Is George Russell’s aggressive driving the sign of a top driver maturing?

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After the tense championship-deciding race at Suzuka, you would have been forgiven for doubting COTA could deliver a show of similar excitement, and yet deliver it did. With a fantastic fight between Hamilton and Verstappen for first, wheel-to-wheel racing between Verstappen and Leclerc, and Alonso going airborne and still managing to finish seventh, it’s safe to say Austin delivered what everyone wanted: good, close racing.

It was a disappointing day out for Carlos Sainz, however, as a George Russell shaped torpedo saw the Ferrari driver — who had been set to finish in a top position after taking pole on Saturday — retire from the race after only a single corner of racing. 

Only seconds after the race began, Russell locked up going into the first corner and drove straight into the side of Sainz, sending him spinning out of the race. After analysis, Russell was given a five second penalty. He quickly issued an apology to Sainz after the race, stating “you never want to be involved in an incident that ultimately destroys somebody else’s race.”

While it is clear Russell regrets the incident, it has provoked some comparisons between Russell’s driving style to a younger Max Verstappen, with some starting to see a similar level of recklessness and aggression. Every driver in F1 has been involved in their fair share of contact and crashes on the track, is it fair to single these two drivers out compared to the others? And are their driving styles so similar?

In his first years at Williams, Russell had very few incidents worth note, if any. However, this is likely more down to the fact that the Williams car was so uncompetitive he was very rarely competing with any other driver bar his teammate. In the last few years, however, with improvements at Williams and his move to Mercedes this year, he has been involved in a more notable number of on track incidents.

You never want to be involved in an incident that ultimately destroys somebody else’s race.

Russell lost control of his car whilst attempting an overtake and had a large crash with Valtteri Bottas at Emilia Romagna in 2021. Though Bottas left enough space and didn’t squeeze the Williams off track; initially George did not take any responsibility for the crash and blamed Bottas, getting out of his car and angrily confronting him in the immediate aftermath.

In 2022, he crashed with 5 drivers across four races: including a large first lap crash at Silverstone, with Perez in Austria, with Bottas and then Schumacher in Singapore, and the most recent one with Sainz in Austin. 

Max Verstappen developed a well-known reputation as an aggressive driver in his first year in F1 which has only seriously started to wane following his victory in 2021. From 2015 to 2017 he was involved in a fairly high number of collisions on track, including a high-speed collision with Grosjean that landed him with a five-place penalty; contact with Sainz in Australia, and hitting Raikkonen and Vettel in Belgium.

In 2018 he had a least one incident in the first six races of the year; running wide and damaging the car in Australia, crashing in Bahrain qualifying, crashing with Vettel in China, being hit from behind whilst defending against Ricciardo in Azerbaijan, hitting Lance Stroll in Spain, and crashing in free practice Monaco.

2018 was also the year he collided with Esteban Ocon in Brazil after which he confronted and pushed Ocon in full view of the television cameras. 

When crashes are his fault he always owns up to his mistakes.

Verstappen’s reputation for reckless driving is perhaps especially prominent due to the number of drivers and team personnel who have levied complaints against him across his career.

From Felipe Massa who called him a dangerous driver in 2015, to Kimi Raikkonen saying he was going to cause a “huge accident” in 2016, to F1 director Charlie Whiting warning him about his aggressive driving. Even Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner admitted that Verstappen was “on the edge” and that improvement was needed. 

Does Russell possess a similar reckless spirit? Sainz seemed to insinuate this in his post-race interview at COTA, stating that “For sure a penalty was deserved, […] I think you’ve never seen this kind of incident in the top three positions because normally in the top four drivers don’t do these kinds of mistakes.” His comment implies the same criticism made so many times of Verstappen, blaming ‘reckless’ driving on a lack of experience and maturity as a driver. 

However, from direct comparison I would have to argue that in terms of “aggression” young Verstappen still comes out miles ahead of Russell. Whilst Russell has acted defensively, when crashes are his fault he always owns up to his mistakes, apologising to both Sainz and Bottas almost immediately after the respective races. Very few drivers or F1 officials have yet to voice any real concerns with Russell’s driving so far, especially when compared to Verstappen. 

Four-time world champion Ayrton Senna once said, “If you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver.” Aggression can take drivers over the edge in races, but it is ultimately a necessary trait for an F1 driver. Drivers need it to be able to fight for track position.

It can sometimes lead drivers to make costly errors, especially rookies, but without it we wouldn’t have any good racing at all. Overly aggressive drivers who take it too far must be treated seriously, as dangerous driving can have life threatening consequences. But there must also be some room for drivers, especially young ones, to learn and grow in maturity and hone their aggression into precision. 

Image: Chris Game via Flickr

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