Sergio Perez finally won a grand prix after 10 years of trying. It should have been George Russell’s race but it was Sergio’s.
That’s not a sentence anyone would have ready to believe just a week ago, is it?
So many pieces of the kaleidoscope of crucial moments had to drop into place to make this extraordinary Sakhir Grand Prix outcome.
It was quite a staggering performance by Russell, and one which must surely have Bottas asking serious questions of himself
But it was in the very pressured, manic nature of this super short-track race with such a new and unprecedented set of variables that led to the snapping point where the race went from sensational-normal to sensational-random.
Before debutant Jack Aitken dropped the Williams at the final corner and wiped off his nose on the 60th of 87 short laps, the sensational-normal race was playing out with Russell about to score the most straightforward and commanding of victories first time out in a fast car.
He’d beaten the sister Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas off the start, his other big threat Max Verstappen had crashed out on the first lap, leaving Russell to just eke out a handy gap over his multiple race-winning team-mate.
He saw off the pressure points every step of the way from the moment he got in the car on Friday. He made his routine first stop, extended his lead, looked to have it all under control.
He’d had a bit of a fright with the sudden de-rating of his power unit just after rejoining from what was going to be his one and only stop.
But it was nothing, just the system recalibrating itself for the greater race pace than anticipated and how much electrical energy it was able to deploy.
All in all, it was quite a staggering performance and one which must surely have Bottas asking serious questions of himself.
Had it not been for Aitken, Perez was going to be a distant third ahead of Esteban Ocon’s Renault, the top four all effectively on one-stop races.
Perez would have done well just to have got there after having been spun to the back on the first lap by an errant Charles Leclerc.
The Racing Point had pitted under the resultant safety car and got onto a set of mediums. Which were much the better tyre and would enable you to do a one-stop. Which was why the Mercedes were on it, but that wasn’t a luxury the other top 10 starters could afford. They all had to start on softs and were thereby consigned to the slower two-stop race.
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 6, 2020
Perez’s spin – up at Turn 4 as Leclerc misjudged how slippery the inside line was as he tried to outbrake Verstappen, taking them both out – got him out of that tyre conundrum and the safety car he’d pitted under minimised his time loss.
Though last, the others were within reach. He made short work of the slower cars and by the time he passed Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari on lap 11, he was already up with the other decent medium-shod cars of Alex Albon and Ocon, sufficiently close behind the soft-shod DRS train that they’d be past them when they all pitted.
He quickly dealt with Albon, the man whose drive he seeks, with the latter complaining about lack of straightline speed with which to defend.
But things weren’t as straightforward as Perez was making it look, for he’d done pretty much all this stint with serious flat spots. He’d locked the tyres up avoiding the back of the pack on the restart.
The one impediment to Perez’s third place might have been his team-mate Lance Stroll, who despite starting on the soft had run a very long opening stint. Forty-two laps was an amazing stint length for those tyres, around 14 laps longer than the Carlos Sainz Jr, Daniel Ricciardo, Daniil Kvyat, Pierre Gasly pack he’d been running with.
It was only as there was not a full set of tyres for Bottas that it was realised his fronts were on the wrong car
Stroll was the only one of those doing an opening stint on softs who was going to be able to one-stop. So he’d effectively leapfrogged that little group. Now he just needed to fend off Ocon and Perez, running just behind him.
Ocon had gone for the undercut on lap 41, Stroll had responded and got out just ahead, but on his cold tyres locked up into Turn 4, allowing the Renault past.
When Perez finally pitted for a set of hards on lap 47, he rejoined just behind them. Stroll was trying to repass Ocon up to Turn 4, locked up – and allowed Perez past. Within a lap Sergio was DRS-ing his way past Ocon too.
That would have been a great recovery drive to the podium on the historic day of Russell’s win.
But then George’s friend and former ART GP3/F2 team-mate Aitken – running a respectable race ahead of Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo – dropped the Williams at the final turn, leaving its front wing on the track.
A safety car was deployed and Mercedes – not wanting to be vulnerable on old, hard tyres at the restart, and with a big gap over Perez – chose to bring both its cars in, stacking Bottas behind Russell.
But so hurried had been the call with these sub-one-minute laps and so close was Russell to the pit entry when the call was made, there was no time to realise that a crucial confusion had arisen in the garages – because the front tyre guys on Russell’s side of it had not received the radio communication to ready the fresh mediums.
The rear guys had and Bottas’s side had – and they delivered the tyres to the pit box. Russell’s pit crew fitted the front tyres that were there: Bottas’s.
It was a slow stop in the mad scramble but Russell was out and away and the delay wasn’t serious given that the race was under the safety car.
It was only as there was not a full set of tyres for Bottas that it was realised his fronts were on the wrong car. Bottas therefore had to rejoin back on his old hard tyres, Russell had to be brought back in for his own set of tyres to be fitted – as each set is allocated to a driver.
“I don’t think he would have caught me. It was going be close but I think I was going to be able to hold him back” :: Sergio Perez
This put Bottas and Russell fourth and fifth in the safety car queue – which was being led now by Perez from Ocon’s Renault and Stroll in the other Racing Point.
A radio equipment problem had denied Russell the comfortable victory that looked within his grasp.
But had it? There were 18 laps left as the safety car came in and Russell, with his new tyres, was in by far the fastest car.
So long as he didn’t lose too much time finding a way by his team-mate, it was surely still game on. Just one lap later Bottas ran wide into the slippery Turn 4, creating the opportunity that Russell was always going to grasp – and he did so with ruthless commitment and beautiful precision into Turn 5, just millimetres away from contact.
“It was only at that moment that I thought, ‘You know what, I think the victory’s on here’,” related Russell. “I hadn’t been sure when I was in the queue P5 behind the safety car.”
What a move this was by @GeorgeRussell63!
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 6, 2020
“I was just a sitting duck,” lamented Bottas afterwards as he explained his woes on the old hard tyres on which he could get no heat. Which at least justified Mercedes’ decision to have pitted.
Bottas was even picked off by the slower cars of Sainz, Ricciardo, Albon and Kvyat in the remaining laps.
Russell meanwhile was heading back up the field, setting about winning this race all over again.
He needed to pick off Stroll and Ocon quickly though because Perez had just lit up upon the restart, leaving Ocon well behind and sprinting for home, having done a remarkable job in keeping his tyres in shape.
“After what happened in Imola when I lost a podium through not staying out,” he recalled, “we’d decided that this time we were staying out.”
Russell got by Stroll into Turn 1 on the 72nd lap and Ocon a lap later up to Turn 4, both moves with the aid of DRS. He was within 3.4s of Perez and caching and there were 15 laps left.
But Perez wasn’t going to make this easy. His pace at this point on his 20-odd lap-old tyres was super-strong, unleashing all that he’d saved. Russell was pulling him in at only half-a-second per lap with a new-tyred Mercedes.
“We didn’t deserve what happened today” :: George Russell
“I don’t think he would have caught me,” said Perez. “It was going be close but I think I was going to be able to hold him back, because we had good pace.
“He was about two to three-tenths, sometimes four-tenths, sometimes I was matching him.
“I think the closest he got was 2.8s. The information that we had as a team was that you needed a difference of eight-tenths of a lap to be able to overtake.
“It was going to be close but I think given the age of my tyres, given the pace I had towards the end, the pace I had in hand, I was going to be able to hold him back to the end.”
Russell begged to differ:
“I think we’d have caught Sergio. We had such an advantage, the car was so quick.”
It all became academic because he’d picked up debris at the final corner – so probably from Aitken’s wing – and had a slow right-front puncture. There was an anguished cry on the radio as the team instructed him to pit for a fourth time.
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 6, 2020
On a set of softs he rejoined 15th and climbed back to ninth at the end, one behind Bottas, taking fastest lap along the way.
So Perez and Racing Point took a superb victory in their penultimate race together. Ocon was delighted with runner-up ahead of Stroll who was ruing that lock-up.
Sainz remained at the head of that soft-starting, two-stopping pack ahead of Ricciardo. Albon completed an underwhelming race sixth from Kvyat.
Lando Norris, having started from the back after an engine change, took the final point in 10th.
Gasly and Vettel were out of the points but ahead of the Alfas (Antonio Giovinazzi ahead of Raikkonen) and Kevin Magnussen.
Debutants Aitken and Pietro Fittipaldi (in the Haas vacated by Romain Grosjean) got to the finish in their accomplished F1 debuts.
“Incredibly mixed feelings,” reflected Russell. “To miss out on a victory not once but twice. It would have been a fairytale to get it.
“We didn’t deserve what happened today… this is a performance industry and I hope this weekend has cemented [Mercedes’] views on me. I hope this is just another step on the ladder.”
It’s going to be tough going back to a Williams after this. But at least Russell has a drive to fall back on.
The winner of the race doesn’t even have that at the moment.