The Bahrain GP this year turned out to be more dramatic than I could have ever expected and not for a good reason. Events of the weekend are overshadowed by Sunday night’s massive crash on the first lap. You can see the incident in the clip below:
Romain Grosjean’s Haas collided with a metal barrier at high speed and burst into a giant fireball. It was the kind of explosions we see in action movies but this was real-life and a real life was at stake. It was a tense couple of TV minutes as my stomach churned before we got the shot of Grosjean sitting in the medical car, alive and well. Upon review, we got to see what had transpired: the speed, momentum and angle of impact had sent Romain’s car through the barrier, the car split into two with the rear half cast aside and the cockpit engulfed in flames. The AMG E63 that serves as the medical car that follows the grid for the first couple of corners arrived at the scene with medical crew and marshalls rushing to put out the fire. After a few seconds that seemed like a blazing eternity, we saw Grosjean’s figure appear from the flames, leaping over the fence towards safety. Dr Ian Roberts from the F1 medical car was the first to rush towards the fireball to bring Grosjean to safety aided by the driver Alan Van der Merwe. Along with those two, a race marshall was quick with a fire hydrant that created a brief opening for Romain to free himself from the flaming wreckage and climb out towards them. Watch the rescue effort here:
While shaken and suffering some minor burns, Romain was able to walk away from the crash before being transported to the nearby hospital. Since then, it has been reported that the driver has not suffered any fractures and only some burns to the top of his hands. While his helmet visor seemed to have melted, it was later stated that it was successful in keeping smoke out. The French driver’s safety can be credited to various measures taken by the FIA over the last few decades, most importantly the Halo which protected his head as the front end pierced the metal barrier. The survival cell did its job in protecting the driver’s body even though the car broke apart from the fireball explosion while the layers of fireproof clothing protected him from experiencing further burn injuries. Among all that, the miracle was that Grosjean was conscious despite the extreme deceleration from the head-on collision and had the survival instincts to get out as quick as he could. This incident is still being investigated to discern what caused the fire and why the barrier failed. Early guesses suggested that the fuel tank must have ruptured from the force of the crash but later reports are considering that it was a chain reaction set off by other components of the powertrain and maybe the batteries had a role to play as well.
The accident was scarily spectacular and unlike anything we’ve seen in modern F1 but luckily had no casualties. While the FIA works on discovering the cause, the entire F1 community is grateful that Romain is safe and well. Here’s a message he shared from his hospital bed earlier on Monday:
It is clear to see that the crash was triggered by a mistake from Romain himself as he sharply cut across from the left side of the track to the right side, catching the front left of Daniil Kvyat’s AlphaTauri which then sent him headfirst into the barrier. All drivers and many members of the FIA had kind and supportive words for the Frenchman and his miraculous escape from the wreck. For many, it was a reminder of the risk they all take each weekend and also to put everything else in perspective. The fans voted him to be the Driver of the Day in his honour which was a nice touch considering we won’t have him on the F1 grid next season. While Haas has stated that Grosjean will be released from the hospital on Tuesday, they’ve announced that 3rd driver Pietro Fittipaldi will be filling in for the second seat next race weekend at Bahrain.
The race was immediately red-flagged after Grosjean’s incident and the officials were able to repair the barrier in time for the race to restart. While the paddock was happy to see Grosjean looking mostly unharmed from the crash, it was sure to have unsettled some nerves on the grid while the long pause can also break concentration for some.
Another incident at the restart was to be expected and it happened to include the Racing Point of Lance Stroll, upside down at Turn 8. While this one looked quite dramatic too, it was a slow speed flip from a collision between Stroll and Kvyat. The Russian hesitated from making an overtake into the tight right-hander and the Canadian turned in without leaving any room, catching the AlphaTauri’s front left with its rear right and got turned over. This time it was partly Kvyat’s fault and he was later awarded a 10-second penalty which he served during one of his pit stops. Stroll’s crash only required a Safety Car as the car was recovered and the driver was okay with racing action resuming a few laps later, without further incidents.
We can finally talk about the race itself now. It was another front-row lockout for Mercedes with Hamilton on Pole but this time, both Red Bulls were on the second row. Perez had qualified fifth fastest, ahead of the two Renaults. Pierre Gasly started 8th on the grid while teammate Kvyat was 10th quickest in qualifying. Lando Norris was the only McLaren driver in Q3 as a brake issue for Carlos Sainz put him out of running in Q2, along with the Ferraris. Hamilton got away well at the start while Bottas seemed bogged down which allowed Verstappen and Perez to pass him as they headed into Turn 1. Alex Albon and Daniel Ricciardo sandwiched the Finn in Turn 1 and got ahead through the exit of Turn 2. This was the first start of the race.
After the incident, drivers lined up in an order dictated by the FIA stewards which had Verstappen starting on the front row with Hamilton still on Pole, Perez and Bottas behind, followed by Ricciardo and Norris on the third row. The 2020 champion had another good start which kept Max at bay into the first corner who was defending from Sergio. Bottas had a better start this time and held onto P4 this time but had to defend hard to keep Albon at bay this time around. Daniel had a poor start which saw him drop down to 10th in the first few corners. Behind them, the Stroll incident brought on the Safety Car during which we found out that Bottas had picked up a puncture which forced him to pit and rejoin the track in P16.
The sudden retirement of Stroll was a big blow to Racing Point’s chances of securing third in the constructor’s title, contesting McLaren and Renault whose drivers were all in the points at that moment. Luckily, their soon-to-be-leaving driver Sergio Perez was in a high point scoring position himself.
Racing resumed on Lap 9 and we had our first taste of incident-free F1 that night. Everyone seemed to be somewhat calmer and it eventually became a bit of snooze fest as usual at the front of the pack with Lewis in the lead, staying just out of reach of Max in P2. However, the middle order was quite exciting in many parts of the race. At the restart, we saw Leclerc attempt a bold move down the inside of Esteban Ocon but the Renault driver fended well to stay level and used his pace advantage to hold off the Ferrari. A couple of laps later, Leclerc was passed by Carlos Sainz (on Softs compared to Charles’ Mediums) down the inside of Turn 1. The Monegasque tried to reclaim the position at the end of the following straight but his future teammate defended brilliantly. With DRS on, the Ferrari was just a sitting duck as it then got passed by Ricciardo and Gasly too in the space of a lap.
The front runners and most of the middle order made their first racing stops between Laps 18 and 21. Hamilton pitted first and was followed by Albon, while Verstappen and Perez stopped on the following lap. Lewis and Alex went stuck with Mediums while Max and Sergio switched to the Hards. The running order remained unchanged for the front four. Norris pitted right after the two Renault drivers while Sainz pitted a couple of laps after. This allowed him to catch them up quickly and he was able to get back up to P6 by Lap 27, but a quite a bit away from his teammate in P6.
The second chain of pit stops took place sometime between Laps 35 and 39. Red Bull tried to undercut Hamilton but an uncharacteristically slow stop for Max nullified the stop advantage as the Brit was able to pit the following lap and rejoin still in first. With the McLarens on longer stints, Norris was briefly in Perez’s P3 spot while the Renaults pitted earlier with Ocon stopping two laps before Ricciardo. This meant that the next couple of laps we saw Daniel have a tense battle for position with his teammate, both before and after this second stop.
It was a relatively calm affair from that point on with only a few overtakes at the back of the grid, out of the points, between the Alfa Romeos, Vettel and the Willilams. Verstappen had a comfy advantage over Perez and with Hamilton still out of reach, he pitted a third time to switch to a fresh set of medium tyres for the final 12 laps. It allowed him to secure the extra point for the fastest lap and also covered him for the possibility of a last-minute Safety Car.
Perez seemed set for his first-ever consecutive podium finish with a safe lead from Albon behind him but when the camera cut to the Racing Point bellowing out puffs of smoke. There were only three laps left and we hoped that it was just a minor problem that would resolve itself but with each acceleration out of a corner, we saw more smoke emerge. It was only once there was actual fire coming out of Racing Point that Perez pulled over to the side and jumped out of the car with haste. While this was a relatively minor incident of that night, it was a devastating moment for the Racing Point crew. The Safety Car was deployed while the marshalls recovered Perez’s car and with just two laps left, the race ended under SC conditions.
Sergio’s retirement allowed Albon to claim his second F1 podium, Red Bull’s first double podium of 2020 and the team’s first podium result in a Bahrain night race. Lewis took the win and Max settled for another P2 in the slower car.
McLaren secured a tremendous result in the end with Norris and Sainz crossing the line in P4 & P5 respectively. Gasly had also put in a solid drive to position himself in P6 during the closing stages and the SC allowed him to hold onto it while being chased down by the Renault of Daniel Ricciardo who had to settle for P7. Bottas only managed to finish P8 after another unlucky weekend, ahead of Ocon while Leclerc was able to grab the final point.
It was truly a heart-tugging moment to see Racing Point’s Team Principal Otmar Szafnauer with his head in his hands, still at his control station even after the end of the race. The result has now put them 19 points behind rival McLaren and only 10 points ahead of Renault. The final standings in the constructor’s championship decide the prize money and the deficit between each position is significant for every customer team. Given that Perez is unlikely to have a spot on the 2021 grid, we would have loved to see the Mexican driver end his season on a high instead of getting no reward for his splendid performance. “It makes the fight for third in the championship more difficult, but there are still two races to go, plenty of points available, and we know we have a competitive car. We will give everything we have to recover the lost points today and reclaim third in the championship,” said Otmar as part of his post-race statement.
Meanwhile, Checo had this to say in his post-race comments: “It’s really hard for both myself and the team to take today’s result, but in the grand scheme of things, it almost becomes irrelevant after Romain’s crash at the start. At the end of the day, it’s either one more or one less podium or trophy for me, but the important thing is that Romain is still with us and that he’s ok.”
The crews will be racing at Bahrain again next weekend but unlike the double-headers at Red Bull Ring and Silverstone, they’ll be doing it on a different track layout. This would utilise the outer layout of the Bahrain circuit that is almost an oval with only a couple of corners, which makes it a dream for those who are quickest in a low-downforce setting. We expect a strong performance from the black and pink Mercedes cars as well as the slippery Renault and some qualifier madness with everyone looking for the best tow. Stay tuned for more action as we near the conclusion of the 2020 season and don’t forget to subscribe to Auto Loons blog for our latest content, or follow us on Twitter with @autoloons.
Final race standings
- L. Hamilton Mercedes — 2:59:47.515
- M. Verstappen Aston Martin Red Bull Racing Honda +1.254
- A. Albon Aston Martin Red Bull Racing Honda +8.005
- L. Norris McLaren Renault +11.337
- C. Sainz McLaren Renault +11.787
- P. Gasly AlphaTauri Honda +11.942
- D. Ricciardo Renault +19.368
- V. Bottas Mercedes +19.680
- E. Ocon Renault +22.803
- C. Leclerc Ferrari +1 lap
- D. Kvyat AlphaTauri Honda +1 lap
- G. Russell Williams Racing Mercedes +1 lap
- S. Vettel Ferrari +1 lap
- K. Magnussen Haas Ferrari +1 lap
- N. Latifi Williams Racing Mercedes +1 lap
- K. Räikkönen Alfa Romeo Racing Ferrari +1 lap
- A. Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari +1 lap
- S. Perez Racing Point BWT Mercedes DNF
- L. Stroll Racing Point BWT Mercedes DNF
- R. Grosjean Haas Ferrari DNF