Sakhir Grand Prix: Perez's 10-year wait for an F1 win ends

Racing Point’s Sergio Perez, who is without a seat for the 2021 Formula One season, took his first victory in the sport in his 190th race start.

Fifty years after Pedro Rodriguez took the second of his two wins in F1 at the 1970 Belgian Grand Prix, Sergio Perez became the second Mexican to stand on the top step of the podium.   -  AP

The tears flowed for two men after the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix in Bahrain — of long-awaited joy for the veteran, of utter disappointment for the rookie.

Racing Point’s Sergio Perez, who is without a seat for the 2021 Formula One season, took his first victory in the sport in his 190th race start — the longest wait, by far, in F1 — while George Russell, sitting in for the Covid-stricken Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes, saw his challenge for the win deflate with a slow puncture to his left-rear tyre amid high drama at 2020’s penultimate race.

Chaos, confusion and a newlook podium

The first-ever Sakhir GP took place on the Outer Circuit configuration of the Bahrain International Circuit one week after the Bahrain GP was conducted on the regular Grand Prix layout. The 3.5km Outer Circuit layout witnessed F1’s first sub-one-minute lap times since the 1974 French Grand Prix, but some drivers raised concerns about the proximity of the cars on track and related safety issues. The “shortness” of the track reflected most in the third session of qualifying, where the top 10 starters were separated by just 0.8 seconds.

READ| Mixed feelings for Russell after Sakhir heartbreak

Theoretically, a short, superfast track should lessen the impact of the power gap between teams in qualifying and practice, as was seen over the weekend, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen fastest in Free Practice 3 ahead of the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas and AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly. But that competitiveness should have disappeared over the 300km distance of an F1 race. Unfortunately, two safety cars period precipitated by an opening-lap incident and another later in the race mean it is hard to judge the actual effect of the shorter circuit.

Bottas, fresh of more disappointment as regular Mercedes teammate Hamilton collected a record-equalling seventh world drivers’ title before falling victim to the coronavirus, took pole position in Sakhir, but the Finn dropped behind Russell on the opening lap. Behind the lead duo, the fast-starting Charles Leclerc misjudged his braking for turn four and his Ferrari clipped Perez, forcing Verstappen to run wide and eventually into the barriers and out of the race.

READ| Sakhir Grand Prix: Mercedes fined 20,000 euros after tyre mix-up bungle

Russell, as calm and collected as he has been in his nearly two seasons with bottom-placed Williams, had taken the lead through turn one at the start. The 22-year-old Briton stayed steady at the front and was set to emulate five-time Formula One champion Juan Manuel Fangio by winning on his debut with Mercedes (the Argentine won with the Silver Arrows in their first-ever F1 race in France 1954). But the man who replaced Russell at Williams for the race, Jack Aitken, hit the barriers at the exit of turn 11 on lap 61 and left his front wing on track — which resulted in a belated full safety car period after the stewards had first called for a virtual safety car (VSC).

George Russell, sitting in for the Covid-stricken Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes, saw his challenge for the win deflate with a slow puncture to his left-rear tyre amid high drama at 2020’s penultimate race..   -  AP

 

The two Mercedes cars were the only frontrunners to pit for fresh tyres. What followed was a level of confusion and chaos that is unfathomable amid the precision of F1. Russell, the race leader, entered the pits first, with second-placed Bottas stacked behind him awaiting his turn. The Mercedes pit crew — unbelievably — sent Russell back out with one tyre that was meant for his teammate. Bottas’s car was then refitted with the worn tyres that his crew had just taken off and he was sent out, while Russell was called back in immediately to replace the offending tyre.

Bottas rejoined in fourth behind the safety car, while Russell slotted in on his tail. At the front was Perez, who had earlier moved up to third after pitting on lap one following the incident with Leclerc and staying out while the other drivers opted for fresh rubber during a previous VSC period. The Renault of Estaban Ocon — a former Racing Point driver who sat out the 2019 season without a racing contract, ironically — and the second Racing Point car of Lance Stroll brought up the other podium places.

READ| F1: Sergio Perez claims first race win in chaotic Sakhir Grand Prix

When racing resumed on lap 69, Bottas immediately struggled on his old tyres, and he dropped three positions in a single lap. Meanwhile, his teammate was on a flyer, first getting past the Finn and then Stroll and Ocon in the proceeding two laps. On lap 78 of 87, after closing the gap to race leader Perez to within three seconds, Russell suffered a slow puncture and heartbreak, and fell to 14th. The Brit made a flurry of overtakes as he climbed back up to ninth to score his first points in F1, including one for the fastest lap of the race.

Perez cruised to victory — the first for the Racing Point team — as Ocon and Stroll finished second and third, respectively. It was the second race in a season dominated by Mercedes power and the Red Bull of Verstappen where none of the top four finishers were previous race winners. Sainz followed Stroll across the finish line in Sakhir, while AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly took his first F1 win at the Italian Grand Prix in September ahead of Sainz, Stroll and Lando Norris.

Long wait

Sergio Perez has already spent a veritable lifetime in F1. He debuted with Sauber in 2011, moved to McLaren for 2013, and the season after he signed for Force India, the predecessor to Racing Point. Over the last decade, he has consistently been among the best of the midfield drivers, placing between seventh and 11th in the standings every year except in his debut season (Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull occupied all the top six spots between 2016 and ’19 with the exception of sixth place last season). The Mexican had eight podium finishes prior to the 2020 season, but his consistency was yet to be rewarded with a win.

READ| Sakhir GP: Bottas bags pole position, Russell to start second

That finally came in a race where Perez found himself at the back of the grid at the end of the first lap. Fifty years after Pedro Rodriguez took the second of his two wins in F1 at the 1970 Belgian Grand Prix, Perez became the second Mexican to stand on the top step of the podium. By winning in his 190th race start (from 195 entries), Perez’s wait was considerably longer than that of the previous record-holder, Mark Webber, who won his first F1 race on his 130th start.

“I’m a bit speechless. I hope I’m not dreaming, because I’ve dreamed for so many years of being in this moment. Ten years it took me. Incredible, I mean... I don’t know what to say. After the first lap, the race was again gone, same as last weekend. But it was all about not giving up, recovering and going for it, just making the best we possibly could. This season, the luck hasn’t been with us this year, but we finally got it and I think we won today on merit. Yeah, the Mercs had some issues but in the end my pace was strong enough to hold George who did a fantastic race today,” Perez said in the post-race press conference.

Perez is provisionally without a drive for the 2021 season, his seat being taken by four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, who in turn is being replaced at Ferrari by McLaren’s Carlos Sainz Jr. As of this writing, Perez’s best chance seems to be Red Bull, which is yet to announce its second driver for next year and has a penchant for playing musical chairs with the seat along with its “junior” team, AlphaTauri (previously Toro Rosso).

Race for second still on

With Verstappen crashing out at the start in Sakhir, Bottas needed to finish third or better to seal second place in the drivers’ championship. That, of course, didn’t happen, leaving Verstappen one final shot at stealing second at the season-ender in Abu Dhabi.

With 332 points, Hamilton is way ahead in the standings, but Bottas on 205 has just 16 more than his Red Bull competitor, with a maximum 26 to race for at the Yas Marina circuit. Behind them, fourth-placed Perez (125) has a 13-point lead on Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo, who moves to McLaren next year. Next down the order, 11 points separate Leclerc, Sainz, the second Red Bull of Alexander Albon and Lando Norris in the other McLaren car.

Great ball of fire

The previous weekend’s Bahrain GP, while tame in terms of racing, will be remembered for Romain Grosjean’s miraculous escape. The Haas driver made contact with the AlphaTauri of Daniil Kvyat on the opening lap and crashed into the barriers. His car was split in two, with the front half that included the cockpit getting wedged in the barriers, as leaking fuel ignited. Grosjean spent nearly half a minute extricating himself from the wreckage, but escaped with just minor second-degree burns on his hands.

At the Bahrain GP, Haas driver Romain Grosjean made contact with the AlphaTauri of Daniil Kvyat on the opening lap and crashed into the barriers. His car was split in two, with the front half that included the cockpit getting wedged in the barriers, as leaking fuel ignited. Grosjean spent nearly half a minute extricating himself from the wreckage, but escaped with just minor second-degree burns on his hands.   -  AP

 

“It is with great sadness that I will not be able to do my final race in Abu Dhabi and be with the team there. We have tried as much as we could with the doctor to recover and to repair my hand, but the risk of racing is too big for my recovery and my health. So, the decision was made that I am not going to race,” Grosjean said in a statement ahead of the Sakhir GP, bringing an end to nearing a decade in the sport.

Grosjean’s Haas teammate Kevin Magnussen is also leaving F1 at the end of the season. The duo will be replaced by Russia’s Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher, the son of seven-time world champion Michael, for 2021.