It was a level of raw aggravation seldom seen in modern Formula One, a scene reflecting the collision of one driver’s wounded pride with the restless ambition of his soon-to-be usurper. When Valtteri Bottas and George Russell speared into each other at 190mph heading towards Tamburello corner, the same stretch of Imola asphalt where Ayrton Senna had lost his life 27 years before, it seemed initially as if the drivers were concerned only for each other’s welfare.
Instead, when Russell strode over to Bottas’ still-smouldering Mercedes, the Finn raised his middle finger, provoking the young Englishman to slap him sarcastically on the head. Amid all the sweetness and light in the paddock here, at last, was some unfiltered malice.
In this one image, we saw the vexed decisions awaiting Mercedes, the seven-time world champions. Come next year, Bottas is almost certain to be replaced in his seat by the 23-year-old Russell, who showed his vast potential by leading long periods of last season’s Sakhir Grand Prix in Lewis Hamilton’s car. But Toto Wolff, Mercedes’ team principal, is keen for any such succession to be amicable. After all, he used to manage Bottas, while he has known Russell since receiving a letter from a once-obscure teenage talent pleading for a break. This unseemly altercation between the pair was a throwback to the many problems he had in prising Hamilton and Nico Rosberg apart. “Not my happiest moment,” the Austrian admitted.
Bottas’ single-finger salute at Russell could only be interpreted as the peevish reaction of a beaten man. In his fifth year in Hamilton’s shadow, he delivered an Imola performance so inadequate that he was about to be overtaken by Russell in a Williams, in a battle for ninth place. This was, it seemed, an indignity too far. As Bottas toiled to defend his line, Russell jinked right, his right-rear tyre veering on to the grass and snapping his car into his rival’s at almost maximum speed, triggering an explosion of carbon fibre and forcing the first red flag of a Grand Prix at Imola since Senna was killed.
A race stoppage in this corner of Italian countryside could hardly fail to evoke traumatic memories. In the circumstances, the first response by both Bottas and Russell should have been one of gratitude that they were not seriously hurt. What saved them was not just the revised Tamburello layout, made less perilous since the terrible events of May 1, 1994, but the vast safety improvements in their car designs. But for the halo constructed around Bottas’ cockpit, Russell’s flying tyre would in all likelihood have connected directly with his skull.
Bottas was clearly winded by the impact, but what hurt him more was his loosening grip over his Mercedes future. After just the second round of a 23-race campaign, his prospects already look cooked. Once, he claimed to be wounded by Wolff’s description of him as a “sensational wingman”. In truth, even this label flatters him. Increasingly, he is little more than a patsy in Hamilton’s tilt at a record eighth world title. On a day when Hamilton made a rare mistake, sliding into a gravel trap and losing a lap’s worth of time, Bottas’ crash brought the red flag that enabled his team-mate not merely to un-lap himself, but to fight back to a second-place finish that protected his championship lead. Never mind wingman, Bottas is effectively acting as Hamilton’s butler, handing him gifts on a platter.
Then again, he is not the only driver to find himself eclipsed within his own team. Where Max Verstappen surged to victory by 22 seconds, his team-mate Sergio Perez, who started on the front row, could finish only 12th after a 10-second stop-go penalty. Such is the intimidation of sharing a garage with the brilliant Dutchman, who so crushed the confidence of Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon that neither lasted more than a season in his company. Perez, for all that he is a wizened veteran of the sport, risks heading the same way before long.
This was a day to demonstrate just how far Verstappen and Hamilton soar above the competition. Where Verstappen controlled the race beautifully, the champion performed a faintly miraculous escape, wedging his front wing into a wall and yet still winding up on the podium. Evidently, their duel in the Bahrain desert was not just some cruel false dawn. Theirs is a rivalry that looks poised to last the course in 2021, to the chagrin of their team-mates but to the immeasurable benefit of their sport.
Telegraph Media Group Limited