For a dead rubber event, the Sakhir Grand Prix proved to be one of the busiest race weekends of the year – and the most thrilling. With first-time winners crowned and cruelly denied, and the futures of others put into the spotlight, LUKE SMITH picks out the key talking points of the weekend
The inaugural Sakhir Grand Prix was always going to produce a memorable race as Formula 1 sampled the Bahrain International Circuit’s outer loop for the first time.
But few could have predicted just how many twist and turns would be thrown our way. George Russell put in a remarkable display in his first outing for Mercedes before being a taught a lesson in how cruel F1 can be, with a maiden victory being snatched away not once, but twice.
It paved the way for Sergio Perez to claim his first F1 win at the 190th attempt, leading home a surprise podium after a thriller under the lights.
Here are 10 things we learned from the Sakhir Grand Prix.
1. George Russell is a real superstar
Is this really something we only learned on Sunday in Bahrain? Perhaps not. But Russell’s performance in the Sakhir Grand Prix proved beyond all doubt he is one of F1’s top talents.
From the moment the 22-year-old jumped into the Mercedes W11 for the first time on Friday, wearing race boots a size too small and with a cockpit hardly suited to his 6’1″ frame, he impressed. He ran Valtteri Bottas close in the fight for pole, having received a late pep talk from Toto Wolff telling him a top-five grid slot was all Mercedes wanted.
And then came the race. Russell nailed the start – an area he has traditionally been weak in – and took control early on, easily opening up a lead over Bottas. He looked nothing like a racer leading his very first laps in F1.
The pit stop blunder was glaring from Mercedes, but it wasn’t the error that really cost Russell the win. He flew up the order and was bearing down on Perez before a puncture forced a fourth pit stop, eventually resigning him to ninth place.
Frustrated as Russell may have been, this was his big statement to the F1 world. He has what it takes to fight at the front.
2. Mercedes has a huge problem on its hands for 2022
Mercedes team principal Wolff may have been quick to dismiss the idea of Sakhir being a shootout between Russell and Bottas for a seat in 2022, but by the end of the weekend, it was hard to see it as anything else.
Russell was not just close to Bottas in Sakhir – he comprehensively defeated him. Bottas may have insisted after the race that he would have caught up on the hard tyre stint, but it looked like Russell had everything under control prior to the safety car and pitstop blunder.
A notable moment came when Russell pulled off a brilliant pass on Bottas into Turn 5 – although this shouldn’t be overhyped given he was running on fresh mediums compared to Bottas’ stone cold, old hards – that showed just who was top dog in Bahrain.
Russell said after the race he hoped to have “given Toto a headache” for 2022, or “maybe sooner”, but Wolff said he had not paid much thought yet to what this meant for the future.
Russell’s performance in Bahrain was too good to ignore. Mercedes has found itself another superstar to partner Hamilton in the future, and if it inexplicably won’t give him a shot at the end of next year, there’ll be a queue of teams who surely will.
3. Bottas knows the thin ice he is treading on
The Finn was understandably downbeat following Sunday’s race in Bahrain. He was the biggest loser from Mercedes’ pit blunder, leaving him powerless to keep the cars behind back upon taking the restart in fourth place.
Bottas acknowledged heading into the weekend that losing to Russell would not look good, and accepted after the race that, on the face of it, he looked like “a complete c*** and a fool” losing to a driver who had only stepped into the car on Friday.
He went on to again state he thought the race was still up for grabs as he made gains on the hard tyre, and that people who knew the real story would not dismiss his performance in such fashion.
But in Bottas’s comments lies an acceptance of the situation. Russell’s appearance was not simply about finding a replacement for Hamilton after his positive COVID-19 test, but instead part of Mercedes’ planning for the future.
Bottas will head to Abu Dhabi in need of a dominant – not just convincing – display to rebalance the scales a bit.
“It’s going to be more of a normal track instead of a Mickey Mouse track,” Bottas said. “It will be easier to make some differences.”
4. Perez’s victory was more skill than luck
Mexico’s finest was not the first-time winner we expected to be toasting at the end of the Sakhir GP, yet few could begrudge the Racing Point driver for his last-to-first victory.
After being biffed at Turn 4 on the opening lap by Charles Leclerc, Perez pulled off a supreme fightback, his car flying after ditching a flat-spotted set of mediums and switching to hards. He was able to pick off Lance Stroll and Esteban Ocon on consecutive laps to ensure that when Mercedes dropped the ball, he inherited the lead.
PLUS: The unseen mistake that nearly cost Perez victory in Russell’s race
There was naturally fortune involved in Mercedes’ mistakes, but the opportunity to be the driver who picks up the pieces is one that must be seized with confidence. We saw Lance Stroll fluff that opportunity at Monza, and a number of drivers felt after the race at Sakhir they could have been on the top step of the podium.
Perez is operating at his very highest level this year, and deserves an enormous amount of credit for that. His victory was richly deserved – and makes the prospect of his not being on the grid next year all the more baffling.
5. Red Bull paid the price for Albon’s struggles
Alexander Albon may have looked like he was edging towards a reprieve at Red Bull following his podium one week earlier in Bahrain, but Sunday’s result brought the freshest wave yet of uncertainty about his future.
Albon was left ruing a lack of soft tyre running in FP3 that left him lacking confidence going into qualifying, where he slumped to 12th place and his first Q2 elimination since the British Grand Prix.
And as Perez, his rival for a 2021 seat at Red Bull, scythed through the order en route to a stunning victory, Albon could only finish sixth. Before the safety car, he was running net ninth.
On a day when Verstappen retired on the opening lap, Albon really should have been there to pick up the pieces and win the race for Red Bull. The team comfortably has the second fastest car right now, but once again, it wasn’t able to capitalise on Mercedes’ rare mistake.
If Red Bull does stick with Albon for 2021, it would look purely like it is down to its own faith and refusal to waver from its policy of hiring impressive juniors. Because right now, Perez is operating on a different level.
6. Racing Point finally proved its huge potential
“I just don’t understand how they haven’t sealed P3 yet.” It was a telling comment from McLaren’s Carlos Sainz Jr. on a topsy-turvy season for Racing Point. The controversial ‘pink Mercedes’ RP20 has clearly looked like the third-quickest car, yet it has missed a number of opportunities for big scores.
The battle for third in the constructors’ championship took a big swing towards McLaren in the first Bahrain race, but Sunday all but confirmed the position for Racing Point as it took its first win in its current guise – and a first for the team formerly known as Jordan since Brazil 2003.
Perez was joined on the podium by team-mate Stroll, who made a welcome return to form after a rough run of form dating back to his crash at Mugello and subsequent COVID diagnosis which forced him to miss the Eifel GP.
After missing the chance to win at Monza, Racing Point made no mistake of it this time around, and finally has the feather in its cap that proves the future Aston Martin works squad will be one not content with simply topping the midfield.
7. Ocon’s result will do wonders for his confidence
Esteban Ocon hasn’t had a brilliant time of it through 2020. After taking a while to get back to full race sharpness following a year on the sidelines, he was put firmly in the shade by Daniel Ricciardo at Renault. Ocon is still yet to outqualify the Australian in the dry this year.
After qualifying 11th for Sakhir, Ocon started well and drove superbly to make a one-stop strategy work, flying after switching to hard tyres and getting the undercut on Stroll. He didn’t have the pace to keep eventual winner Perez back, but then benefitted from the issues for Mercedes and the decision to pit under the Virtual Safety Car by Ricciardo and Sainz.
Second place perhaps flattered Ocon’s weekend as a whole, but like Perez, he was there to capitalise when others dropped the ball. It marked his first podium in F1, giving Mercedes yet more reasons to be cheerful about its junior prospects.
Ocon admitted after the race that he cried upon crossing the line, letting out much of the tension that has built this year. Ahead of the arrival of Fernando Alonso in 2021, a driver hardly known to look after his team-mates, Ocon needed a result like this to prove his quality and boost his confidence.
8. Kvyat went under the radar ahead of his AlphaTauri exit
Had things gone a little differently, Daniil Kvyat could well have been toasting his fourth F1 podium finish – or maybe even a maiden win – after getting right in the fight at the front of the midfield.
Kvyat got the jump on Ricciardo with a two-lap undercut at the first round of pitstops, and was chasing Sainz for third before coming in again just before the Virtual Safety Car, acting as an unfortunate bit of timing.
It cycled Kvyat to the rear of the train he had been in prior to the pitstops and with older rubber, meant he could not keep Albon behind in the closing stages, resigning him to seventh at the flag.
Still, the Russian was largely faultless on Sunday, making a good statement ahead of what is set to be his final race for AlphaTauri in Abu Dhabi. His successor, Yuki Tsunoda, had a near-perfect weekend in F2 to gain his F1 super licence and prove he is ready to make the step up, meaning few will see the decision as a wrong one.
But it was good to see Kvyat show what he can do, ensuring he can stay in the orbit for future F1 seats that may come up down the line.
9. Aitken and Fittipaldi can be proud of their debut displays
Jack Aitken and Pietro Fittipaldi may have propped up the finishers in Sakhir, taking 16th and 17th respectively, but both can be proud of their debut displays.
Both stepped in at the last minute with minimal running – particularly for Fittipaldi, who had not raced a single-seater since February – but were not a million miles away from their team-mates all weekend.
Aitken was ahead of Williams regular Nicholas Latifi for the first two runs in Q1 before a mistake on his final lap let Latifi get ahead, but wasn’t too far off in the race prior to his prang at the final corner. Barring that, he would likely have beaten F1’s most experienced driver Kimi Raikkonen on debut.
Fittipaldi kept latched onto the rear of that battle in the closing stages. A slow first stint meant he wasn’t in the thick of the fight until the safety car came out, but it will all be useful learning ahead of his second appearance in Abu Dhabi.
10. Bahrain’s outer loop was a roaring success
Bottas may have called it a “Mickey Mouse circuit”, but his view of the Bahrain outer loop was not widely shared as the shortest laps in F1 history made for a high-speed, thrilling affair.
The crusade against calling it an oval may have been strong after F1 managing director of motorsports Ross Brawn’s initial comments, but there were definitely oval characteristics to the race. The short lap meant any pitstop would cost around half a lap compared to rivals, and that gains such as those made by Russell on the undercut were only amplified.
We may know the outer loop is not going to replace the full grand prix layout in Bahrain, but the success of the race proved that simple tracks can work in F1.
The track may have only had four real braking points, but the resulting tiny gaps made for a thrilling conclusion to qualifying in particular.
“We were just conscious of having, at this stage of the season, a cookie cutter second race at Bahrain,” said Brawn.
“Why would it be any different if we ran the same layout twice? It’s a simple track, but quite challenging. The bumps make it far from easy, and the drivers who psychologically focused on it made the best of it so it worked really well.”
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