Mexico’s Sergio Perez drove a superb race for Racing Point to take his first career victory on an extraordinary evening in Bahrain at the 87-lap 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix. Renault’s Esteban Ocon trailed Perez by 10.2s with Racing Point team-mate Lance Stroll joining them on the podium.
With nine laps remaining, Sergio Perez was just 2.1 seconds ahead of new-Mercedes-star-in-the-making George Russell, when the Brit suffered a puncture, robbing him of a probable victory on his Mercedes debut.
Russell, promoted to the fastest Formula One machine in history after Lewis Hamilton contracted coronavirus, was hunting Perez down and trailed the Mexican by just two seconds before being forced to stop for new rubber.
Only moments earlier, Russell dropped down the order following a rare Mercedes double pit-stop faux pas.
Russell, at just 22 years old, held a commanding five-second lead over teammate Valtteri Bottas when Mercedes called both of their drivers in for new rubber. A safety car period had been called when Williams rookie Jack Aitken spun and a lost front wing.
But there was a mix-up among the Mercedes mechanics as they mistakenly put Bottas’ tyres on Russell’s car. That meant, by regulations, Russell had to come into the pits again on the following lap, dropping him to fifth.
The safety car pulled in with 19 of the 87 laps remaining and Russell – with victory in sight – wasted no time in moving up the order, passing Bottas, Lance Stroll and Esteban Ocon inside two laps.
He set about running down Perez, taking more than one second out of the Racing Point man’s lead before his Mercedes puncture. It allowed Perez to cruise to a comfortable victory with Russell eventually crossing the line in ninth.
Sergio Perez demonstrated plenty of stellar skill and determination as well, storming back from last place on the first lap after a coming together with Charles Leclerc, and breaking the Ferrari ace’s left front suspension. The Monegasque was out on the spot, along with third qualifier Max Verstappen who slammed his Red Bull into the outside wall avoiding the contretemps.
Formula 1 remained in Bahrain for the second race in as many weekends. This time there would be a new configuration of the Sakhir track. Registering at just 2.2 miles, the course effectively featured only six corners.
British driver George Russell narrowly missed out on a dream pole after he lost out to teammate Valtteri Bottas by just 0.026 seconds quicker in the other Mercedes.
Russell improved with his final run under the lights of the Sakhir Circuit, but he couldn’t do enough to usurp the Finn. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen would line up in third, just 0.056s behind Bottas. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc finished fourth.
“It has been incredibly tense with so much to learn and getting used to the car,” said Russell. “It felt really alien, to begin with, and it is a different way to drive. I needed to relearn how to drive this car fast.”
“I was happy to get through to Q3 after final practice, and if you told me last week I would qualify second, I wouldn’t have believed you. I have got nobody in front of me, which I have not experienced for a long time, so it is going to be tricky. I will give it everything I have got.”
Any doubts about George Russell’s first lap jitters disappeared at lights out. The Brit led into Turn 1, with Bottas getting loose coming out of Turn 2. Verstappen was blocked and fell back alongside the surging Perez and Leclerc.
Verstappen braked very early for Turn 4, giving Leclerc room up the inside. However, the Ferrari ace braked too late, locked up and hit the rear right of Perez. The Dutchman, trying to take avoiding action, went onto the gravel and slid into the barriers.
Perez, showing no damage, pitted for new tyres. He returned dead last.
At the restart on Lap 7, Russell disappeared while Carlos Sainz immediately attacked Bottas into Turn 1. Sainz went up the inside with a brave move to take second, but he ran wide at Turn 3, and Bottas retook the position.
By Lap 9, Russell was in control, extending his lead to 1.8s and by Lap 30, it had grown to 2.5s.
Ominously, due to others stopping for tyres, Perez fought back to fifth place by Lap 31, just behind Esteban Ocon’s Renault in fourth and teammate Lance Stroll, on 27 lap-old tyres.
Russell pitted for hard tyres on Lap 46, and after Bottas responded on Lap 49, Russell extended his lead to 8.3s.
On Lap 63 of 87, Jack Aikens’ Williams spun – his front wing nudges the barrier, and lands on the racing line, triggering a Full Safety Car.
In come the Mercedes…
It was a slow stop for Russell, but with Bottas waiting behind in the lane, it is of no consequence to the Brit.
However, it does infuriate Bottas as the Mercedes crew didn’t have the Finn’s correct compound of tyre ready. The delay caused his brakes to overheat and ignite. After a 27.4s pit stop, he rejoined in fifth place.
Word was sent to Russell on Lap 65. His tyres were mixed with Bottas’, and he must pit to make the correction. He falls from the lead to sixth, behind Bottas.
The Grand Prix restarts on Lap 69, with Perez now in the lead over Ocon. Russell has the bit between his teeth, surging past Bottas, Stroll and Ocon. By Lap 78, he’s within 2.1s of Perez when the incredible happened – he suffered a puncture.
Russell pits and rejoined in 14th. He scratched and clawed his way back to ninth place – that’s two points plus a bonus one for fastest lap.
Carlos Sainz (McLaren) held on for fourth, ahead of Daniel Riccardo (Renault), Alex Albon (Red Bull), and Daniil Kvyat (Alpha Tauri). Valtteri Bottas finally secured eighth. Lando Norris (McLaren) took the final point in tenth.
Those who thought they were going to see something fantastic today with a victory for George Russell saw instead two glorious moments almost equally compelling.
First, Sergio Perez climbed from last place to his first F1 victory to save his career. Second, George Russell had one race to prove he is the next Mercedes star.
Mission accomplished, gentlemen.