Monday, December 7, 2020

Chequered Flag for Checo: Perez Wins Sakhir Grand Prix

Photo Credit: Zak Mauger/LAT Images/Pirelli

Since entering the sport in 2011 with Sauber, Mexican driver Sergio Perez has been recognized as a skillful, talented Formula 1 competitor. With the underfunded race team, Perez almost pulled off an upset victory at the 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix but instead finished a strong second to Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari. Despite his promise (and even strong rumours of a seat at Scuderia Ferrari), the driver affectionately nicknamed “Checo” had spent much of his career in the sport with mid-field teams. Perez moved to a regressing McLaren team in 2013 but spent only a season in the ride until joining Force India. Between 2014 and 2018, the Mexican scored five podiums with the squad. Sergio Perez stayed with Force India after it was purchased by a consortium led by Lawrence Stroll hopeful of the direction for the renamed Racing Point team. His prediction was correct as Racing Point has now become a solid top-five effort in Formula 1. However, Perez’s loyalty was seemingly betrayed after news of the soon-to-be named Aston Martin team signing four-time world driving champion Sebastian Vettel to pair with Canadian Lance Stroll for next season. 

In a 2020 Formula 1 season derailed early by being the first driver to miss grand prix races due to a positive COVID-19 test (Nico Hulkenberg filled his Racing Point ride for the British and 70th Anniversary Grand Prix), Sergio Perez actually boasted a remarkable feat. Until last week’s Bahrain Grand Prix, Perez had finished in the points in every Formula 1 race he entered. Running second last Sunday, a failure with his Mercedes-Benz power unit was a heartbreaking outcome as the 30-year-old seeks to finish strong with Racing Point while his place in the 2021 tour is in doubt. In the race after the disappointing retirement that cost him a podium, Sergio Perez would have the moment he had been waiting for over his 10-year career.

Arranged on the Bahrain International Circuit’s 3.543-kilometer Outer Circuit layout, the Sakhir Grand Prix was immediately viewed as an unusual race. A short race course showcased by Valtteri Bottas’ 53.377-second pole time in his Mercedes-AMG F1 W11 EQ Performance race car, the penultimate race during the 2020 Formula 1 season also lacked two regular drivers. Reigning and 2020 Formula 1 World Drivers’ Champion Lewis Hamilton had to step away from his team after a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. Surviving what was one of the scariest Formula 1 crashes in years one the opening lap of the Bahrain Grand Prix, Romain Grosjean suffered burns to his hands and was unable to race for the Haas F1 Team. George Russell was called over from the Williams Racing team to fill in Hamilton’s big shoes with the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula 1 Team (ironically needing to wear smaller racing shoes to fit into the championship-winning race car’s cockpit) while Pietro Fittipaldi was tapped to replace Grosjean in the second Haas VF-20 machine.     

Photo Credit: Andy Hone for Daimler AG

With two Mercedes-AMG cars at the front of the grid, the 87-lap Sakhir Grand Prix was sent underway but an opening lap incident would prevent the completion of the second race in the Bahrain International Circuit complex. Thankfully not as severe in impact as Grosjean’s fiery race car last week, the Sakhir Grand Prix’s first-lap accident had major ramifications for the final results. For Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc, their race ended on the exit of the fourth turn. The #16 Ferrari dived to the right of the Racing Point of Sergio Perez for what was the inside line heading into the corner. As Perez turned right, Leclerc remained alongside resulting in the left front wheel impacting Perez’s car. The Racing Point spun while the Ferrari with a damaged front suspension coasted slowly to a stop. Attempting to avoid the nearby collision, the Red Bull Racing car of Max Verstappen arched wide into turn four but lost traction on the gravel in the runnoff area. Verstappen’s car nosed into the track wall close to Leclerc’s derelict Ferrari. Though Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen was out of the race, Sergio Perez remained in the race but dropped deep down to 18th place after making a pit stop for new medium compound Pirelli tires. 

Just before the safety car had been called to allow track crews to clean up the lap one crash, the Mercedes-AMG team drivers duelled for the early lead with substitute driver George Russell gaining an advantage over Bottas. On the short Outer Circuit track, laps clicked off quickly during the Sakhir Grand Prix. While there were 87 laps to the event, the majority of the field completed the race on no more than two pit stops. George Russell maintained a small yet steady lead on Valtteri Bottas until he pitted on lap 45. Although he encountered a brief sensor issue on his #63 Mercedes, Russell soon cycled back to the lead as Bottas came to his pit crew on lap 49. 

Photo Credit: Wolfgang Wilhelm for Daimler AG

Behind the two Mercedes-AMG team cars, many competitors between third and seventh place remained close with the total reach among the vehicles being roughly three seconds. Deeper in the field early in the race, Sergio Perez performed an ambitious charge back to the front-running cars. By lap 20, the Mexican had returned to the top 10 and continued to make his way up the running order as other drivers made pit stops. After making a stop for new tires on lap 47, Perez returned to the track behind his Racing Point teammate Lance Stroll. By this point in the race, Stroll had been following the Renault of Esteban Ocon but was unable to pass the yellow and black car. Sergio Perez approached the pair and would pass his teammate on lap 56. The following lap, Perez passed Ocon into turn four gaining the third place spot behind the Mercedes-AMG cars. 

On lap 61, seemingly minor on-track incident involving the Williams driven by Jack Aitken reshaped the entire 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix. Running wide at the track’s eleventh and final turn, Aitken spun and lost his car’s front wing when he clipped the wall. Though the Williams was able to continue to the pit for a replacement front end piece, the debris resulted in a safety car period. Looking to capitalize on their significant lead over the rest of the field, the two Mercedes-AMG drivers were summoned to pit lane for new tires. The winner of seven consecutive Formula 1 Constructor Championship, the Mercedes-AMG team is often seen for its brilliance as it achieves race win after race win. However, on this occasion with the strategy call, the group made an uncharacteristically colossal mistake. Pitting George Russell first during what was a hastily planned move, the wrong tires were placed on the #63 car. When Russell left, the problem was compounded when the pit crew was unable to mount new tires to the #77 car of Valtteri Bottas. Within the confusion that involved an attempted tire change on Bottas’ car, the Mercedes-AMG team needed to remount the previously used tires to the Finnish driver’s machine. Russell was brought back to the pits dropping him to fifth place. 

With the faltering of the Mercedes-AMG race team, Sergio Perez inherited the lead until the safety car followed by Esteban Ocon and Lance Stroll. The pace car returned to pit road at the end of lap 68 setting up a late-race fight among competitors. Losing the lead, George Russell began to chart a path to Perez. Russell climbed to third place by lap 72 and snatched the runner-up spot from Ocon on the following lap. The #63 Mercedes-AMG race car slowly reeled in the Racing Point closing to 2.2 seconds with nine laps remaining. Sadly, any chance of a late race battle for the lead was defeated by a tire puncture on Russel’s car. 

Photo Credit XPB / James Moy Photography Ltd for Groupe Renault

Crossing the finish line with a comfortable 10.518-second lead, Sergio Perez piloted himself and the Racing Point team to a first-ever victory. In addition to being the first victory for the driver and team, the triumph in the Sakhir Grand for Sergio Perez and Racing Point established several other notable achievements. Perez becomes the first Mexican national to win in Formula 1 since Pedro Rodriguez captured the 1970 Belgian Grand Prix. The Mexican’s first Formula 1 win came on his 190th start in the series setting a new record for most driver starts before achieving victory. The record was previous held by Australian Mark Webber when he won the 2009 German Grand Prix driving for Red Bull Racing on his 130th start. The latest Formula 1 victor commented on his great career moment in a statement on Racing Point’s website saying.  “It’s still sinking in that I’ve won the race; I’m almost afraid to get too excited in case I’m dreaming!”

With the victory for Racing Point, four constructors have currently won races in the 2020 season. The last time more than three teams posted wins in a single season was in 2013 before the initialization of the current turbo/hybrid power unit era. The second Racing Point piloted by Lance Stroll finishing in third-place provided an extra reason to celebration. Though Stroll was disappointed by the result reflecting on several matters that could have potentially granted him victory, the 22-year-old was pleased with the effort of the entire team and the victorious Perez. “It’s one of those things, but the important thing is the team result. I’m delighted for the team and so happy for Checo. He’s been a part of this team for a long time. He’s been running up at the front so many times in his career and he totally deserves a victory.” said Stroll. Since his third-place result at Monza in early September, the Canadian had battled a string of unfortunate incidents on race day that involved just one point-paying finish in the previous seven grand prix events. Collecting a total of 40 points between Perez and Stroll, Racing Point has reacquired the third place in the constructors’ championship with one race remaining. 

Photo Credit: Mark Sutton/LAT Images/Pirelli

Between the two Racing Point competitors on the Sakhir Grand Prix podium, France’s Esteban Ocon grabbed his first career top-three in Formula 1. Ocon’s Renault DP World F1 Team pitted him only once in the race on lap 41 mounting hard compound tires on his #31 machine. The result serves as a major bode of confidence for the Renault driver as he prepares to partner with Fernando Alonso next season. Driving for Force India/Racing Point in 2017 and 2018 as a teammate for Sergio Perez, Esteban Ocon’s first podium coming on this particular occasion is fitting. 

Close behind Lance Stroll across the finish line, Carlos Sainz Jr. takes fourth for McLaren in his second-to-last race for the team ahead of a 2021 relocation to Scuderia Ferrari. Finishing in fifth is Sainz’s replacement at McLaren for next season. Daniel Ricciardo took the chequered flag a little more than half a second before sixth-place Alexander Albon driving the last remaining entry for the race for Red Bull Racing. Russian Daniil Kvyat scored the only points for Scuderia AlphaTauri concluding an impressive qualifying performance with a seventh-place finish after 87 laps in Bahrain. 

After appearing poised to take their 14th grand prix in the 2020 Formula 1, the Mercedes-AMG team’s rare stumbling near the end of the Sakhir Grand Prix resulted in their entries finishing in eighth and ninth place. Valtteri Bottas uncomfortably drove the last laps of the event on a well-used set of Pirelli tires but finished ahead of his teammate for the weekend. Bottas’ quest to end the season in the second-place spot in the Formula 1 World Drivers’ Championship was bolstered by his points-paying result in Bahrain and Max Verstappen’s early retirement from the event. The margin between Bottas and Verstappen is 16 points heading to Abu Dhabi.

Driving the race of his relatively young Formula 1 career, George Russell’s interim ride allowed the Brit to convince many observers of his prowess. Following up on topping both Friday practice sessions and narrowly missing pole on Saturday during the Sakhir Grand Prix weekend, Russell led a large portion of Sunday’s main event and posted the fastest lap in the race. With victory appearing to be in his grasp, the 22-year-old Brit stated through Mercedes-AMG’s website, “I’ve had races before where I had a victory taken away from me, but it felt like that happened twice today, I still can’t quite believe it.”. George Russell does earn his first career Formula 1 points with a ninth place finish and the single-point obtaining the fastest lap time. Russell finished ahead of fellow British driver Lando Norris.  

Set to wrap up the 2020 Formula 1 season as the 17th round on the schedule, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will run on December 13th. 

2020 Formula 1
Sakhir Grand Prix
Race Results

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