Imagine a parallel universe where many things are the same, some are similar, but a few things are very different. How would an F1 race look for instance, if Hamilton weren’t there? Or if Verstappen couldn’t capitalise on the champions absence? Or perhaps if Mercedes weren’t the unfaltering slick operation that they seem to be. How would that race look? Well, I can tell you— exciting, especially for Sergio Perez!
This weekend we were treated to all of those things, resulting in an unpredictable race which kept us enthralled throughout.
Firstly, Hamilton tested positive for Coronavirus— he is said to be well and I wish the champion a quick recovery. So, who gets the seat of the season? George Russell. We know the guy is quick in a slow car: consistently out-performing the Williams. But, is he quick in a quick car? With the F1 world watching can he handle the pressure? The answer? An infallible Yes and yes. In an astonishing performance this weekend Russell has shown his brilliance and almost certainly sealed the deal for a drive at Mercedes in the future.
But to the race! After jumping in the car— or, at 15 cm taller than Hamilton, squeezing into the car— Russell showed pace throughout practice sessions and lined up second on the grid, behind teammate Bottas and in front of Verstappen’s Red Bull. Off the line Russell stormed into the lead as Bottas struggled to get up to pace and several cars bunched up behind him. A few cars further back Leclerc outbreaks himself and runs into Sergio Perez. Verstappen— trying to avoid the incident— ends up in the gravel and out of the race. A disappointment for him and Red Bull who clearly thought that had a chance to capitalise on Hamilton’s absence this weekend. Leclerc too retires from the race. Sergio Perez is able to continue and after a pit stop rejoins the race in last position.
Sainz got a good start and capitalised on the collision of those ahead, running third by the close of the opening lap. This weekend is another vital race between Mclaren, Renault and Racing Point for third place in the constructors championship. It may not sound like the most important battle in the world, but this is worth millions of pounds for the teams. Sainz has a good race for Mclaren, running in third for most of the race, but coming in fourth after dropping behind Stroll with a pitstop. Norris brings in a single point finishing tenth after not quite being able to find the same pace in the Mcalren that Sainz had this weekend.
As for Renault and Racing Point— well, I’ll come back to them later.
The Safety car— brought out to clear away the Ferrari and Red Bull— pulls in on lap six and Russell makes a great restart, catching Bottas off guard, who is briefly overtaken by third place man Sainz, but the Spaniard can’t quite hold the place as he runs wide and is demoted back to third.
As the race settles down a train begins to form from third to eighth place, including both Renaults, the Alpha Tauri’s, Stroll, and Sainz at the head of it. No one seems to quite be able to get close enough to pass. Behind this Norris defends well against Albon and a resurgent Sergio Perez, but is ultimately unable to keep hold of his ninth place. Having passed Norris, Albon looses his DRS and Perez quickly takes advantage of this: out Albon-ing Albon with an overtake around the outside of turn one. That’s nine places made up for Perez in fifteen laps.
The first round of pitstops go reasonably well for all, big winners are the Alpha Tauris who make places by pitting earlier than others— using the undercut to gain track position. Stroll is a biggest midfield looser dropping two places to eighth. Up in front leader Russell stops first out of the Mercedes and uses the undercut to increase his lead over second place man Bottas. This is Russell’s to loose and his command of the race is brilliant.
The second round of pit stops see the Alpha Tauris pit early again. A brief Virtual Safety Car period occurs to allow marshals to recover Latifi’s Williams from the side of the track after it breaks down. Those who manage to pit within the the VSC period gain an advantage over those who pit before or after it. Therefore the Alpha Tauris— who pitted just before the VSC— miss out. Sainz and Ricciardo enter the pits as the VSC is ending— VSC periods start and end with little to no warning. Consequently they are jumped on track by those who haven’t stopped yet— Ocon, Stroll, Perez and Albon. We’re treated now to a good on battle between the two Racing Points and Ocon ahead of them. Stroll— under pressure from Sergio Perez behind— runs wide and the Mexican moves ahead before then overtaking Ocon shortly afterwards. From the back of the grid up to third position, what a come back.
Now, strap yourself in for the emotional rollercoaster that is the last quarter of this race, as the Mercedes almost always perfect strategy unravels and fate takes away Russell’s debut win twice in a few laps.
Lap 63 sees another Virtual Safety Car period after Aitken— standing in for Russell in the Williams— runs wide and knocks off his front wing. Mercedes seek to utilise the advantage of pitting under VSC— but we slip into that parallel universe, as their normally slick operation painfully unravels. Chaotic scenes see the Mercedes team double-stack the drivers— meaning they come in directly one other the other. A radio failure means mechanics are not quite ready for the stops, Russell comes in and a slow stop sees the wrong tyres fitted onto the car. After waiting behind Russell, Bottas presents his car, the chaos continues as it’s realized some of his tyres have just left the pitlane bolted onto his teammates car. Tyres are removed, new tyres put on, new tyres removed and eventually— after 27 seconds— Bottas is sent on his way with his old tyres back on the Mercedes, and drops down to fifth position. Russell then has to pit from the lead for a tyre change— as it is against the rules for him to be running tyres designated for another car. He comes out fifth just behind his teammate. I’ve watched Formula one for over twenty five years and this is undoubtedly one of the most painful things I’ve watched! The communication breakdown was attributed to a radio failure meaning some of Russell’s mechanics did not get the message he was coming in.
So in this parallel universe without Hamilton, with Verstappen on the side-line and with Mercedes making big mistakes, what happens? Well a resurgent Sergio Perez takes the lead of the race! But Russell isn’t having that, with twenty laps left and on a fresh set of tyres surely the Brit can make the places up and take victory.
A safety car is brought out to clear up Aitkens wayward front wing, and when it pulls in Perez storms the restart— opening up a good gap to Ocon behind him. Russell is immediately on the move executing a brave and skillful pass on teammate, before reeling in Stroll and Ocon. With fifteen laps left the Brit is back into second place and hunting Sergio Perez down. Perez has a 3.5 second lead and the Brit is taking just under half a second out of it a lap. A great move from Sainz sees Bottas loose another place, he then continues to fall down the order— suffering on very old tyres compared to the fresher ones around him. With Russell still reeling in Perez and seemingly on track again for certain victory fate strikes a heartbreaking blow in the form of a rear puncture and with eight laps to go he pits for new tyres— coming out in fifteenth position: well out of the points. Showing is true class Russell keeps pushing, treating us to an overtaking bonanza— climbing six places in eight laps to finish eighth and take home his first ever F1 points. Not the points he deserved, but points nonetheless.
Up front though no one can keep up with Perez and the Mexican takes an emotional victory for Racing Point. After ten years in F1 and 190 races Perez now holds the title of the most races in F1 before gaining his first victory. A driver absolute pivotal to the success— and arguably the existence of the Racing Point team, gives them their very first victory. Stroll finishes third for the teams double podium success, and less than a week after their worst race of the season tears of despair now turn to tears of joy. Between the Racing Points Ocon completes an emotional podium with his best result in F1, and Renaults best of the season. These great results for the Racing Point team take them ten points ahead of McLaren for that third spot in the constructor’s championship. Ocon’s second place together with Ricciardo’s solid fifth mean Renault are now twelve points behind Mclaren.
So, an unexpected, exciting, unpredictable race brought us two stars- Sergio Perez and George Russell. Perez, with his maiden victory, much deserved for the guy who has undoubtedly been one of the drivers of the season and only seems to be getting batter. Unbelievably he is still out of a drive currently for the 2021 season— this victory can’t do his quest for a drive any damage at all. And Russell, well— his skillfully fast drive, ability to overcome setbacks, amazing wheel to wheel racing and overtakes— all in a car he jumped into at the last minute, shows this guy is absolutely the real deal, and has surely, almost certainly, cemented his place at Mercedes for the 2022 season.
I wish Hamilton a quick recovery, but perhaps if that could be on the Monday after the Abu Dhabi race that would be great, because we all want to see Russell have one more shot at a race victory before the end of the season.
Finally, good to note Grosjean is doing well after his horrific crash last weekend— unfortunately he won’t be back for the season closer in Abu Dhabi next weekend but he is on the mend and that is the most important thing.
Driver(s) of the Day: Russell and Perez
Honourable mentions: Sainz, Ocon, Kyvat
Sakhir Grand Prix Race Results
- Russell (Fastest Lap)
Next up: It’s the season finale at Abu Dhabi: tricky corners and overtaking potential should bring us a good closing race.