F1 Sakhir Race: Perez wins from back. Mercedes lose from front

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Sergio Perez F1 Sakhir GP Race
Image: Racing Point F1

Many people had hoped for a brand new winner in the Sakhir GP without Lewis Hamilton’s presence. They got one, but few could’ve predicted that it would be Sergio Perez atop the podium for the very first time at the end of the race. The Mexican was the last of the runners by the end of the first lap, but his push forwards was as impressive as it was relentless.

How Perez is without a drive for 2021, as things stand, is frankly unbelievable after his masterful second half to this season. His victory comes off the back of a certain podium last week at the same track, if not for an engine failure of his Mercedes. Ironically, it was Mercedes that gave him the win today, but not the one powering his pink RP20.

The works Mercedes team lost this race, without question. Their concern over those behind benefiting from fresh tyres during a latter race safety car period cost the team a guaranteed one-two finish. George Russell was on for not only his first point but his first win and he would’ve had it, if not for his temporary team calling him in for a pit stop. The pit crew made an uncharacteristic error and fitted the incorrect tyres to Russell, and then, to make matters worse, the Brit had a puncture once he had the correct Pirelli’s equipped.

Russell was understandably devastated in his post-race radio but should be heartened by the performance he demonstrated from the very first corner. Valtteri Bottas may have started on pole, but he was second best by the time the cars had made the short run down to turn one.

The trouble wasn’t over for the Finn who struggled for traction out of the third corner which allowed Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez to close in, too. However, Bottas some escaped the clutches of both drivers, as well as an opportunistic Ferrari of Charles Leclerc as the cars exited turn 4 and into the new section of track.

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While Valtteri scampered away, the three men who may have fancied a victory without Mr Hamilton around took each other out of the running. Verstappen, exercising some rare Dutch caution backed out of a three-wide battle in the braking zone of turn 4 allowing Perez to swoop past. The Mexican did not know there was an SF1000 at the apex of the corner, however, as Leclerc had a late dive into the T4 and the Ferrari and Racing Point collided hard.

Verstappen desperately tried to avoid the accident by driving around it but found himself on gravel and without any grip. His right foot sending him into the tyre barriers with Leclerc. Charles and Max were out of the running, and Sergio was in last place. The safety car was, of course, called out to clean up the wreckage, which turned out to be Perez’s saving grace. He pitted for new tyres, but right on the tail of the pack to continue his Sunday evening fight. The anger from Max, who must’ve felt a win was possible was evident to see as he kicked the barriers as he walked away from the wreckage.

With the safety car peeling back in, Russell looked more than comfortable taking the pack around the last corner in what was his first time leading an F1 restart. The McLaren pair of Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris, despite the lap one slow down, had rocketed up positions. Sainz now running in third place and Norris up a staggering nine positions from nineteenth to tenth. The progress didn’t stop there for the young Brit who then took Vettel one lap later for ninth.

The safety car period ensured that any tyre runs could be extended meaning a one-stop strategy could be on the cards. With the Merc pair on mediums, and without Verstappen nipping their heels, another one-two finish was looking likely. Russell had broken out of DRS range too by the time race control enabled it. Becoming a first-time F1 podium finisher on the top step at this Sakhir GP was looking ever more likely.

Behind the lead two, Sainz was beginning to slip a little further back as he held onto the final podium space. But he could not extend a gap to the chasing Daniel Ricciardo behind him who looked racey. It was a double-Dan attack, too, with Daniil Kvyat running high in fifth and looking as quick as his midfield rivals.

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A trio fighting a little further back were Norris, Albon and Perez. Norris seemed to be able to keep the Red Bull behind, with Albon complaining about a lack of straight-line speed. That lack of pace was apparent on the onboard shots of Perez behind him. The Racing Point driver had eased past the backmarkers from 18th and now found himself fighting for points and only a handful of positions behind his teammate, despite his safety car pit stop.

While the lead McLaren of Sainz kept Ricciardo and Kvyat at bay, the sister car could not do the same. Albon fought past his friend Norris, who then struggled for grip which allowed a fired up Perez past, too. Norris’s soft tyres were cooked and after losing two positions, McLaren decided to bring in their driver for the first scheduled stop of the race.

Albon may have overtaken Norris but one lap later had a net gain of zero. Perez, the man eyeing up the Thai driver’s seat, outdrove the Red Bull on the outside of turn 4. Moves we saw in the both F2 Sakhir races now being mimicked in the F1 Grand Prix, too.

Norris’s stop triggered many of the frontrunners to come in themselves, with the Mercedes duo on the mediums being the exception. Sainz and Kvyat nipped in a lap earlier than Ricciardo and with the power of the undercut Sainz stayed ahead, and the (likely) outgoing AlphaTauri driver was ahead of the Renault when Ricciardo rejoined. An effective P4 for Kvyat.

Pietro Fittipaldi, subbing for the injured Romain Grosjean, was having a quiet first F1 race in Sakhir. The Brazillian wouldn’t have been expected to do much, such is the poorness of the car he has inherited. Fittipaldi also started from 20th thanks to the replacement parts needed to fix the fire wreckage of the Haas. But at least Pietro was getting some TV coverage as the leaders began to lap to the backmarker. No dramas and no mistakes for the Haas reserve driver as the race approached the halfway point.

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Estaban Ocon and Lance Stroll took their tyres much further into the race than those around them but even they needed to replace their Pirelli’s. Stroll with a solid stop exits the pit ahead of his Renault rival and the much earlier stopping Norris. Both Ocon and Stroll were now looking to make this a one-stop race.

At lap 46 (of 87!) Russell had finally got the nod to come and change his rubber too. The Mercedes team were mindful of releasing their drivers into backmarker traffic. Russell, of course, usually is that backmarker traffic so this was quite a different experience from the rest of his 2020 F1 season. A radio message after his stop suggested he has no power, but a calm Bono explains what setting to do on his steering wheel and all is well. Russell sets some blistering laps on his new tyres and remains the Sakhir leader after Bottas comes in too by a gulf of eight seconds.

Though the race for the lead was settled, a stranded Williams of Nicholas Latifi required a virtual safety car to allow its recovery. Not great timing for the AlphaTauri team who had just pitted both drivers as they looked to take the fight to those ahead with a two-stop strategy. Vettel, Norris, Sainz and Ricciardo all peel into the pits to take advantage of the slowdown.

However, with the efficiency of the Bahraini marshalls at both F1 events in Sakhir, the green light was on by the time some drivers had pitted. Perez had jumped those who dove into the pits and should he nurse his tyre’s through the final 30 laps, he was looking very handy indeed. Nursing, though, wasn’t on Perez’s mind as he hunted his Canadian teammate, Lance Stroll ahead. Stoll subdued to the pressure a little too easily, and locked up into T4 and Perez was through into fourth!

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If overtaking his teammate from last place wasn’t enough for the Mexican, Perez next had his sights on Ocon who had slinked past Stroll earlier in the race. Perez could do what Stroll couldn’t and whizzed past the Renault driver to take third place. A podium from 18th place on the grid. What an advert of for Perez these two Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit were becoming. And the progress didn’t stop there for Perez neither…

Another Williams issue and another race control intervention to change the course of this race. Campos and Williams Driver Academy, Jack Aitken, had been plodding along okay towards the back of the grid. A fight with Raikkonen, and keeping the Finn behind to make some lifetime memories for the Brit in his F1 debut. But a memory to forget was his spin at the exit of the final corner.

Aitken didn’t have as big a smash as Albon had one week earlier in practice, but he did lose his front wing going nose-first into the barrier. Fortunately for him, the pit entry was only metres away and he scurried in for repairs. Unfortunately for Russell, the driver he was replacing, the resulting safety car changed the entire race.

Mercedes had taken the quick decision to bring in both of their drivers from the lead to get a fresh set of boots. Despite having such a pace advantage, the world champions wanted to ensure those behind wouldn’t benefit from having new tyres while their two cars didn’t. It was the irony of ironies though, as the tyres Mercedes did equip lost them the lead.

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Russell was in first, but such was the late call, his engineers were not ready and inadvertently fitted Pirelli’s meant for Bottas onto Russell’s car instead. To make matters worse, Bottas who was in just behind his temporary teammate, had a slow stop, too. The front left would not go on with a wheel gun malfunction and Bottas tumbled down the order. Despite the Finns slow stop, Russell lost out most as he had to return to his pit box to replace the incorrectly fitted tyres with his own set.

All of the confusion now has put Perez into the lead with the single stoppers of Ocon and Stroll behind him. Stroll must be fuming at his lock-up to let Perez through as he would otherwise be looking at challenging for the win. It was another lock up from the Racing Point driver though that would’ve scared him. Perez controlling the pace didn’t step on the gas quite as quickly as the Canadian might’ve expected and Stroll locked up, nearly going into the back of Ocon ahead. Any ideas Stroll would’ve had to take the Renault for a Racing Point 1-2 instantly made more difficult with large flat spots.

The race from Mercedes wasn’t over yet, though. Russell with real fire in his belly fired past Bottas on the “shortcut” section of track as he wasted no time to chase down a victory he fully deserved. Russell on the mediums was much faster than Bottas who, after all the pit stop confusion, ended up on the same set of tyres as he entered the pits with. The tyre advantage allowed Russell to DRS his way past Stroll, too.

While Russell was going forwards, Bottas slipped back with his old, old tyres. The Finn had reached the cliff and he dropped down and down the order to ninth as Sainz, Ricciardo, Albon and Kvyat all glided past the defenceless W11. Russell’s fresh tyres had the opposite problem as he couldn’t stop going forwards, as he despatched Ocon down into T4.

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With Perez the next and only car up the road for Russell to take, disaster struck. Again. “Left rear puncture” was the heartbreaking radio message from Bono. Russell’s advance forwards halted in its tracks. “I don’t know what to say” was the understandable response. The fourth stop of George’s race punted him down to 15th place.

On the final dying laps, Perez continued to extend his lead to Ocon behind, who kept Stroll at bay, too. Russell with his lightning-quick car and another set of Pirelli’s surged forwards. Again. He mustered the fastest lap of the race, but no points are given for that unless the time goes hand in hand with a top ten finish. Thankfully for Russell, though, his superior pace advantage took him to ninth place for his first-ever F1 points.

The disappointment for Russell was matched by the jubilation for Perez. It was to be a first-time F1 winner at the Sakhir GP, but not the one people expected. Racing Point, too scored their first win since they were Jordan all those years ago. And it was a double podium finish for the Silverstone-based team, too, after Stroll pushed on for the final podium position.

The Bahrain outer loop had provided entertainment all weekend. Both the F2 Feature and the F2 Sprint events being the perfect warm-ups to the F1 Sakhir GP. After a midweek like no other, in a year like no other, the inaugural (and possibly only) Sakhir Grand Prix was the perfect way to cap the week.

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