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Sergio Perez claimed his first Formula One Grand Prix victory in bizarre circumstances at the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix. The Racing Point driver stole George Russell’s fairtytale in a drive from last to first on a night that had belonged to the young Brit. Russell’s flawless race fell apart after an uncharacteristic bungle by the Mercedes AMG Petronas team during a late pit stop saw Russell momentarily run on his teammate’s tyres.
Perez’s win capped off what can only be described as a truly strange weekend for Formula One. From the shock announcement of Lewis Hamilton’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Romain Grosjean’s remarkable recovery, Jack Aitken’s and Pietro Fittipaldi’s call up to F1 and Russell’s temporary loan the Mercedes, Sakhir was full of the unexpected.
Valtteri Bottas held the position at the head of the queue when the lights went out at the start of the Sakhir Grand Prix, with a trio of challenger headed by George Russell in close pursuit. Sergio Perez was squeezed wide by Max Verstappen and Bottas under brakes for turn 1 as Russell took a narrower line and the race lead under brakes for the corner. Bottas slid at the exit of the turn which impeded Verstappen and saw the Aston Martin Red Bull car come under attack from Perez and Charles Leclerc.
Plumes of smoke trailed the field on the approach to turn 4 as Kimi Raikkonen spun the Alfa Romeo. Leclerc then had his own lock up as he dove inside Perez and Verstappen at turn 4. The Ferrari’s front wing slid under Perez’s right rear tyre which sent the Racing Point briefly into the air before returning to the track in a deluge of sparks before gyrating off the circuit and taking both Leclerc and Verstappen to the outside wall. Perez somehow escaped unscathed and drove to the pitlane to replace four flat spotted soft tyres with new mediums, while Verstappen kicked the tyre wall in anger as he walked away from his damaged car.
“I don’t know why they were being so aggressive and so reckless,” Verstappen told Sky Sports. “We are up at the front and then at the end of the day three cars were the victim of it, two cars heavily. I don’t know why, especially Charles in turn four, why he dives on the inside like that. To brake that late, what do you expect, Checo cannot see what is happening on the inside and he basically locked his wheel and understeered into me and because of that Checo was spinning backwards. I tried to go around the outside, try not damage my car, but there’s nothing you can do there.”
Leclec also told his side of the story to Sky Sports. “I had seen Checo but I expected him to go around the outside of Valtteri and stay there but he decided after to come back on the inside and I was there and it was too late for me to slow down. I don’t think it’s a mistake from Checo, I am not putting the blame on Checo, if there’s anybody to blame today it’s me, but I would say it’s more unfortunate than a blame.”
Russell led Bottas when racing resumed at the commencement of lap 7. Sainz and Ricciardo had inherited 3rd and 4th with Kvyat, Stroll, Gasly, Ocon, Vettel and Norris completing the top 10 to that point. Bottas moved out of Russell’s slipstream on the run down the pit straight as Sainz looked to capitalise at the restart. The orange McLaren braked late and demoted Bottas to 3rd. Sainz ran wide in doing so which allowed Bottas to regain his place. As the pair squabbled Russell opened up a handy gap at the front. At the other end of the grid the two debutante’s, Aitken and Fittipaldi, gained valuable experience as they diced with Raikkonen, Giovinazzi and Latifi for 14th place. Sergio Perez had already begun his rescue mission and sat just behind the Vettel’s Ferrari and Albon’s Aston Martin Rd Bull in 12th.
By lap 13 Russell had extended his lead to over 2 seconds over Bottas by lap 13 and provided a sense of merriment to the Sky Sports commentary team when he radioed his engineer to ask when did they want him to push. Whilst it may well have amused some, it was not something that Bottas’ crew wanted to hear. He also asked to be reminded to stop in the first bay when it was time for his scheduled stop.
Bottas responded with a fastest lap as he reduced Russell’s lead to 1.8 seconds by lap 24. Russell once again contacted his engineer for advice, “Please let me know if he is using kerbs. I can probably go a tenth and a half, two tenths quicker a lap.”
The race had become a battle between the two Mercedes for the win, a fact not uncommon in 2020 albeit with a new driver in George Russell. Their Q2 effort on medium tyres had the pair set for a longer opening spell than the rest of the top 7, who all started on the softer red walled tyres and were beginning to feel the effects of worn rubber. Daniil Kvyat was the first of the leaders to stop on lap 28, which was the catalyst for the most to follow. The move by the Alpha Tauri team saw Kvyat jump ahead of Daniel Riaciardo after the Australian had pitted, which left the Renault driver stuck behind the Honda powered machine for some time. Lance Stroll was the exception and continued to show strong pace on the soft tyres past the half distance point of the race. The Canadian eventually stopped for the medium tyres and dropped behind Ocon for 10th on lap 44.
Russell made no mistake on his entry to the pitlane at the end of lap 46 and changed to the harder compound tyre. He returned to the track in second only to complain of a lack of power. His team radioed the need to change to HPP default 35 as he set the fastest time for sector 2. The pit entry lap, stop and subsequent HPP issue cost Russell over 4 seconds, but he continued to lead after Bottas’ stop on lap 50.
Nicholas Latifi stopped on the edge of the circuit near turn 8 on lap 56. A brief Virtual Safety Car period then caught out both McLaren and Renault with disastrous results for Sainz and Ricciardo. Lando Norris completed his stop under caution, but the track had unexpectedly returned to green race conditions by the time Sainz and Ricciardo reached the pit entry. The decision dropped Sainz and Ricciardo to 7th and 8th respectively. Sergio Perez had been the big winner and moved into 4th place on the hard compound tyre.
The defining moment in the race occurred on lap 60 when Jack Aitken ran wide at the final corner, spun and glanced the outside wall, which broke the front wing off his Williams. The debris sat just off the racing line, which forced a full course caution and the eventual deployment of the Safety Car after first running a VSC.
Confusion reigned in the ensuing pitstop for Mercedes with Russell taking a late call to stop and double stacking ahead of Bottas. The late call saw Russell given Bottas’ front tyres and Bottas then sent back out on the used hards when the mistake was discovered. Mercedes brought Russell back in at the end of the lap for the correct tyres in the hope that the re-dress would minimise any post race penalty and potential disqualification for Russell.
Sergio Perez inherited the race lead from Ocon and Stroll as the field continued to lumber around behind the Safety Car. Despite the pitlane drama Bottas was 4th and Russell 5th. Sainz and Ricciardo sat in 6th and 7th respectively after their own pitlane misfortunes from Kvyat, Gasly and Albon. Russell moved past Bottas for 4th on lap 70 and quickly caught Stroll in the second Racing Point car. He took 3rd on lap 72 and then second from Ocon on lap 73 as he fought to regain control of the race.
There was just one more painful twist to be played out during the final ten laps of the race. A call from Mercedes saw Russell once again head to the pits for soft compound tyres after a slow puncture had been detected on the car. Bottas had already dropped down to 9th on his twice worn hard rubber and Russell returned to the circuit in 15th.
Sergio Perez went on to claim his first Grand Prix victory from Esteban Ocon and Lance Stroll. George Russell claimed his first championship points after final lap passes on Gasly and Norris for 9th and the fastest lap of the race in what was a very poor reward for his effort. Sainz finished ahead of Ricciardo in 4th, while Albon, Kvyat and Bottas finished 6th, 7th and 8th respectively. Lando Norris scored the final point in 10th place.
Perez’s win was the first Grand Prix victory for a Mexican driver since 1970 in what may well be his penultimate Formula One drive.
“I’m a little speechless,” an understandably emotional Perez told Sky Sports. “I hope I’m not dreaming because I’ve dreamt for so many years of being in this moment. Ten years it took me, incredible! I don’t know what to say because after the first lap the race was gone, the same as last weekend. But is was all about not giving up, recovering and going for it to make the best race that we possibly could. The luck hasn’t been with us this year but we finally got it. I think we won today on merit, the Mercs had some issues but my pace was strong enough in the end to hold of George, who drove a fantastic race today.”
Toto Wolff labelled the pitstop a monumental mistake and told Sky Sports that he had spoken to a distraught Russell at the conclusion of the race. “If you’re in your first race in a Mercedes and you should have won it, driving a monumental race, there is not a lot you can say,” Wolff admitted. “This is where we are but it’s not going to be his last attempt to win a race. It’s just the beginning of a fairytale. It didn’t work out today but I would say a new star is born.”
The possibility of a second race for Russell with Mercedes was another post race talking point. Wolff explained “I think we need to see how well Lewis recovers, that’s the most important that he’s well and he says he’s a bit better today, he’s made a big step. If the test is negative, it’s his car, and then I am sure he will drive a brilliant race. Then if the test in Abu Dhabi is positive then George is in the car.”
There was some small consolation for George Russell later in the evening when it was announced that Stewards had fined Mercedes AMG Petronas twenty thousand Euros for the tyre bungle, but decided against a disqualification or points penalty for the driver. They confirmed that it was “clearly a breach of the regulations and would normally involve a sporting penalty up to disqualification”, it was determined that “in this case, there are mitigating circumstances, additional to the radio issue referred to above”.
The stewards added that: “Firstly, the team rectified the problem within one lap. This involved car 63 making another pit stop, thus dropping it further down the classification. Secondly, car 77 made a pit stop to change tyres only to find that the front tyres to be fitted to it were on car 63, so was sent out after considerable delay with the tyres that were on car 77 prior to the pit stop. This also impacted the final classification of car 77.
Thirdly, although this type of infringement is not catered for under the ‘three-lap tolerance’ referred to in the second paragraph of Article 24.4 b) [which currently only refers to the use of tyres of differing specifications], we consider it to be similar in nature. However, the responsibility to fit tyres in compliance with the regulations still rests with any team and thus a penalty is considered as being required. It is recommended that the FIA consider amending Article 24.4 b) to accommodate this type of breach when it is rectified without delay. It is noted that this type of breach has not previously been experienced in Formula 1.”
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