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Blast From The Past: 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix

Written by Jacob Awcock, Edited by Sean McKean

One week on from the Bahrain Grand Prix which featured a fiery crash for Romain Grosjean, Formula One returned to the desert for another round of racing. This time, though, the race would be on a slightly different circuit plus different drivers set to drive for different teams.

Despite being taken out on the first lap and being at the rear of the field for the first few laps of the race, Sergio Perez would claim his first ever Grand Prix win, making him a tantalizing option for Red Bull who were looking to replace Alex Albon.

On his debut for Mercedes, George Russell was left disappointed after what should have been a win for him had slipped away following multiple poor strategy calls by his team.

Yet this time round the grid would be missing arguably its most noticeable driver. Having tested positive for COVID-19 just days before, Lewis Hamilton would be replaced by young Williams driver George Russell, who had been heavily linked with the other Mercedes seat replacing Valtteri Bottas.

Jack Aitken – Williams’ development and reserve driver — would step into the Williams seat to replace George and Haas reserve driver Pietro Fittipaldi – the grandson of two-time world champion Emerson Fittipaldi – would step in for Grosjean whose injuries meant he would sit out the rest of the season. 

As well as new drivers, a new circuit awaited the teams. The outer layout of the Bahrain International Circuit would make its F1 debut featuring a tight and twisty top section which would funnel drivers out onto the back straight, leading them down to the final corners. 

Russell would step in for Lewis Hamilton who contracted Covid-19 and was unfit to race. Image Credits: Clive Mason/Getty Images

In qualifying it was Valtteri Bottas who came out on top, piping his new teammate to the top spot on the grid by just two hundredths of a second. Verstappen was third, just five hundredths of pole with Leclerc behind in fourth. Perez would manage an impressive fifth, outqualifying his teammate for the seventh time this season claiming his position on the grid was “unexpected.” 

87 laps awaited the drivers and all eyes were on the young Brit making his Mercedes debut. As the lights went out, Russell got the better start and pulled up alongside his teammate followed closely by Verstappen into the first turn.

At the braking point, Russell took the lead with Bottas being demoted down to second. Things could have got worse for Bottas, as a poor exit out of the third turn left him vulnerable to a charging Verstappen and Perez, who had passed Leclerc into turn one.

Bottas braked last into turn four but not as late as Leclerc who braked too late. He slammed into Perez, spinning him round. Verstappen, seeing the chaos next to him, had to take evasive action and went straight on across the gravel but couldn't control his car and went steaming into the barriers.

Two strong contenders – Leclerc and Verstappen – for the win out on the first lap with another at the back of the grid and having to limp back to the pits for repairs.

The safety car was required for a lengthy period of time to recover the two cars which played into Perez’s hands as he was now able to claw his way back onto the rear of the field and begin a hopeful charge. It was clear Racing Point was going for ‘damage limitation’ and could only hope for a few points this evening. What they got, though, was a whole lot more. 

As the safety car pulled in, Russell led away perfectly from Bottas who was under pressure from a fast-starting Carlos Sainz. Bottas aggressively attempted to cover off Sainz who dove to the inside of turn one to claim second place but ran wide in the process allowing Bottas to swoop back past in what was turning out to be a crazy race and only seven laps had been completed. 

Just ten laps later we got to see what kind of racing the new layout of the track could produce. Alex Albon, who had a very poor qualifying by his standards, started twelfth but had worked his way up to tenth and was looking to pass his good friend Lando Norris in the McLaren.

As the pair headed towards turn four Albon moved to the outside – usually an unconventional tactic. Albon stayed wheel to wheel putting him in prime position to claim the inside into turn five and shoot into ninth place. 

Norris was in more trouble now and was under pressure from Perez who was looking for points having effortlessly picked off seven drivers in the space of 13 laps. The Mexican followed suit, passing Norris into turn six and promoting himself to tenth place. And it didn't take him long to claim another position as the pink Racing Point shot past Albon in a move identical to the one Albon performed beforehand.

Russell had done so much, it was his team who let him down. Image Credits: Tolga Bozoglu/Getty Images

As the race drew on, it seemed that Russell was about to cruise comfortably to his first ever victory in Formula One as Bottas could not get anywhere close to the Brit. The two AlphaTauri cars, who had strong qualifying sessions, dropped back following the pit stops allowing Perez to climb up into seventh place and be just seven seconds off the lead with over twenty laps remaining. 

But more drama was to come. Nicholas Latifi brought out the yellow flags having pulled to the side of the track with an oil leak, triggering a virtual safety car (VSC).

With the field’s speed reduced by 30%, both Ricciardo and Sainz opted to pit for fresh tyres. But as both drivers were in the pits the VSC was withdrawn meaning drivers could drive at maximum speed now. Both drivers dropped down the order and Esteban Ocon was promoted to third place with the two Racing Points glued behind him.

Perez was on fire and had been all race. With 30 laps remaining he effortlessly dispatched his teammate Lance Stroll and moved into fourth place. But this didn't last long as he managed to gain another position, passing Esteban Ocon for a podium place the next lap in identical fashion.

The gap to the two Mercedes now was over 25 seconds, and while Perez was flying, 25 seconds in under 30 laps it seemed an impossible margin to close. The Mexican, seemingly, would have to settle for third place which –, considering he was last at the end of the first lap –, was a mighty impressive achievement.

Lap 63. Yellow flags at the final corner. Jack Aitken had hit the wall, destroying his front wing and shedding carbon fiber on the race track. A safety car. While the gap would still close up between Perez and the two Mercedes, it was still unlikely that Perez would be able to pass one of them let alone both due to their superior engine power.

Both Mercedes drivers came into the pits for fresh tyres that would see them to the end of the race. Russell’s pit stop was slow but not dramatically slow, and he rejoined in the lead, but the same could not be said for his teammates.

Mercedes, a team that had been so composed with their pit stops all season long, had made next to no mistakes and seemed almost flustered. Wheels on, wheels off, wheels being moved about. It was chaos. After 27 seconds of chaos, Bottas rejoined the track in fifth place, somewhat amazed at what had just happened with his team. 

That handed second place to Perez and a podium spot to Esteban Ocon, set for his first ever podium in Formula One. As Russell crawled along behind the safety car, it became apparent something was not right.

The Mercedes crew had mixed up Bottas and Russell’s tyres meaning Russell had a mixed set of tyres on his car; not permitted by the regulations he had to pit again.

Despite the pit stop being much better than last time he dropped to behind his teammate in fifth place, handing the lead to Sergio Perez. The Mexican had led a race before but had never won one and, with less than 20 laps to go, it was beginning to look like a maiden race win was possible.

As the laps ticked down Russell went about amending his team’s mistake. He quickly dispatched of Bottas in a phenomenal move coming out of turn four while Stroll and Ocon were easy, effortless moves for him. 

Ten laps to go and the gap between him and Perez was down to two seconds The Mercedes W11 had been formidable all season long, winning 13 of the 15 races that season and, with Russell behind the wheel, it seemed unlikely that it would be the Mexican national anthem heard after the checkered flag.

As Russell gained, the opposite was happening to his teammate who was slipping further and further back: first Riccardo, then Albon, then Kvyat relegated him to ninth place in the space of a few laps. Mercedes’ day was going from bad to worse but if they could win then all could be forgotten. But luck was not on their side.

Perez ended his 190 winless drought with a commanding win. Image Credits: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Now within two seconds, Russell was looking at an inevitable maiden win, had it not been for a rear left puncture ruining his evening. The Brit had been cruelly denied a first win, a first podium and possibly his first ever points in Formula One as he rejoined the track out of the points. 

With a gap of ten seconds to second place Ocon, Sergio Perez, after 190 races, three different teams, Sergio Perez claimed his first ever win under the lights in Bahrain.

Esteban Ocon claimed second place achieving his first podium and Lance Stroll made it a Racing Point 1-3, the first time the team had ever had both drivers on the podium.

Despite looking at alternative options to Formula One for the 2021 racing season Perez had put all this to the back of his mind and produced one of the greatest drives ever seen behind the wheel of a race car and was unsurprisingly emotional over the team radio. He had won his and his team’s first ever race. 

Carlos Sainz came home fourth, just eight- tenths of a second off a podium while Daniel Ricciardo rounded out the top five. It was the first time in the 2020 season that the top five had not featured a Mercedes driver, both of whom were left visibly and unsurprisingly disappointed.

Bottas managed eighth and Russell managed to salvage three points for the stuttering Mercedes team in ninth. It was the first time Mercedes had truly failed at a race in a long time but Perez didn't care. He claimed the team “had won on merit” and with a performance like that, no one could deny it.


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