Big accidents often come with big consequences in Formula One.
Fortunately, George Russell and Valtteri Bottas walked away unharmed from their 190 mph collision at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, but that didn’t stop egos being bruised in the aftermath.
The accident, which was deemed to be a racing incident by the stewards, would not have been such a big talking point had it occurred between two other drivers, but given Bottas’ position at Mercedes is under threat from Russell next year, there is juicy subplot that couldn’t be ignored on Sunday evening.
Russell is a Williams driver this year but is contracted to Mercedes on a long-term development contract that will almost certainly see him race for world champions in the future. A large part of his junior career was also funded by Mercedes.
The pair were teammates for a single race last year when Lewis Hamilton missed the Sakhir Grand Prix with COVID-19, and by almost all accounts Russell came out on top.
In that context, it’s easier to understand why tempers flared in the aftermath.
Below, we analyse the accident itself and how both drivers, Mercedes and the stewards reacted to the incident.
The collision itself was fairly straightforward to understand.
Russell, who was running tenth in his Williams, got a better exit from the final corner on the previous lap and, with the help of his car’s Drag Reduction System (DRS), was able to close on Bottas and line up an overtaking move on the run down to the Tamburello chicane at the start of lap 31.
The Willaims is not usually fast enough to fight against a Mercedes, but Russell switched to new slick tyres two laps earlier than Bottas and the extra tyre temperature he had generated in his Pirellis at that point helped level the playing field.
Bottas knew Russell was attacking as they started a new lap and held his line through the kink on the run down to the Tamburello chicane.
The Mercedes driver complied with the regulations by leaving a car’s width to his right, but as the track kinked to the left, the space open to Russell was always going to become smaller.
Significantly, the track was still damp off the racing line, meaning Russell would have to venture onto a wet part of the track on slick tyres to complete the move.
With the DRS flap on his rear wing open, his car had less downforce than normal and his slick tyres lost traction as he crossed onto the white line marking the edge of the circuit, which was wet and slippery.
The loss of traction from the right rear wheel, pitched the Williams sideways and directly into the side of Bottas’ Mercedes.
Russell’s left front tyre mounted the side of Bottas’ car, but was stopped from entering the cockpit by the Mercedes’ halo, which appeared to come under considerable force as Russell’s front left upright snapped against it.
From that point onwards the two cars were out of control and hit the barrier on the left before coming to a halt with another big hit against the barrier at Tamburello.
Both cars were immediately out of the race, which itself was suspended to allow the marshals to clear up the mess.
Russell unbuckled his seat belts, got out of his Williams and immediately marched towards Bottas’ car.
He leant over the cockpit of the Mercedes and, blaming Bottas for the collision, asked whether the Finn was trying to kill them both.
Bottas claimed he did not hear what Russell said and instead opted for non-verbal communication by flicking his middle finger at the Williams driver.
Russell walked away, using his right hand to slap the side of Bottas’ helmet as he did so — something Bottas later said he didn’t even notice at the time.
Who was to blame?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two drivers blamed each other.
Opinions on the accident varied throughout the paddock, but the ones with the power to bring about sporting sanctions, the FIA’s race stewards, decided neither driver was wholly or predominantly to blame and took no further action.
“Car 63 [Russell] approached car 77 [Bottas] to pass after the front straight a few laps after the restart when DRS had recently been enabled,” the stewards explained. “Car 77 maintained his line throughout the incident along the right hand side of the dry line, leaving at least a full car’s width to the right at all times.
“Car 63 approached with a significant speed advantage. He moved to pass on the right. As the cars approached the kink of Turn 1, the gap between them and the right hand side of the track decreased.
“At no time did either car manoeuvre erratically. The track appeared to be not especially wet through Turn 1 but at the point of closest approach to the right hand side of the track, the right hand side tyres of Car 63 hit an especially damp patch and the car snap yawed, bearing in mind that the car had low downforce in the rear with the DRS open.
“The stewards conclude that the accident was a racing incident considering the conditions and take no further action.”
Perhaps the only opinion of more consequence than the stewards’ was that of Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff.
Wolff ultimately holds the futures of both drivers in his hands, and while a single accident is unlikely to change the course of those futures, it’s never a good idea to anger the boss.
On the one hand, Bottas, driving a Mercedes, should never have been in a position where he was coming under threat from a Williams.
The only explanation for his lowly position midway through the race was that both Mercedes drivers were struggling with the warm-up of the tyres in the cold conditions, and Bottas was caught out while getting his tyres up to temperature after his pit stop.
But compare his performance to Hamilton’s and you realise Bottas should have been fighting Red Bulls for position, not a Williams.
Yet it is Russell who was in a position to avoid the accident itself by backing off, and it appeared as though most of Wolff’s disappointment rested on him.
“There is never such a situation in life where one is 100 percent to blame and the other zero,” Wolff said. “The whole situation should have never happened.
“Valtteri had a bad first 30 laps and should have never been in that position, but George should never have launched into this manoeuvre considering that the track was drying up — it meant taking risk and the other car in front of him was Mercedes.
“Any driver development, any young driver, must never lose this global perspective. Lots to learn for him I guess.
“You need to see that there is a Mercedes and it’s wet, so there is a certain risk to overtake and the odds are against him anyway when the track is drying up.
“I don’t want him 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.”
What did the drivers say once the dust had settled?
The immediate reaction from the has already been widely reported.
In summary, Russell felt Bottas had moved across on him and caused the collision. Bottas felt he left Russell enough space and the Williams driver should have exercised more caution.
But both drivers completed secondary media commitments once tempers had been allowed to cool.
These comments are perhaps more interesting at they offered Russell and Bottas an opportunity to react to earlier statements, show contrition if they felt necessary or go all-in on their original assessment.
What did George Russell say?
On his conversations with Bottas after the accident
“Well Valtteri and I have seen each other with the stewards, I suspect it will be deemed a racing incident, and that’s how we both saw it.
“Valtteri and I will talk afterwards and will clear the air.
“In the heat of the moment there is a lot of emotions, but I’ve got no intentions to hold any grudges or have any bad relationship with any driver on the grid.
“It’s in my intention to clear the air with him, I’m sure we’ll have a phone call with him this week to put it behind us and move on.
“We’re all racers, we’re all battling for position, and in the moment it is incredibly disappointing, sore, for all of us, and your heat stops for a moment when you crash at over 200mph. You just don’t know what’s going to happen.
“My anger towards him at the time was more because, I thought, he put us both in harm’s way and it was an incredibly scary incident at that speed.
“Fortunately, we both walked away with it without battle scars but obviously it could have been very different.”
On how it could impact his relationship with Wolff and Mercedes
“It’s not going to harm my relationship with Mercedes at all, I’ve already spoken with them, and there’s understanding from both sides.
“At the end of the day, the move was absolutely on, we were only three-quarters of the way down the straight and that would have been a clear easy simple overtake had it not been a little bit damp at that point.
“The point I pulled out it wasn’t damp, the track was going left, I was squeezed slightly to the right, and that’s where the dampness was.
“Should I have reacted how I did afterwards in the heat of the moment? Probably not no, but as I said the emotions are incredibly high. We exchanged words and that’s it.”
On Wolff’s comments that he should have acted differently knowing he was racing a Mercedes
“Well I’ve never been in a position where I’m fighting against a Mercedes, Williams has not been there in probably five years, so it’s not even crossed my mind how I would fight against a Mercedes.
“As I said it was not a reckless move, the move was totally on, Valtteri defended hard and he was fair to do so. We were three-quarters of a way down the so-called straight, it wasn’t like I lunged from 20m back and crashed into the side of him.
“It was unfortunate, the incident would not have happened if it wasn’t damp and the DRS was closed. So it was just an unfortunate set of circumstances which could have been avoided.
“Was Valtteri in the wrong? Probably not. Could he have done something slightly more? Maybe. Was I in the wrong? I caused the crash by spinning, but was I wrong to go for the overtake? Absolutely not.
“You’d have been foolish to lift at that position.”
On the exchange in the gravel trap and slapping Bottas’ helmet
“Slap is a very strong word. It was nothing more than a brush. I doubt he even felt it. “It was more of a ‘what are you doing?’ I’m sure maybe a footballer would have reacted in a very different way but there was nothing menacing there, almost as if you’re throwing your arms in the air.”
What did Valtteri Bottas say?
On Russell’s assertion that Bottas behaved differently because his position at Mercedes could be under threat next year
“Sorry, I lost my aluminium foil hat somewhere.
“You know, I’m always going to defend against any driver and I’m not keen to lose positions. That was normal defending and it could have been a lot more aggressive, so I don’t agree with any of that at all.
“I was doing my thing and no matter who I was defending against it would have been the same.
“Obviously, he knew exactly what line I was going to take there because we did it lap after lap and I knew as well, and there is no place to go in those conditions on slicks and he still went there, which was his choice to go there.
“I was doing my job in trying to defend and I am not going to move away and give him the dry part of the track. That’s how it goes.”
On Wolff appearing to put more of the blame on Russell
“I don’t want to speak about our private discussions with Toto, but the feeling is I’m not the one to blame.
“The main thing we need to focus on is why I was in that position.
“I had quite a struggle in the first stint being stuck behind Lance [Stroll] on the intermediate [tyre] section of the race, and when I stopped [for slick tyres] I had pressure from the guys behind who stopped earlier and got their tyres working already.
“That was, I would say, the bigger issue.”
On his relationship with Russell
“I’ve never really worked that closely with him, but obviously he’s been around for some time because he’s been the reserve driver and done some testing for the team.
“I know him a little bit, but there have never been any issues.
“In terms of this one, obviously I was not happy with how it ended up. But I’m an easygoing guy, so there are no problems.
“But I can’t say I’m friends with him, like I can’t say I’m friends with most or any of the drivers really.
“From my side, no issues but today was not ideal because he made me lose a good chunk of points potentially today and it was his mistake.”
Should the DRS have been available to Russell?
One clear factor at play was that Russell spun because he had his DRS open and less rear downforce acting on his car when crossed the wet patch.
The DRS is fitted to all cars but can only be used in a race in certain sections of the circuit, usually long straights, when a driver is within a second of the car in front.
It works by opening a flap in the rear wing, which cuts aerodynamic drag, increases top speed but also cuts rear downforce.
The idea is to encourage more overtaking by giving the following car a straight-line speed advantage.
The system is disabled by race control in wet conditions because of the rear instability it can create, and is also disabled for the first two laps after the start or a mid-race restart.
Ahead of Sunday’s accident, the DRS had just been reactivated following the wet start to the race and Russell was entitled to use it to try to pass Bottas.
However, there was a question afterwards as to whether the track conditions were ready for DRS to be used.
“Probably in hindsight, given the conditions, given the circuit — that the straight is not straight — the DRS probably should not have been activated,” Russell said.
“I would not have [spun] if I was in the exact same position with DRS closed. So I highlighted that may be one for the future.”
Race director Michael Masi reacted by defending his decision.
“Having looked at it at the time, it’s obviously something we were monitoring closely,” Masi said. “But, to be fair there was a number of DRS overtakes that were completed successfully before and after.
“No, I don’t think it was [allowed to be used too early]. Looking at all of the footage, the track was all fine from our perspective and no issues on that end.”
Will there be any ramifications?
Although no sporting penalty was applied following the incident, it was clear Wolff was not happy that two Mercedes-contracted drivers collided.
It seems like Russell will be blamed internally, but Wolff has not indicated that any repercussions will follow.
The futures of the two drivers are much more likely to hinge more on their general performance over the rest of the season than one unfortunate racing incident on a damp track.
What’s more, due to the performance difference between the two cars, it seems unlikely that they will be racing each other again later in the year, so there is little chance of a repeat.
However, the lost points could prove damaging for both Mercedes’ and Williams’ positions in the constructors’ championship at the end of the year.
A team’s finishing position in the championship is directly linked to prize money and Mercedes is facing a tight battle with Red Bull, while Williams’ point-scoring opportunities have been rare in recent seasons.
But there could also be another knock-on effect for Mercedes.
Bottas’ chassis appears to be a write-off after the accident, meaning Mercedes will likely have to manufacturer a new one along with all the other broken parts.
In 2019, Mercedes laid out the cost of repairs in a social media post after both cars crashed at the German Grand Prix, saying it varies from accident to accident but on average a big shunt would result in a £300,000 ($420,000) repair bill.
It may seem like part of the risk of being a racing team, but the introduction of a $145 million cost cap this year means crashes are now harder felt among the top teams.
An outfit like Mercedes has had to slash its development budget already to comply with the budget cap, but added repair bills only put extra strain on its $145 million budget.
All teams will have set aside money for replacement parts this year — and some designs have been modified specifically to keep production costs down — but several big accidents could ultimately impact the development budget later in the year.
“If you have a series of these large accidents that do significant damage — and this has been bad for us because we’ve had a front wing damaged with Lewis as well — then that will definitely exceed our allocation of what we have available to spend on replacement parts,” Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin said after the race.
“In an ideal world, you run them to life and don’t break them, and anything you do break it is end of life or something that is about to be obsolete — but that is definitely not the case here.
“So, it is a factor of the cost cap that the money has got to come from somewhere and if it is a big problem it can’t start to hit your development budget, so we do need to be mindful of that going forward.”
Given that the accident was avoidable and Mercedes is in an incredibly tight fight with Red Bull this year, it’s no surprise Wolff was so angry after the race.
“It’s quite a big shunt,” Wolff said. “Our car is a write-off and in a cost-cap environment that is certainly not what we needed, and it’s probably going to limit the upgrades that we are able to do.
“Simply, the fact that we ended there by losing it on the wet — because there was no contact before that, it was losing it on the wet — making both cars crash out, it is not what I expect to see.”
The F1 season continues with the Portuguese Grand Prix on May 2.