Russell and Perez: heroes of an unforgettable Sakhir GP

07th December 2020
Damien Smith

George Russell lay down and looked to the heavens. We’d seen that look of tortured mental anguish before, at Imola when he crashed his Williams behind the safety car. But this time the circumstances were somewhat different. In a crazy week when he’d gone from the worst car on the grid to the best in a single move, the anointed sub for COVID-positive Lewis Hamilton had just passed the most important audition of his life – and then some. But right now all he could think about was the win his new team had just snatched and fumbled from his impressively firm grasp.


Meanwhile, Sergio Perez was also taking a breather, sitting on the podium to linger and soak in the moment. At the 190th time of asking, the longest wait of any driver in F1 history, he was finally a grand prix winner. And he’d done it with a ‘spin and win’ performance that made it all the sweeter.


George Russell – a star is born

Russell missed out on pole position by a smidge, but the 22-year-old couldn’t have done much more with his unexpected golden opportunity that had come to him from Hamilton’s misfortune. Fastest in both practice sessions on Friday, he’d wobbled a bit on Saturday morning, but held his nerve in qualifying to end up just 0.026 seconds slower than Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas. The Finn could feel the breath on his neck.

In the Williams this year, Russell has made the odd error in races, beyond that clanger in Imola. So how would he handle the rise in pressure at this end of the grid? The answer was emphatic. He made a peach of a start, secured the lead without drama at Turn 1 and then built a comfortable three-second cushion to Bottas. This was business as usual, as if Hamilton was still in the car – and you can’t say better than that.

How he handled himself in the lead of a grand prix for the first time, negotiated the first pitstop and stretched his advantage despite an apparent software glitch was mightily impressive. As team boss Toto Wolff put it, “a new star is born” – and like all the best F1 drivers Russell immediately looked utterly composed and natural living at the sharp end.

How it all unravelled was agonising. The horrendous pitstop foul-up from the best team on the grid, triggered by a radio problem in the garage, left Russell with Bottas’s front tyres, while the Finn was left high and dry with the same hard compound Pirellis he’d just come in on – from a stop that hadn’t even been required. So dominant were the Mercs, this was just a supposed ‘safety stop’ to get them to the end in comfort. Even double-stacked, it should have been routine. Instead, Russell was forced to return to the pits once more for the set of medium tyres he should have been given the first time. No wonder Wolff couldn’t look.

But still Russell could have won this race, putting the kerfuffle behind him to maximise his tyre advantage, first blasting past hapless Bottas struggling on his beyond-worn tyres, then Lance Stroll and Esteban Ocon. Now only Perez’s Racing Point was between him and an even better victory than the one he had looked set to earn – until a cruel puncture robbed us of a gripping finish, and Russell from a dream debut for the team he’s long set his heart on joining. Even then, nurtured by the calm, measured voice of engineer Pete Bonnington, he got his head down as instructed to rise back to ninth, just behind Bottas, and score his first F1 points. Yes, it could have been so much more, but this performance was brighter and more spectacular than any of the fireworks that burst into the night sky as this unforgettable Sakhir GP finally drew to a close.

The thing is, everyone else on the grid believes they could drive just as well in the black car were they given the chance. The fact is Russell now knows he can – and so, most importantly, does Mercedes.


Perez pinches the win – then needs pinching

When Charles Leclerc optimistically dived inside Perez at Turn 4 on the opening lap, ‘Checo’ couldn’t quite believe his awful luck. Seven days ago, he’d lost a podium finish with three laps to go with an engine failure not of his making, and now he was being turned around by a Ferrari driver who would earn a three-place grid penalty in Abu Dhabi for his trouble. As Perez resumed at the back, he could never have imagined he was about to embark on a performance that would finally make him Mexico’s first F1 winner since Pedro Rodriguez in 1970. Afterwards he asked a TV reporter to pinch him just to reassure him this was all real.

Sure, he required a gobsmacking Mercedes own goal to achieve his win, but the 30-year-old had earned the podium he would have scored anyway, with a remarkable performance – but by now, we really shouldn’t be surprised. As Russell said afterwards with a lovely mix of magnanimity and good humour, Perez absolutely deserved this win – but perhaps just not today! – after years of fantastic service to a team that has shown him zero loyalty. Checo deserves better. In fact, he deserves a Red Bull for 2021.

Speaking of which… Alexander Albon finished a lacklustre sixth. And Sebastian Vettel, who steps into Perez’s shoes at a team that will soon be called Aston Martin, rolled in 12th (not helped, it must be said, by a terrible Ferrari pitstop). Who said life is fair? Perez knows the score, which is exactly why he lingered on that podium. Any of us would have done the same.


Ocon smiles, Stroll frowns

There was delight too at Renault as Esteban Ocon pulled off a superb performance, running for 41 laps on soft Pirellis on his way to second place and a first F1 podium. In a season during which the highly rated Frenchman has lost some of his shine in the shadow of the brilliant Daniel Ricciardo, Ocon really needed this to catapult him into a winter when he will ponder facing Fernando Alonso as his team-mate next year.

As for Stroll, he struggled to look happy with his own hard-earned podium. Ocon getting the better of him with a DRS pass into Turn 4 and a mistake that also allowed Perez to slip past him left the Canadian frustrated and wondering whether his own first win had just slipped through his grasp. Still, Racing Point’s first double podium has now lifted the team back past McLaren in the battle for third in the constructors’ table. There’s just 10 points in it with the finale in Abu Dhabi to come next Sunday. But in a year that continues to astound and surprise (at least in a good way when it comes to F1), who would bet against a final twist before this increasingly remarkable season is done?

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • Formula 1

  • F1 2020

  • Sergio Perez

  • George Russell

  • Lance Stroll

  • Esteban Ocon

  • Valtteri Bottas

  • Mercedes

  • Racing Point

  • Renault

  • Bahrain

  • Sakhir

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