The sixteenth race of the 2020 Formula One season is covered here by our F1 correspondent Nick van der Meulen in his report F1 Review Sakhir 2020.
The Sakhir Grand Prix hosted the penultimate round of the 2020 F1 season. Taking place in Bahrain, it utilised the outer circuit of the Bahrain International Circuit, where 70 percent of the lap is at full throttle and the fastest time in qualifying posted at under 55 seconds… the first time in the history of the sport.
After the explosive Grand Prix held at Bahrain the previous weekend, there were a number of surprises leading into the Sakhir round. World Champion, Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes), tested positive for Covid-19 and had to sit out the first GP of his career (after a run of 265 consecutive starts). His seat was taken by George Russell for the weekend, while Russell’s position at Williams-Mercedes was taken by Anglo-Korean Jack Aitken.
Another debut took place at Sakhir in the Haas team. While Romain Grosjean miraculously left the hospital a mere four days following his fiery accident the previous weekend, the Franco-Swiss will return to Switzerland for further treatment to the burns on his hands. As a result, his F1 career has come to an end and the team presented him with a steering wheel as a farewell gift. Pietro Fittipaldi, grandson of F1 legend Emerson, made his debut this weekend and may also race at the final round of the season.
The race started with a bang, as Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) braked late on the inside line into Turn 4 and hit Sergio Perez (Racing Point-Mercedes) on right rear forcing him into a spin. Max Verstappen (Red Bull Racing-Honda) took avoiding action, but ran onto the dirt and to the wall. Both Leclerc and Verstappen retired on the spot.
“Visiting” driver Russell qualified on the front row for the first time in his career and made good of his start, getting the jump on pole sitter Valtteri Bottas. The Finn clearly struggled with his cold tyres, fishtailing into Turn 2 while attempting to give chase. After their first pit stops on lap 50 (of 87), Russell led Bottas by a whopping 8,6 seconds! Mercedes threw away certain victory, however, when they brought in both cars for a second stop for tyres when a virtual safety car occurred on lap 60.
Both stops were disastrous: Russell’s machine had a mixed set of tyres fitted, two allocated to his car and two that belonged to Bottas, and required yet another stop. Bottas’s was left with two of Russell’s tyres and to avoid another stop the team simply refitted the rubber that the Finn came into the pits on. As a result, he was stationary for 27,4 seconds.
The stops dropped the dominant duo to fourth and fifth place, respectively, with 19 laps to run. Russell charged past Bottas two laps later following a small mistake by the Finn and set off after the front three. After carving his way into second place, the Englishman was further compromised by a left rear puncture with eight laps to go and dropped to 15th place. He charged into the points on the penultimate lap, claiming the fastest lap in the process and his first points of his career with a ninth place finish. It is fair to say the youngster was robbed of victory. Bottas, in turn, finished a disgruntled eighth after struggling for grip with his old, hard rubber. Thanks to the mismatched tyres on his car, Russell now faces possible disqualification from the race pending an inquiry. At the time of writing there was no decision made by the FIA.
Sergio Perez charged to his maiden victory in F1 after 189 starts and, in doing so, provided Racing Point its first Grand Prix victory. It was a magnificent performance, after charging through the field following his first lap debacle with Leclerc, which left him in last place. He was there to pick up the pieces following Mercedes’ implosion when the safety car came out. He is the first Mexican to take a Grand Prix victory in 50 years, since Pedro Rodriguez won in Belgium in 1970.
Teammate Lance Stroll finished a fine third, making it a double podium finish for the “Pink Panthers”. The team moves to third place in the constructors’ championship. After such a strong season for Perez, accumulating in a victory close to season-end, surely he takes a lot to the negotiation table when trying to wrest the seat at Red Bull away from Alex Albon, who finished sixth in Sakhir…
Esteban Ocon (Renault) took his best finish of his career, splitting the Racing Points in second position. He stopped much later than teammate Daniel Ricciardo and his strategy was rewarded. Ricciardo added to Renault’s constructors’ points cause by finishing fifth.
Carlos Sainz (McLaren-Renault) had a strong race, being feisty at the start and challenging Bottas for position. He ran third for much of the race, but lost out to Stroll and Ocon in the frenetic battle in the final 20 laps following the safety car incident. Teammate Lando Norris managed to claim the final point, tenth place, despite having to start from the back of the grid after the team changed his machine’s power unit.
The final round of the season is barely a week away and it takes place in Abu Dhabi. The drivers and constructors’ championships are decided, but there are battles for the minor positions to be won. Max Verstappen lies 16 points behind Valtteri Bottas for runner-up in the drivers world championship. Mercedes and Red Bull will finish first and second in the constructors title, respectively, but the battle still rages for the bronze trophy. Racing Point, following its sterling result at Sakhir, is 10 points clear of McLaren, while Renault is a further 12 points behind