Expert Analyst @MBrundleF1
Martin Brundle: Sergio Perez, George Russell and the story of a dramatic Sakhir GP
The Sky F1 expert analyses the gripping events of Bahrain’s second race and pays tribute to the grid's newest race winner, while also reflecting on what the starring performance of the driver who so nearly claimed that title for himself
Last Updated: 08/12/20 3:31pm
Congratulations to Sergio Perez on his first Grand Prix victory, and to Racing Point for a stellar double podium. A nicer and more down to earth and deserving driver you will not find, in any racing paddock.
This has become one of the most memorable seasons in Formula 1 history. Writing this from the carefully controlled biosphere of Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, extraordinarily we seem to be on the verge of completing a 17-race season which only commenced in July.
Recognising it's been largely a European championship, nonetheless that's more races than most seasons in our 70-year history.
Bahrain certainly delivered its fair share of floodlit excitement, emotion, surprises and wheel-to-wheel racing over two weekends.
I've not observed anybody who appeared more diligent with anti-Covid measures than Lewis Hamilton, and so when he became the third driver this year after Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll to be declared positive it was a shock. He apparently caught the virus in Dubai on his way to Bahrain which, assuming that's correct, is a good reminder of what a lottery this sorry pandemic story is, and alarming that he still tested negative on race day.
Drivers even conduct engineering meetings on headphones in their own space, but still it was good fortune that his engineering and car crew weren't affected and so were able to welcome George Russell into the best seat in motorsport.
I have no doubt that by using Russell instead of the official test driver Stoffel Vandoorne, who was inbound anyway, was a big tactical decision by Toto Wolff.
With Hamilton playing hard to get regarding a signature on a new contract, and doubts whether Valtteri Bottas was really stepping up to the plate lately despite his miserable luck, George would answer a few questions one way or the other.
And so it proved to be as he assuredly led the race after a perfect start, and without being entirely comfortable inside the car or fully up to speed with all of its systems, Russell dramatically raised his own value and opportunities, capped Hamilton's, and dented Bottas's.
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As Russell streaked away, for the second consecutive weekend a struggling Bottas was backing the pack up a little and they started tripping over each other. The drag race to turn four between Bottas, Max Verstappen, Perez and Charles Leclerc was close, whilst Kimi Raikkonen had a spin which momentarily took him towards the Grosjean wall at the back.
Verstappen sensed trouble and was unusually early on the brakes thereby releasing Perez down the outside and enticing Leclerc into an ultimately too wild late-braking move up the inside of a sandy track. Perez sliced to the apex to try to cut underneath Bottas, he could never have had the mirrors or time to see Leclerc, although as in other corners around the world such as La Source in Spa, or indeed turn one in Bahrain, at the start it pays to assume somebody may well be there.
Leclerc takes a three-place grid drop in Abu Dhabi as various camera angles confirmed he was too aggressive and not in full charge of his car. The cruellest one was Verstappen who drove very defensively, and rather than braking heavily he shot around the outside only to find a gravel trap I suspect very few drivers knew about.
From nicely surviving the incident to tearing his front wheel off against the tyre barrier, it was a hugely painful slow-motion way for Max to waste an opportunity.
With Leclerc and Verstappen parked at neat used-car-lot angle in the barriers, and Perez pointing the wrong way after heavy contact, my heart sank up in commentary as we appeared to have lost three main contenders which can sometimes signal a long and uneventful race ahead. Yeah right.
Perez was able to pit to change his soft tyres for mediums which he would hang onto until lap 47, beginning from 18th place behind the inevitable safety car, also known by now as 'last'.
Russell made a decent restart and led beautifully by building a three-second gap to Bottas, as the rest of the pack raced ferociously, and Perez was making some sweet overtakes lap after lap.
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Russell pitted on lap 45 for hard tyres which would comfortably see him to the end, Bottas following suit on lap 49, and then setting about reducing the now eight-second gap to his team-mate with some success. We could well have seen a close battle to the flag, but Russell looked in charge of his destiny for a famous first victory at his new holiday home.
Unfortunately, and ironically back at his main home, Jack Aiken had a spin around the outside of the final corner in his Williams and smacked the barrier thereby scattering his front wing back onto the racing line. A virtual safety car was deployed but it soon became clear, given the way cars were evenly distributed around the very short track, there weren't sufficient gaps even at slow speeds to put marshals out to clear the debris.
The resultant full safety car tempted both Mercedes into the pits for a precautionary stop for fresh tyres given they had such a margin. A clash in radio protocol priorities meant that critical information was missed, and a highly unusual Keystone Cops moment followed from the normally calm and immaculate team.
Russell ended up with a pair of Bottas's front tyres and would have to pit yet again, and Bottas ended up with his old hard compound tyres back on after a delay. But wait, with grippy fresh tyres, Russell could still grab a famous victory in the closing stages. That is until he picked up a slow puncture to eventually consign him to his first ever and likely least welcome championship points in ninth place, along with an extra one from fastest lap.
Along with his safety-car crash in Imola, young George has taken some body blows this year, but overall it was a very significant weekend for him, and he appears to have sufficient confidence and self-belief to weather it all.
With Mercedes stepping on their own tails, and key players like Verstappen having already departed the venue, the door was wide open for a surprise and even new F1 winner, and through the melee emerged a hard-charging Perez who can credit his victory to tenacity and great overtakes, and of course a fast car.
Renault's Daniel Ricciardo summed it up when he said they shouldn't have let this guy win from the back of the pack. Many others felt they should have won such as Lance Stroll who locked up whilst being hunted down by Perez or have at least been on the podium such as Sainz, who was unlucky to pit just as a virtual safety car was ending.
Before the race, whilst I was fully bought into the concept of using different track configurations over consecutive weekends, I felt that the regular Bahrain layout was comfortably preferable to the very short but challenging 'outer loop'. Now I'm not so sure after that crazy race.
Let's see what Abu Dhabi can offer us as we await word on a negative Covid-19 test for Lewis. Meanwhile we have to absorb two uncomfortable truths; Perez doesn't have a drive next year and a change of car moved a driver from a perennially lapped second half of the grid to a potential race winner in seven days…