Martin Brundle: The promise of an F1 battle for the ages and Imola’s George Russell-Valtteri Bottas crash

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Old school track, old school race. Changeable weather, great duel, big crashes, mistakes which were going to be firmly punished, brakes on fire, changing phases of the grand prix, and jeopardy throughout. Joy and frustration in equal measures.

This Hamilton/Verstappen battle is going to be season long and, as we know from history, when two top drivers fight like this they somehow transcend to an even higher plane. The focus from driver and team alike becomes so intense and concentrated.

There will be 20+ points available for fastest lap this year, and Lewis leads the championship by that single point from Imola, which was a net two points in reality as he stole it from Max V. That summarises how close this battle could be in the next few months.

If it was one-nil to Hamilton from the opener in Bahrain, it was one-all after Verstappen muscled his way into the lead in turn two at the start of the race.

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Take a closer look at the race start as Lewis Hamilton dropped down to second behind Max Verstappen

Take a closer look at the race start as Lewis Hamilton dropped down to second behind Max Verstappen

In the end he would win serenely by 22 seconds having survived a half spin while preparing for a restart using that deft touch on the brakes and just the right amount of steering angle which saves him from time to time. A masterclass drive on the most challenging of days.

But he didn’t run and hide in the early stages as they quickly turned it into a two-horse race, indeed Hamilton appeared to be the faster driver just before the pit stops on lap 27 triggered by Red Bull. Hamilton pitted a lap later but a slow-ish stop meant that Verstappen maintained the lead.

Not sure what’s going on with Mercedes stops of late, they normally avoid headline pit-stop times for consistently solid stops, but we’ve seen several problems over the last few races.

It would soon all kick-off big time, and ironically Mercedes along with their protege George Russell would be the entire cause of that phase.

Lewis was lapping George at Tosa hairpin, the Williams stayed right allowing Lewis space up the inside but on the damp side of the track. Should the lapped car move offline onto the damp track? Not really. But Lewis was unlucky with some brake locking which walked him into the gravel trap and towards the barrier.

F1 cars feel simply awesome at 200 mph but clumsy as hell at 0 mph. Finding reverse is not the work of a moment, clutch paddles are on the back of a rotating wheel, you can’t see out properly, and the steering lock is hopeless due to the wide front wheels and suspension geometry.

It looked a bit silly when Lewis accelerated forward into the barriers and broke his front wing, and it was to some extent, but of course he knows well you have to keep your driven wheels out of the gravel if at all possible otherwise you’re beached and heading for an early shower.

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Lewis Hamilton slides off into the gravel while running second and hits the barrier but manages to reverse and continue with his race

Lewis Hamilton slides off into the gravel while running second and hits the barrier but manages to reverse and continue with his race

Then with radio advice from his team as to the oncoming traffic he reversed across the old and so more compressed gravel trap, momentarily turning his car into front wheel drive. Situation saved but wing broken and surely only a few points available to him from there if he was lucky.

Except Russell was launching a remarkable DRS assisted overtake in his Williams on Valtteri Bottas in the sister works Mercedes down the pit straight. Given the sizeable shunt which followed the significance of that overtake for position inside the top 10 was probably lost. George was having a very strong race.

It was a crash which fits into the category of ‘I’m surprised that doesn’t happen more often’. The track had a defined dry line with moisture present on both sides, and turn one is simply a left-hand kink. Bottas wanted to stay on the dry line, that’s totally his prerogative as long as he left space either side, which he did.

It’s likely that Russell consciously or sub-consciously really wanted to pass the car which he is hoping to be driving next year with a touch of red mist involved. But he’s also a racer and had the due track position, slipstream and closing speed.

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George Russell and Valtteri Bottas have a huge coming together which brought out the safety car and left both cars out of the race

George Russell and Valtteri Bottas have a huge coming together which brought out the safety car and left both cars out of the race

With the aero balance forward due to the DRS rear wing being open, the curvature of the track, and driving onto the wetter part, his wheels spun up and he speared into the side of Bottas triggering a huge amount of damage. It was the second Williams smashed to pieces after Nicholas Latifi had connected with Nikita Mazepin on the opening lap.

I agree with the stewards that it was largely a racing incident given the track conditions. I can’t see any blame for Bottas, and Russell needs to carefully consider if he should have seen the peril unfolding, backed out and waited for a less risky move, and also how he behaved after the shunt with his words and actions.

He’s a young feisty racer seizing a passing opportunity, and you absolutely wouldn’t want to knock that out of him, but especially up against a works Mercedes he needed to consider the bigger picture and play the percentage game more carefully.

Toto Wolff effectively controls both their careers and so I imagine that was an interesting conversation…

2:51
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff felt that both George Russell and Valtteri Bottas must take some responsibility for their huge collision

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff felt that both George Russell and Valtteri Bottas must take some responsibility for their huge collision

Lewis got lucky with a safety car here late last year and now once again the red flag to clear up the mess from Bottas and Russell played into his hands by allowing damage to be repaired, some fresh tyres (like everyone else) and to unlap himself (along with the other lapped runners).

The rules allow for lapped cars to unlap themselves, by one lap and return to the back of the field, under a safety car and red flags so that on the restart they are not in the mix with the leaders thereby denying us of say a great duel in the closing stages of the race.

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What goes around comes around for teams and drivers in this respect, sometimes it will help you, sometimes it will hurt you. It seems unfair in some respects, but we have seen the rule really energise races and bring drivers back into play.

Lewis didn’t waste his gift-wrapped opportunity as he sliced through to second place and fastest lap. When I interviewed him post-race it was clear that the error when passing Russell played heavily on his mind.

Lando Norris is in tremendous form for McLaren, and once the team moved his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo over then Norris took off. He also made a set of soft compound tyres finish the remainder of the race very well, handling pressure well from Hamilton for several laps and keeping the two Ferraris nicely at bay.

A thoroughly well-earned podium and a ‘driver of the day’ badge.

Charles Leclerc did a fine job for Ferrari all weekend, and his team-mate Carlos Sainz eventually had a strong race after a lacklustre qualifying and too many errors on the cold damp conditions, matching his team-mate for pace in the closing stages to finish a second and a half behind him.

Ferrari really are back in the mix near the front.

4:32
Sky F1’s Anthony Davidson analyses a day to forget for Sergio Perez at the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix

Sky F1’s Anthony Davidson analyses a day to forget for Sergio Perez at the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix

Ricciardo finished 27 seconds behind Norris and he has some work to do to get dialled in to the McLaren car and team. But if he was disappointed it was nothing like the misery for Bottas at Mercedes and Sergio Perez at Red Bull who have to watch their two title rivals peerlessly disappear into the distance finding grip and confidence which doesn’t seem available to them.

Both need strong races in Portugal and Spain coming right up, as do the likes of Seb Vettel at Aston Martin.

The final results were issued at 20.55 on Sunday night as the stewards waded through the many enquiries for misdemeanours and rule breaches, elevating the likes of Fernando Alonso, who had an anonymous weekend by his standards, into the points after they had left the track. Raikkonen, Stroll and Tsunoda were on the receiving end of the rule breaches.

Stayed tuned, we are in for a classic season.

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