2020 Sakhir Grand Prix Report: Pérez Takes Surprise Win as Russell is Denied
From the sublime to the ridiculous.
The man who finished the opening lap in last place somehow ended up taking a maiden victory. And that sums up a crazy night under the lights at the Sakhir Grand Prix.
In the absence of Lewis Hamilton - who is isolating after testing positive for Covid-19 - Mercedes protégé George Russell was given a shot in the champion's car, narrowly managing to squeeze his 6'2" frame and size 11 feet into the cockpit. Over the course of three days, he made quite an impression.
Whilst there were mitigating circumstances for Valtteri Bottas on Friday, such as a damaged floor and deleted lap times, the young Briton immediately found himself at the top of the charts during the first two practice sessions. Bottas recovered to claim pole position on Saturday but only by the smallest of margins. And when the lights went out, he was on the back foot again.
Despite his fears of unfamiliarity with the Mercedes clutch and start systems, Russell got away the better of the Mercedes pair and passed his vastly more experienced team-mate into Turn 1.
The race start at Sakhir.
As was the case seven days ago, the run through Turns 3 and 4 produced much incident. Kimi Räikkönen spun through a full 360° towards the back but carried on. Charles Leclerc - after a stunning qualifying lap had seen him start fourth - made an ambitious dive up the inside of Sergio Pérez but hit the Racing Point and broke his own front-left wishbone in the process. Max Verstappen attempted to avoid the spinning Pérez but, in doing so, found himself in the gravel and on an unavoidable trip to the wall.
This brought out the safety car, allowing Pérez to pit and rejoin at the back of the pack. Russell aced the restart and opened out a two-second lead, which he would maintain comfortably for the entirety of the first stint.
Once Russell had pitted on lap 45, Bottas extended for a further four laps and came out nine seconds behind his new team-mate but, crucially, with fresher tyres. The Finn started to close the gap. It had come down to four seconds by lap 61 and we appeared to be in for a titanic inter-team scrap for the win, with Bottas looking desperate on a weekend where his credibility had taken quite a hit. But then came the incident that changed the race.
Debutant Jack Aitken clipped the barriers and lost his front wing at the exit of the final corner. The abandoned chunk of Williams was sitting on the racing line and, with no clear gap in the traffic for a marshal to retrieve it, a safety car was called. Mercedes chose to do a 'safety stop' and bring both cars in, wary of being followed by cars on fresher, softer tyres in the final laps.
But nothing about these pit stops was safe. A last-second panic led to Bottas's tyres being fitted to Russell's car. In scenes reminiscent of the shambolic Hamilton pit stop in Germany last year, mechanics ran around as they realised the correct tyres were missing and, after nearly 30 seconds stationary, eventually fitted the old tyres Bottas had arrived on back onto his car. Russell was then forced to come in again for the correct tyres and found himself in fifth, immediately behind Bottas.
Mercedes are so often infallible, but when they mess up...it's usually calamitous.
Bottas struggled with his old tyres for the rest of the grand prix and Russell soon pulled off an excellent move around the outside of Turn 6. The chance of a stunning victory was still on. It was not long before Lance Stroll and Esteban Ocon - in third and second respectively - were dispatched and Russell then set about catching Pérez who, astonishingly, was in the lead.
The Mexican had expertly driven back through the field whilst looking after the tyres in his signature style and was now coaxing a set of hards to the chequered flag. So, which fairy tale was it to be: the youngster winning during his stand-in appearance for Mercedes or the veteran of 190 grands prix finally getting his first win after many an opportunistic podium?
The answer came on lap 78 as Pete Bonnington radioed Russell to say that he had a slow puncture and would have to pit once again. Heartbreak for the 22-year-old as he trundled down the pit lane for a fourth time and rejoined in 15th. He fought bravely and would at least recover to ninth to gain his first ever points, but that will be scant consolation when he could taste a victory in the most extraordinary of circumstances just a few minutes earlier.
Whilst one fairy tale had turned into a nightmare, the other was unfolding perfectly. Pérez extended his lead over the remaining laps and came home to become the first Mexican winner in F1 for half a century. He also now holds the record for the most races contested before a maiden grand prix victory.
An exultant team of Pink Panthers celebrate Pérez's maiden win. (Photo: Motorsport Images)
The paddock - whilst clearly gutted for Russell - was overjoyed for 'Checo', who struggled to hold back tears as he stood on the top step of the podium and heard his country's national anthem ring out. It was also joy for Ocon, taking a maiden podium, and Racing Point who - with Stroll also holding onto third - have reclaimed the high ground in the battle with McLaren and Renault for third in the constructors' standings.
A truly fitting result for the man who was instrumental in saving the team just a couple of years ago.
UNCOMFORTABLE QUESTIONS TO ANSWER FOR BOTTAS
It was a messy weekend for Bottas. He never looked totally at ease with the car around Sakhir's tricky, bumpy 'Outer Circuit' and questions will surely be asked when a stand-in driver from Williams is able to come in and perform at least as well as an established team member of nearly four years.
It appeared that the pressure was getting to Bottas. He always does his best to project the 'unflappable Finn' stereotype but we have often seen, when it really counts, he fails to deliver.
Russell clearly did an exceptional job, but Bottas will likely now be secretly hoping that Hamilton is unable to return for Abu Dhabi next weekend so he can have a shot at redemption. With the 2022 Mercedes seat very much available, and Russell surely running out of patience at Williams, those in charge will have some big decisions to make next year. And the young man from King's Lynn just gave them something to think long and hard about.
A green light for George Russell... (Photo: es.motorsport.com)
He may not have got the win he deserved this weekend, but he certainly increased his chances to be competing for many more in the future.