmet on

Williams

I’m going to start this column with a disclaimer: I have never crashed a Formula 1 car at nearly 200mph.

I’ve had plenty of heavy shunts in go-karts, but the one time I’ve been in anything anywhere near properly quick – a Radical around Silverstone – I kept it on the black stuff.

So I certainly don’t have the ability to directly compare what George Russell and Valtteri Bottas will have been feeling when they climbed out of their cars after their huge incident at Imola. But there were things I saw that I liked, and things that I didn’t.

Firstly, the negative. It didn’t look like Russell was heading over to Bottas with anything other than the intention to have a go at him. The first thought didn’t appear to be if the other driver was OK after a crash at such speeds, but it was to remonstrate with him before he could even get out of his car.

I remember being at Spa in 2012 and my initial reaction to the crash between Romain Grosjean, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso being how seismic it was for the championship. I was quickly put in my place by a more seasoned journalist that it was of secondary importance until we’d seen everyone involved was OK. And he was completely right.

Beyond that error from Russell, while I also completely disagree with the rest of his original reaction, I’m actually happy about it. Emotion is what makes sport so compelling, and seeing raw emotion from both drivers – but specifically George – is definitely something that I want to see more of in the future.

For me, there was no sudden jolt to the right from Bottas. A slight drift perhaps as he followed the dry line as he was fully entitled to do, and Russell took all of the risk by going onto the wet part of track on slick tyres in an attempt to overtake. I don’t blame him for trying at all, but in my opinion Bottas is completely blameless that Russell couldn’t pull it off.

A driver speaking their mind is authenticity that people can relate to

As Russell himself put it, there was one dry line, so if Bottas didn’t stick to it his other option was to move onto the wet part of track to allow Russell the safe passage on the dry line and with it the position Bottas is meant to be defending. I would suggest George would have followed the exact same line as Valtteri had the roles been reversed.

But it’s also completely understandable that a driver would be livid and looking for someone to blame after such a huge accident. The adrenaline must be flowing through your body, you’ve just seen a potentially massive result disappear in an instant and you will likely have feared for your life for at least a split second. If your initial reaction was that the other driver triggered it, then a light tap on the helmet after being given the middle finger was actually quite restrained…

After that, Russell dug himself a bit of a hole as he tried to make sense of what had happened. He was so steadfast in his belief that he had been innocent in the incident that he made a pretty strong accusation that Bottas had shown no respect and raced him differently to anyone else – inferring that it is because Russell is a candidate for a future Mercedes seat.

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Again, I totally disagree, but it’s great that we have the chance to do so. A driver speaking their mind, essentially broadcasting their thoughts without filter and working things out as they go along is an honest representation of themselves. It’s authenticity that people can relate to, and even if you felt Russell was to blame, it’s better that he was strong in his own belief and voiced them than offered PR responses and didn’t address what happened.

It will have led to an uncomfortable 24 hours for the Williams driver, though, as Toto Wolff was clearly in no mood to try and be overly diplomatic himself when Russell’s comments were put to him. Describing the suggestion that Bottas defended differently against Russell as “bullshit”, Wolff even went further to suggest it should have been the junior driver taking a different approach against the senior team.

And this is where I sway back onto the side of Russell, who is fully entitled to race every single car on the grid in the same manner in order to try and secure the best result for his employers. Imagine if he backed out of a move and followed Bottas around just because it was a Mercedes, jeopardising Williams’ chance of scoring points for the first time in nearly two years. Potentially then Russell would be accused of being weak and not having the instinct needed to secure the best results if he was driving a Mercedes?

That scenario would also have the complete opposite impact to what is needed from a sporting point of view, removing the sort of battle that gets fans excited and engaged.

George Russell in MErcedes race suit at the 2020 Sakhir Grand prix

Russell has eyes on a Mercedes seat for 2022

Tolga Bozoglu/Getty Images

The fact Russell has since come out and apologised is really interesting, because for a spell on Sunday it felt like he wouldn’t back down. His post-race media session – after a trip to the stewards – saw him row back a little bit and say Bottas was within his rights to defend hard but that he should have had more respect, while he also suggested an unseen camera angle backed up his original opinion.

So the apology could just be a case of everyone cooling down, Russell looking at the data and footage and deciding that actually there was nothing wrong with Bottas’ actions, even if he himself would have tried the same move every time. Or it could be because of Wolff’s reaction and comments.

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“I keep teasing him [Russell] saying if he does a good job he can be in a Mercedes, if not we will be in the Renault Clio Cup,” Wolff joked immediately after the race. “Today we are more close to the Renault Clio Cup.”

It was tongue-in-cheek, but it highlights where Wolff thinks a good portion of the blame lay, and also serves as a reminder to Russell about who has control of his future career. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who was right or wrong, what matters to Russell is what Mercedes thinks if he wants to be in that car one day.

Perhaps that was the catalyst for the apology, as Russell said he has “learned some tough lessons this weekend and will come out of this a better driver and a better person for the experience”.

I might not have agreed with his view originally, but they were honest, blunt opinions and emotions that he showed, and I hope the lessons he has learned won’t prevent him – or any other driver – from doing the same in the future.