The Formula One circus got ready for its second race in Bahrain and the penultimate race of this 2020 season at this week’s Sakhir Grand Prix, and what a race it was. With a wild news week leading into it, whether it was the mid-week driver switches or the continuing conversation about the wild race last week at the same circuit, this race was bound to be a break from the usual.
A wild Saturday qualifying on the Bahrain outer track set up an exciting starting grid for Sunday’s race, Bottas taking pole with his new teammate a quarter of a tenth behind, the weekend was pointing favorably in the newcomer’s direction. His session also gave viewers a glimpse at the kind of blistering speed and sub 60 second lap times we were to expect from the 2.2-mile-long track.
Right from lights out, George Russell was on for a good one and took the lead from Valtteri Bottas in only a few corners. While the Russell pulled ahead, a four-way battle for second place waged on for a few corners until Leclerc in the Ferrari lunged into T4 and took Sergio Perez and Max Verstappen with him, The Mexican escaped into the pits while LeClerc and Verstappen were out of the race in the wall.
The first lap collision brought out the safety car and the yellow lights led the field until Lap 7. In the lead and in control of the restart, Russell sped away to a comfortable lead while his teammate and Carlos Sainz in the McLaren had a wonderful battle for runner up, in the end, Bottas retained the position.
The grid began to settle in for the 87 lap race and the Mercedes grew their lead from the rest of the grid. As has been the norm this season, the midfield refused to quiet down as Perez made his way from the back of the grid and through the field after the first lap incident, putting together some spectacular overtakes.
The pit stop strategy game was one to look forward to with the unique challenge presented to the teams given the short lap times of the Bahrain outer circuit. The average pitstop will take 23 seconds, but with a lap time of 57 seconds, that’s almost half the lap. The mid-field was also incredibly bunched up this race making a pitstop cost a lot more places than usual.
With that in mind, the pit stop battle started in the backfield with the Haas, Alfas, and Williams all pitting, causing the midfield to join in shortly after. While the tire shuffle happened behind them the Mercs continued to extend their stints on their starting mediums but it would not last long as they pitted a few laps after everyone else, George blinking first followed by Valtteri four laps later.
After a little power scare with Russell after his pitstop was solved quite quickly, the race reached a little over half distance and the grid settled once again with Russell in the lead from his teammate by nearly eight seconds. Then a Virtual Saftey Car is called to recover the stricken Williams of Nicholas Latifi at Turns 2 and 3 after a mechanical failure. The VSC gave a few midfield teams time to switch over to a two-stop, letting Vettel and Norris get away with the pit stop but the VSC ended too quickly and left Riccardio and Sainz caught out and losing a few more places than anticipated.
After a few laps of calm, the yellows flags are waved once again on the pit straight as Jack Aitken, the driver filling in for George at Williams, goes off and loses his front wong in the process. The front wing debris from the Williams brings out the safety car once and again and this is where the race really kicks off.
The race leaders call in both their cars to the pits in a double stack pit stop, but because of an apparent radio failure on Georges’s side of the garage, the crew fits Bottas’s tires onto Georges’s car. With Bottas pulling in right after George leaves, the pit crew is left confused and ends up taking off and putting back on his old hards. I must not forget about the break fire on the front left just to put a nice cherry on top of Mercedes’s second annual catastrophic pitstop failure when they are being followed by the Netflix crew filming “Drive to Survive” season 3. If it wasn’t already tough to watch, Mercedes had to call in George after one lap to switch tires becuase it is against the regulations to run a set of tires that are not your own. After the race, they received a €20,000 fine for the mishap.
After this year’s Constructors Champions biff the pit stop, the door is wide open for the midfield runners to take over, specifically, Perez, and Stroll in the Racing Points who take first and third with Renaults Estaban Ocon taking second on lap 64. The Mercedes follow with Bottas in fourth and George in fifth on the safety car restart.
When the Saftey car goes into the pits, Perez storms away with the lead, not much pressure from the cars following. On lap 71 George puts on one of the best moves of the race maybe the season, on his teammate to grab fourth and wastes no time taking care of Stroll and Ocon. Now within 3 seconds of the Mexican, this race is Georges for the taking.
Then it all falls apart.
On lap 79, George’s race engineer comes on the radio and delivers the worst news a driver could get when they are this close to their first world championship point, first podium, and almost surely first win in Formula One. “Left rear Puncture,” said Bonno, breaking the hearts of millions.
After a glimmer of hope appeared when Crofty on the Sky Sports commentary misattributes the radio message to Bottas, it was confirmed when the number 63 Mercedes made its way into the pits for the third time this race and get fitted for a new set of soft tires.
As George’s name dropped down the timing column all the way down to fifteenth place, not even in the points, the hearts of Formula One fans across the world did as well. But the race is not over, Sergio Perez is still growing his lead and is on track to net his first win in Formula One.
While the race comes to its final laps, George is tearing his way through the midfield in an attempt to get in the top 10 and score a point at least. While he moves up, his teammate is getting ambushed by the midfield and dropping places like it’s his job. They meet in the middle and finish the race at ninth for George and eight for Bottas.
In the end, while it wasn’t who was expected going into the final 20 laps, we had a new winner in Formula One, Sergio Perez. The same Sergio Perez who saved Racing Point from folding in 2018, saving the jobs of everyone around him and insuring the future of the team. The same Sergio Perez who signed a 3-year contract last year only for it to be thrown out and gets dropped by his team for next season. The same Sergio Perez who is in very real danger of not racing next year is a race winner.
This is one of the greatest races I’ve ever seen, now I haven’t been following Formula One for the longest time, only the last 2 years really. Despite that, I have had the pleasure of witnessing some modern classics, and this is right up there with the best of them. It was exhilarating from start to finish and never took a breath for too long. It had a good fight for the lead and an excellent fight for the midfield places all throughout the race. It was a great collection of fantastic overtakes all around the track and Perex ut in one of the best drives of his career and it fell great to finally see his hard work pay off.
Races like these are what I love about this often times weird but wonderful sport. The racing itself is fantastic, but that level of entertainment is further propelled by the storylines and character arcs almost that we see from off track. When the character and personality of the drivers are displayed in their racing, this sport is at its best and that is exactly what we saw today.
The results and performances from the Sakhir Grand Prix will leave a lot up for discussion in the coming weeks and we could have a very full news week ahead of the final race of the season.