The inaugural Sakhir GP certainly provided fans of Formula 1 with their fair share of fossil-fuelled drama. The outer ring of the Bahrain International Circuit was put to use by the F1 circus for the first time ever, meaning that drivers would be going faster and cornering less. However, the big difference was the absence of one overly dominant driver who goes by the name of Lewis Hamilton and is isolating as a result of unfortunately testing positive for coronavirus a day after his win in the Bahrain GP on November 29. Driving literally in his place was Williams’ George Russell. The 22 year-old driver was given the seat of Hamilton’s mighty W11 car and went as rapidly as could be expected, until disaster struck.
A different kind of disaster struck in the first lap again, this time involving three hard-charging drivers; Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Sergio Perez in his Racing Point. As Perez accelerated around Leclerc, the Monegasque charged up the inside and the two collided at the apex of Turn 4. Perez was sent spinning, while Leclerc and Verstappen suffered a crueler fate as they both slid into an adjacent barrier. Verstappen was understandably disappointed with his involuntary withdrawal from the race, as the Dutchman had a good chance of winning without the untouchable Hamilton in his way.
The following moments saw a Safety Car enter the track as the costly crash was cleared. Perez was lucky in the sense that he could carry on, but had to change to medium tyres following his contact with Leclerc and thus rejoined the race in 18th place. However, by lap 15, the Mexican had already climbed to 11th place as he opened up his rapid Racing Point on what is a very speedy 2.2 mile circuit. By the halfway-point that was the 44th lap, Russell was driving a full 3 seconds ahead of his temporary teammate Valtteri Bottas who was holding off an offensive onslaught from Carlos Sainz in his orange McLaren as the Spaniard brought the fight to Mercedes-AMG.
As the race carried on, so did Russell in his new car, which he was clearly beginning to enjoy as he continued to comfortably lead the pack for the next many laps. However, Russell’s replacement driver in his Williams machine, Jack Aitken was forced to pit having just wiped his wing off and the second Safety Car of the evening followed. With a sizeable gap between them and the rest of the pack, the Mercedes team opted to pit both cars for a late tyre change.
Russell was back out and onto the track quickly, but Bottas was stood motionless as the mechanics changed his tyres to mediums and then back onto his hards in a moment of confusion which saw the Finn rejoin the pack a whole 27 seconds later. At first it seemed that Bottas’ race was ruined and that Russell would enjoy a clean run to his first ever F1 victory, but worse was yet to come for the Brit who was told to pit again as the Mercedes mechanics had mistakenly fitted him with Bottas’ mediums.
By the race restart on the 69th lap, Perez had remarkably picked off the pack one by one to claim the lead. The understandably frustrated Russell was beginning to fight his way back up, overtaking the likes of Bottas, Lance Stroll and Esteban Ocon on his way. He now had his sight set on Perez in front, and momentarily, it seemed that the young driver was in with a chance of salvaging his maiden victory. That was, until Russell suffered the cruelest puncture of his career so far and had no other choice but to pit, rejoining the race in 14th place.
Russell was audibly disappointed as he pitted for the fourth time that evening after the drive of his life. With both Mercedes now out of the fight, it was simply up to Perez to complete a riotous run from 18th place to his own maiden victory. The Racing Point pit wall was painted pink as Perez’s team joyously celebrated his first place finish and Lance Stroll’s podium finish in third place. Behind the Mexican was Renault’s Ocon, who drove his heart out to secure his first ever podium after a testing return to the sport at the beginning of 2020.
In a fine fourth place finish was Sainz who was then followed by Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo in fifth place. The rest of the point-taking places were claimed by Red Bull’s Alex Albon then Alpha Tauri’s Daniil Kvyat. The Mercedes duo of Bottas and Russell finished in a painful eighth and ninth places respectively, while Lando Norris finished 10th in his McLaren. Speaking after the race about the tyre swapping fiasco, Merc-AMG F1 Team Principal Toto Wolff said that Russell had a “brilliant drive” and that Mercedes had a “colossal f*** up” in an honest post-race interview answer.
However, Mercedes’ mechanical misfortune meant that Perez could cross the line in a comfortable first place finish, the Mexican’s first victory in 190 F1 race starts. Needless to say, Perez was overcome with emotions as reality kicked in and he took his deserved place at the top of the podium. The importance of his accomplishment was only accentuated by the fact that this could well be his penultimate race at the pinnacle of motorsport as Perez is currently without a seat for the fast approaching 2021 F1 season.
So the story of the first ever Sakhir GP is truly one of heartbreaks and heroics as hopes were dashed and dreams came true. Such an emotional rollercoaster of a race serves well to summarise a turbulent 2020 F1 season and indeed a turbulent 2020, too. Nevertheless, one race remains in the season calendar; the glamorous Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on December 13 at the Yas Marina Circuit wherein at least one more twist lies before the curtains close on what has been a sensational year of Formula 1 racing.