The Sakhir GP was the second round at the Bahrain International Circuit, but unlike the double-headers at Silverstone and Red Bull Ring, we had a different track layout for the repeat venue. F1 used the outer layout of the circuit which is only 3.543km in length. Comprising of three straights and only 10 turns, it makes for fast laps, each taking less than a minute. That alone had made this an interesting race to look forward to when it was announced. But then Hamilton tested positive for COVID-19 and so Mercedes roped in 2018 F2 champion to drive the championship-winning car. So, we got to see a young driver who’d spent almost 2 whole seasons at the back of the grid driving a Williams take on Bottas in a supposedly equal car.
Russell had no time to learn a new car and its complicated steering wheel, somehow wedge his tall frame into a car built for Hamilton’s much smaller body and wear shoes one size too small but it was Bottas who seemed to be under the most pressure. Mercedes’ second driver has had a poor run in 2020 and seemed unable to pose any threat to teammate Hamilton. If Russell does better than him in any aspect, the public perception would become that ANYONE in a Mercedes can win or at least get a podium and that would undermine Bottas’ own racing skills.
In my opinion, something was off with Bottas all weekend. Russell was ahead of him through Friday’s practice and qualifying was also quite tight between them. The Finn couldn’t improve his time on his last flying lap and only hung onto Pole by a margin of 0.026 seconds. Max Verstappen was only 0.030 milliseconds further behind George, eager to capitalise on Hamilton’s absence while teammate Alex Albon got knocked out in Q2. Leclerc managed to get into Q3 and halfway through the session he set a time surpringly close to those three and he knew there was no way he can improve on it. Once back in the pits, he just stood around till the end of qualifying and he was right as he was fourth fastest in the end. Sergio Perez and Daniil Kvyat would start on the third row with Daniel Ricciardo and Carlos Sainz behind them. Lando Norris had a grid penalty for the extra power unit elements which meant he’d start at the very back.
When the lights went out on Sunday night, Bottas had a poor start which allowed Russell to take the lead into the first corner. The Finn only just managed to hold off Verstappen as the Mercs pincered into Turn 1. Then, Bottas’ car broke traction around Turn 2 as well which allowed Perez to come past Verstappen and for Leclerc to have a good run on them down the following straight towards Turn 4. Max knew it was going to get hectic and backed off earlier than Valtteri and Sergio who was down the inside. But the Red Bull driver didn’t expect Leclerc to make a late dive down the inside and lock up under braking. The Ferrari collided with the Perez’s rear right tyre, breaking its front left wheel and puncturing the Racing Point’s rear right. Max tried to go around the outside of the two out-of-control cars but ended up running into the gravel trap which meant he had no steering control and hit the wall as well. In the first lap, we’d lost Verstappen and Leclerc despite the Dutchman’s best efforts to avoid getting caught up in the crash. In hindsight, Max could have slowed down more to cut back towards the inside line which would have cost him more places but at least it might have kept him in the race. You can watch the start and the incident below:
Luckily for Perez, he was able to get his car back to the pits for a fresh set of tyres as he rejoined the pack in last place under Safety Car conditions. At the other end, we had Russell leading an F1 GP in Lewis’ W11 ahead of Bottas with Sainz up in third. Norris had managed to climb up to P10 by the time racing resumed on Lap 7. It may sound like a lot but this is a much shorter and much quicker circuit, so it wasn’t that long of an SC.
Russell had a great restart but Bottas got passed by Sainz into Turn 1 but the Spaniard made a mistake through Turn 3 which allowed the Finn to reclaim P2. In the next couple of laps, it was clear that George simply had more pace than Valtteri as the Brit was able to build a big enough gap to be out of DRS range and then some. Merc were the only front runners on the medium compounds with the others on the softer tyre from their Q2 session. By Lap 20, Perez had managed to climb up to P10 after pitting on Lap 1 for Mediums. The Racing Point driver had a short but exciting battle for P9 with Albon and the Merc power helped the Mexican driver pull away after a cool overtake around the outside of Turn 4.
The next bit of drama came on Lap 55 when Nicholas Latifi had to retire his Williams car on the side of the track. It was near an access point, so a Virtual Safety Car was sufficient to slow things down while the marshalls collected the car. At this point, Russell was comfortably ahead of Bottas (both had pitted for their Hard tyres) and Sainz was a long way behind in P3 who wasn’t as comfortable ahead of Ricciardo.
McLaren and Renault decided to pit their leading drivers under VSC but unfortunately for them, as soon as the cars came into the pits, VSC was ended. This meant the “free stop” ended up costing both drivers a potential podium. Carlos and Daniel rejoined the race in P7 and P8 respectively with only a third of the race still to go. Meanwhile, their pit allowed Ocon, Stroll and Perez to move up to podium contention spots. Once the VSC ended, Perez and Stroll shot off after Ocon but the Canadian locked up going into Turn 4 which allowed his teammate to pass with ease. But Perez had the pace advantage even though he was on the Hard tyres as he was then able to get past Ocon the very next lap with some DRS assistance of course.
On Lap 58, the order was as follows: Russell, Bottas, Perez, Ocon and Stroll. The Mercs were a pit-stop clear of the three cars behind them. On Lap 63, we saw Jack Aitken (subbing for Russell at Williams) enter the pit lane without a front wing which had snapped off and was on the racing line at the exit of the final corner. This brought out the Safety Car and Mercedes made a last-minute decision to do a double stack pit stop while comfortably ahead to cover off any risk in the closing laps. Unfortunately, it was too rushed as the crew just wasn’t ready enough to make it work. Russell rolled in and got a fresh set of Medium tyres in a 5.3 second stop. Bottas was waiting behind him and his night was about to go from bad to horrible.
The Finn rolled into the spot but then there seemed to be a fair bit of confusion between the mechanics as the left side tyres refused to fit. While sitting propped up and without wheels, we saw the front left brake started to smoke and catch fire from overheating, so the crew did some quick thinking to put on the same set of Hard tyres that they took off Bottas and sent him on his way. Cool air from being sucked in while on the move is the best way to cool racing brakes. So, Bottas’s 27.4 seconds stop resulted in him rejoining the race in P5 and still on old Hard tyres while Russell still led the pack. Then came word that the Merc crew had accidentally pitted some of Valtteri’s tyres onto George’s car (that’s not allowed) and so they pitted him the next lap for the right set of Medium tyres. This time around, the Brit rejoined the race in P5 behind his teammate but on a fresh set of fast tyres.
Racing resumed on Lap 69 with Perez in the lead, with Ocon and Stroll in P2 and P3. The trio hadn’t pitted under the SC, so Sergio and Esteban were on used Hard tyres while Stroll stayed on his set of Mediums. This meant that Russell would have a double advantage of fresh Medium tyres and the speed of the Mercedes W11 which is enough to retake the lead with 18 laps to go. George wasted no time and when Bottas went wide out of Turn 4 on Lap 70, the Brit got himself alongside and sent it down the inside of Turn 7 to get up to P4.
Two laps later, Russell made his way past Stroll down the inside of Turn 1 and the following lap he got past Ocon for P2 with DRS towards Turn 4. Perez was less than 4 seconds ahead with just under 15 laps left. Behind, Bottas’ tyres seemed to have gone off as he started to drop down the order, losing three spots in the space of a lap.
While Valtteri’s race seemed doomed, George was closing in on Sergio with every lap. But then on Lap 79, we saw the #63 Mercedes enter the pits again as they broadcast the team radio just before: puncture left rear. A smoother pit stop but it was the final blow to Russell’s podium/victory hopes at the Sakhir GP as he rejoined the track in P14, on a set of used Soft tyres. It was the worst possible outcome for Mercedes given how George had dominated the first two-thirds of the race and Valtteri was also running comfortably in P2.
One man’s nightmare can materialise another man’s dream in the world of sports. That night it was the turn of Sergio Perez as he crossed the finish line to take his first-ever win in Formula 1. This emphatic result was made even more satisfying by the fact that he’d lost his podium spot in the final laps of the Bahrain GP just last week, and that he still does not have a seat for 2021. Listen to the emotional radio message from Perez and the see the jubilation in the paddock in the clip below:
Sergio Perez has been racing at this level since 2011 and deserves much more than what he has got during his tenure. To see him finally claim the top step of the podium and driving for the team he’s been with since 2014 when it was known as Force India, was a euphoric moment indeed. You can argue he only won because Mercedes fucked up, but this guy was in P18 after a rear shunt on the opening lap. He’s the one who drove well enough to find himself in the position to make the most of a rival team’s mistake and that is 100 per cent a win on merit.
In some ways, it was an all Racing Point podium with Esteban Ocon (former Perez teammate) and Lance Stroll. It was a big moment for Ocon too as it was first ever F1 podium in his comeback season with Renault where he hasn’t always performed as well as teammate Daniel. Stroll could have been the one at the front of the pack, but his mistakes put him where he finished: P3. It is the Canadian’s third podium, second this season and the first-ever double-podium finish for Racing Point. This moment would certainly be one of the highlights in the Stroll household for both father and son.
For Mercedes, the final result had Bottas and Russell finish P8 & P9 respectively. George got his first championship points and also an extra point for the fastest lap. It will be little consolation to the Brit and the team, but it’s something. Even if the final classification did not reflect it, Russell made an emphatic statement with his performance: he’s ready for a championship drive in the right car. Yes, we didn’t get to see how he might have handled the pressure from a teammate like Lewis or even from Verstappen and Leclerc. But we know he’s got the right stuff to be fighting for wins in the right car. Based only on what we saw from the outside as spectators, it was another night to forget for Bottas whose run of bad luck continues to plague him as he struggles to recover his form after the wet Turkish GP. But hopefully, the Finn will be able to pull himself together to put on a proper show of what he can at the final race of the season next weekend. You can hear more reactions from the GP in this “best of radio” clip:
Carlos Sainz ended the race in P4, just behind Lance, and he knew it could have been his chance for an F1 win had it not been for that unfortunate pit stop. Similar thoughts would have been running through the mind of Ricciardo who finished P5 but both drivers were quite gracious in congratulating Perez on his maiden F1 win. Despite the promising podium the week before, Albon seemed to back where Red Bull doesn’t want him – out of the podium spot even with Mercedes in trouble. Alex finished P6 and is still unsigned for 2021 as the fan favourite to replace him took the win.
AlphaTauri looked like they had good pace all weekend but their strategy didn’t quite pan out as only one car finished in the point: Daniil Kvyat in P7 and Pierre Gasly in P11. Kvyat had a good weekend overall with an impressive one-run-blitz in Q3 to start sixth on the grid. The final point went to Lando Norris in P10 who was not able to capitalise further on his brilliant start from last on the grid.
This result also affects the Constructor’s race for third as Racing Point has reclaimed its spot ahead of McLaren. It’s only a 10 point gap, so this will go down to the final race. For Renault, they may not be within range of third but they could still catch McLaren who are only 12 points ahead of them. There’s a few million pounds worth of prize money between each position in the Constructor’s Championship so it should be a feisty mid-field battle in Abu Dhabi next weekend.
A disappointing result for Ferrari again despite Leclerc’s strong qualifying. One DNF and Sebastian Vettel finishing the race in P12 after two awfully slow pit stops. There seems to be no love left between driver and team and we can’t wait to see how Vettel improves as he gets a breath of fresh air in 2021, driving for a team that has a race win and 3 podiums this season.
Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Raikkonen spent the entire race out of the points, occasionally battling with the Williams and Haas drivers. The two finished P13 and P14 respectively. Aitkens did get to finish his debut F1 race as he crossed the line in P16 while Latifi had retired after 52 laps. No improvement for Haas’ situation with Kevin Magnussen finishing P15 while Grosjean’s substitute Pietro Fittipaldi also made it to the end of his debut race in Formula 1.
The fight for second in the Driver’s championship is still in play as Bottas’ awful night in the Sakhir GP puts him only 16 points clear of Verstappen. If Max can pull off a P2 and Valtteri’s bad luck continues, those positions could still swap around. Meanwhile, the driver’s order for fourth and fifth seems settled too with Sergio 13 points clear of Ricciardo who is 14 points clear of Leclerc. Meanwhile, Sainz could easily pass his future teammate in the standings at Abu Dhabi as could Alex Albon.
Like the year itself, the 2020 Formula 1 season has been boringly predictable in its top finishers but has thrown in some brilliant surprise results as well. It ends with just 17 races, the last one next Sunday at Abu Dhabi. This circuit doesn’t offer much in terms of overtaking action, but at least it’s pretty to watch so stay tuned and don’t forget to subscribe to Auto Loons blog for our latest content or follow us on Twitter with @autoloons.
Final race standings
- S. Perez Racing Point BWT Mercedes — 1:31:15.114
- E. Ocon Renault +10.518
- L. Stroll Racing Point BWT Mercedes +11.869
- C. Sainz McLaren Renault +12.580
- D. Ricciardo Renault +13.330
- A. Albon Aston Martin Red Bull Racing Honda +13.842
- D. Kvyat AlphaTauri Honda +14.534
- V. Bottas Mercedes +15.839
- G. Russell Mercedes +18.556
- L. Norris McLaren Renault +19.541
- P. Gasly AlphaTauri Honda +20.527
- S. Vettel Ferrari +22.611
- A. Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari+24.111
- K. Räikkönen Alfa Romeo Racing Ferrari +26.153
- K. Magnussen Haas Ferrari +32.370
- J. Aitken Williams Racing Mercedes +33.647
- P. Fittipaldi Haas Ferrari +36.858
- N. Latifi Williams Racing Mercedes DNF
- M. Verstappen Aston Martin Red Bull Racing Honda DNF
- C. Leclerc Ferrari DNF