BEHIND THE HEADLINES – Emilia-Romagna – Tensions or friction at Mercedes?

Behind The Headlines Features

Sunday’s race at Imola proved to be another dramatic race and another race remembered for a crash between two Mercedes drivers this time Valtteri Bottas and the team’s junior driver George Russell. This became one of the defining moments in the battle between Max Verstappen and Sir Lewis Hamilton.

Bottas v Russell

On lap thirty-four, Bottas and Russell collided while fighting for ninth place as the Williams driver was trying to overtake the Mercedes into Tamburello, he was then pushed to the inside of the circuit it looks to me as he got a rear tyre onto the white line or grass then that made him turn into Bottas.

Bottas may have squeaked Russell and may have not known how close they were, he moved to the left to try and avoid a collision. Russell was the one more responsible for the incident, but to me, I still think it was a bit of both as the stewards ruled the crash as a racing incident in which neither driver was predominantly at fault.

Russell had claimed in the immediate aftermath of the incident, that Bottas had broken a gentleman’s agreement between the drivers about moving in the braking zone, he withdrew the comment on Tuesday.

Asked by Motorsport.com if he had broken any gentleman’s agreement, Bottas replied: “No, I don’t see it that way at all. I didn’t make any sudden moves. I think it’s quite clear from his onboard as well, I always left a space.”

But it is clear that in hindsight Mercedes believe Russell was predominantly responsible for the incident, with CEO and team principal Toto Wolff suggesting that he should not have tried to overtake Bottas where he did. Russell had a difficult position; he was racing for the points which Williams need while being not too much of an opposition to the works Mercedes.

We have seen at the height of the Hamilton/Rosberg battle how quickly things can get out of control and lead to accidents like that. But its looks likely if anything were to happen with Bottas or Hamilton he would likely be the replacement, there will however be some questions about whether this incident could mean that a Bottas/Russell line up won’t happen? I don’t see who else is seen as a replacement unless Mercedes decide to go outside their driver programme.

The red flag following the accident also I think played a role in Hamilton’s recovery drive, the seven-time champion had a difficult race after dropped back following a rare mistake at Acque Minerali when he slid off in the wet. That mistake dropped him down the field, but he was able to work his way up to second for the second race start following the red flag.

We know that Bottas’s seasons in the past have begun to unravel following races as we saw in Imola, but it’s only round two and there is a long way to go in this championship. The Finn knows he is up against Russell when it comes to the future of the second seat, we need to wait and see how this plays out through the rest of the season.

Hamilton seems to me to have a decent relationship with Russell, on Instagram he posted a message saying, ‘don’t beat yourself up, and learn from your mistakes.’ So does that dismiss the report of a clause in his contract giving him a say over teammates?

Mercedes also has a history with the Hamilton-Rosberg rivalry which Wolff not that long ago described as ‘a psychodrama no one could understand’. If they do pair Bottas-Russell or Hamilton-Russell together, how will they avoid a repeat for the psychodrama, as I believe that Russell will be competitive against whoever is his teammate.

For both the teams repairing the damage could be costly as we have the budget cap, Wolff described the damage to the Mercedes as “almost a write-off.”

Mercedes also know they are in what is shaping up to be a close battle with Red Bull and cannot afford these crashes or having their cars in the lower end of the points even at this early phase.

Williams we know are targeting certain races for the bulk of their points this season, Imola was one of them. Nicolas Latifi retiring on the opening lap, first after going off at Acque Minerale and then as he re-joined, he clipped the unsighted Nikita Mazepin, which speared the Canadian into the wall.

Pointless on what should have been one of their stronger weekends of the season.

Are Mercedes behind?

Mercedes still believing they are still behind on outright car performance this year, despite the team-leading both drivers’ and constructors’ championships after the opening two rounds of the season. There is now a point between Max Verstappen and Sir Lewis Hamilton in the drivers’ championship, while Red Bull is seven points behind Mercedes in the constructors’ standings.

Mercedes struggled for performance at the opening round in Bahrain, qualifying 0.4s off Verstappen, but still won the race thanks to a superior tyre strategy. In his debrief trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin believes the Mercedes W11 is still a slower car than the Red Bull even though Hamilton went on to set the fastest lap as he recovered from ninth place to second following his spin.

They say their data suggest they are between two and a half to three tenths off, it appears from Shovlin’s comments that they believe there is a fine line between themselves and Red Bull. Saying “we might have had the faster car by a small amount. We are walking away from here saying, we are not good enough and they will win the championship if we don’t improve our car very quickly.”

There is no doubt in my mind that Red Bull are faster than last year, but the question is can they constantly turn that into wins or splitting the two Mercedes we may

Norris shines

Lando Norris was another winner in that crazy race earning third and his second podium and top-four finish of the season, which has allowed him to move into third in the driver’s championship. In the first two races have proved the McLaren driver looks to have made the next step.

Norris was voted driver of the day, following the deletion on Saturday of his fastest time was deleted for track limits, he was quick enough for third on the grid. But it was either going to be a race where he would have been hero or zero, but he was able to chase after Hamilton and pass him for third.

He also managed to keep the two Ferrari’s behind him following the restart, Andreas Seidl said earlier in the week, “Lando is flying at the moment, he’s definitely made the next step as a driver also. Already in Bahrain, you could see that he definitely made the next step, as a person.”

Norris was aware going into this season and his third full year he was needing to step up, and that was partly because of his experienced new teammate Daniel Ricciardo and the fact he is in his third season.

In Bahrain, I agree with Seidl we saw a new version of Norris, but he needs to keep the momentum going and it could have been a whole different story following qualifying. Norris could be the natural successor to Hamilton, but he will face this battle to be the next British star with Russell to be that successor.

Hamilton the statesman

Hamilton took on the role of mentor and consoled both Russell and Norris on Instagram, I think as we have said since the start of the pandemic, he has been the sports leader both morally and supported younger drivers when they have had difficult weekends.

Following the Russell-Bottas crash, he replied to the young brit, “Strength comes from vulnerability. If you don’t make the mistake you can never learn the lesson. Respect for taking responsibility. On to the next one.”

He is I think learning about the multiple ways he can use his platform for supporting his fellow drivers, Hamilton I think has learned from the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement about his wider responsibilities.

Ferrari heading in the right direction

Last year’s Italian races were dreadful for Ferrari, but Charles Leclerc charged to fourth in qualifying and that was one of the surprises proving they are going in the right direction. The restart was easily the riskiest moment in that race, but they weren’t able to sustain the race pace after the red flag.

Ferrari, I think have better performance from the power from the engine, but we cannot conclude that for certain until after Barcelona because Bahrain was a night race and Imola isn’t a power circuit.

They also benefited from the struggles Alpine and Aston Martin, are facing in the early part of the year, as well as the missed chances for Alpha Tauri, who may be its closest rival for pure pace, in the early part of the year. But you still need to believe that there will be challenges throughout the season for Ferrari.

The team scored their first consecutive double points score since Japan-Mexico 2019, although Carlos Sainz says he was “quite frustrated”. It was a good race for the Spaniard who made up six places in the race, also benefitting from the Bottas-Russell collision.

He said “went out, I started pushing the car, they told me the lap times, they told me I was one of the quickest guys out there. But at the same time, I was doing my mistakes and finding my feet, so I was doing a bit of a test session in the wet, you know? I had fun, I must say I enjoyed, but at the same time I was quite frustrated with it.”

Sainz also had his trips into the gavel, however he said following Bahrain he needed to take more risks.

Another double point score for Ferrari saw them leave their home race with 22 points, putting them fourth in the championship and as Portugal hosts the third round of just seven points behind McLaren in the standings.

Jack

Jack is responsible for the day-to-day running of Formula One Vault. He brings you all the brilliant content. Has an obsession with all things Formula One and anything with an engine.