Formula 1 2020: From new Grand Prix winner to two debutants, why 2020 Sakhir GP will long be remembered

Racing Point's Sergio Perez won the Sakhir Grand Prix in his penultimate race for the team and without a drive for next season.

Mithila Mehta and Kunal Shah December 08, 2020 09:52:22 IST
Formula 1 2020: From new Grand Prix winner to two debutants, why 2020 Sakhir GP will long be remembered

An emotional Sergio Perez reacts on the podium after winning the Sakhir Formula One Grand Prix. AFP

The excitement around the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix was high ever since the race was announced in late-August. After all, Formula 1 was attempting a bold and untested switch to the shorter and high-speed ‘outer’ layout of the Sakhir International Circuit. But after delivering entertaining races in Turkey, Silverstone, Mugello, Monza and a few other venues, how much more exciting could it get in Sakhir?

A new winner and multiple debutants is how exciting it got.  We take a look at the major moments from the race for which it will always be remembered.

In: Russell, Aitken & Fittipaldi, Out: Hamilton

The build-up to the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix was sombre though - 2020 Formula 1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus and was forced to miss the race. After Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll, Hamilton became the third driver this season to have contracted the virus. Mercedes used this opportunity well. They promoted their junior driver George Russell to their championship-winning outfit. After almost two seasons with Williams, the slowest team on the grid, Russell now found himself racing for the fastest; giving him the opportunity to score his first points in Formula 1 - may be a pole position, podium or even a win.

Russell’s promotion to Mercedes saw Williams call upon their reserve driver Jack Aitken as his replacement. As for the Haas F1 Team, Romain Grosjean’s unavailability after last week’s crash saw Pietro Fittipaldi race the team’s VF-20. This meant that the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix saw two drivers make their Formula 1 debut - a rare mid-season occurrence.

A Bottas vs. Russell shoot-out?

For Mercedes, was this an unofficial shoot-out for a seat alongside Hamilton for the 2022 Formula 1 season? “There is no shootout,” claimed Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO of Mercedes’ Formula 1 team, before the racing activities for the weekend commenced. The 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix will be remembered for Russell’s seamless and superlative performance for Mercedes as a super-sub for Hamilton. Even if Mercedes can’t get him in their car in 2021, they know that they have a solid driver in Russell who could be a successor to Hamilton.

Before Mercedes’ embarrassing pit-stop errors, Russell drove a strong race. He made a better start than his team-mate and rival Valtteri Bottas before snatching the lead of the race on the opening lap itself. Despite being only a stand-in driver, Russell looked far more comfortable in the Mercedes in the race than Bottas did and should have won his first-ever Formula 1 Grand Prix on his Mercedes debut. Fate, however, had other plans. First, was the pit-stop error where Mercedes fitted Bottas’ tyres on Russell’s car. Second, a slow puncture caused by on-track debris.

“Today was absolutely gutting. 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,” summed up Russell.

A new Grand Prix winner

The 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix was the second race of the season that saw neither drivers from Mercedes, Red Bull Racing or Ferrari stand on the podium. Mercedes’ self-inflicted woes coupled with Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc’s opening lap retirement meant that Formula 1 could indeed see a new driver stand on the top step of the podium. The most probable candidates were the two Racing Point or Renault drivers. Unfortunately for Red Bull Racing, their second driver Alexander Albon was far out of reach of the top-5 positions from qualifying itself.

Racing Point’s Sergio Perez, the eventual winner of the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix, had an event-filled opening lap. He was hit on the right-rear by an over-ambitious Leclerc (who received a 3-place grid penalty for his move) and was facing in the wrong direction as his rivals drove past to demote him to dead last. Perez, who started on the not-favoured soft tyre, made use of the resultant Safety Car to shift to the medium tyre and drive one of the best stints of his Formula 1 career that saw him overtake his rivals and bring himself into podium contention.

Perez breaks a record

The late-race puncture cost us a battle for the lead between Russell and Perez with both drivers admitting that they had the pace to win.

“Obviously, the Mercedes had some problems, but I think we had enough pace in hand to hold George off – our simulation showed that you needed to be significantly faster (~8 tenths) to get by,” said Perez.

“I think we’d have caught Sergio. We had such an advantage, the car was so quick,” countered Russell.

Ironically, it was Russell’s replacement Aitken who triggered the Safety Car and probably scattered debris on the track that impacted Russell’s race.

As for Perez, the Mexican driver had to wait for 10 years and 190 race starts to claim his first-ever Formula 1 Grand Prix win. In fact, no other Formula 1 race winner has had to wait this long to claim their first win. Perez also became only the second Mexican after Pedro Rodriguez to score a race win. This win was also the first for Racing Point - after coming into existence mid-2018.

Red Bull Racing - A missed opportunity?

The one question that will remain unanswered would be - could Max Verstappen have challenged the Mercedes cars for victory? Any possibility of an answer was eliminated at Turn 4 on the opening lap itself. As Leclerc hit Perez, Verstappen went round the outside to avoid picking up any damage. However, the Dutchman found little grip there thanks to the windy conditions that blew sand onto the track surface and ended up in the barriers.

“I had a good start but got boxed in so was trying to stay out of trouble but everyone around me was being so aggressive and risking things like it was the last lap of the race. Especially Charles going up the inside at Turn 4 and braking so late when the track is so dusty. I understand he wanted to pass a car but it was just too optimistic,” explained Verstappen.

After losing Verstappen on the opening lap, Red Bull Racing would have hoped that Albon would have been in contention for the race win. However, the Thai-British driver could only manage 6th place - a race performance that could seriously dent his chances for a seat with the team in 2021.

Could Racing Point have scored a 1-2?

Just like Perez, the team’s other driver Lance Stroll had driven a fine race. His 45-lap stint on the soft tyre followed by a one-stop strategy saw him fight for P2 with Renault’s Esteban Ocon. In the end, Ocon overtook Stroll shortly after their first and only pit-stop before Stroll made an error while being chased down by his team-mate Perez.

“It’s a great result but a little part of me is a bit disappointed because I think I had the potential to win the race,” said Stroll.

The fight for P3 in the Constructors’ Championship has been hotly contested between Mclaren, Renault and Racing Point. While Racing Point added 40 points to their tally after scoring a 1-3 finish, Renault’s score was boosted by Ocon’s maiden Formula 1 podium and Daniel Ricciardo’s 5th place finish. After sitting out 2019, Ocon’s return to Formula 1 with Renault in 2020 has been overshadowed by an in-form Ricciardo. The podium will offer the Frenchman a morale boost as he looks to counter Fernando Alonso at Renault from 2021. And of course, Alonso, who was present in the Renault garage during the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix, would be hoping that Renault’s form continues next season.

The fight for P3

“What a race! We made it, we’re on the podium and it’s a fantastic feeling. It was awesome and all the emotions left my body when I crossed the line. I definitely cried and I’m proud to say it. That moment, crossing the line, I’ll remember it forever,” said an emotional Ocon.

Renault are 5th in the Constructors’ Championship - 12 points behind Mclaren and 22 points behind Racing Point.

After a 4th and 5th in the first race in Bahrain, Mclaren had to settle for a 4th (Sainz) and 10th (Norris) finish in the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix. The swing in performances saw Mclaren lose 3rd place to Racing Point.

“Thank you to the entire team here at the track and back home for the hard work. One more race to go, next weekend in Abu Dhabi. The team – together with our colleagues at Renault – will dig deep and give it our all to finish the season strongly,” signed off Andreas Seidl, Mclaren’s Team Principal.

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