By Shwetha Surendran
BU News Service
Chaos reigned supreme during the 87-lap Sakhir Grand Prix as a series of unfortunate events for the Mercedes team led to Racing Point driver Sergio Pérez claiming his first ever Formula One victory. The driver—who fell to the back of the grid on lap one after contact with Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari—staged a scintillating comeback drive to take the checkered flag.
Completing the rostrum was Renault driver Esteban Ocon with his podium debut and Racing Point driver Lance Stroll.
While the race had plenty of spectacular action, the drama began much earlier in the week when seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton announced he had tested positive for COVID-19.
Williams driver George Russell, who was called up to Mercedes in Hamilton’s place, was immediately up to the task in the W11 car, topping the first two practice sessions Friday. But Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas set the fastest time in Saturday’s qualifying session, taking pole position. Russell qualified second, only two-hundredths of a second behind.
Despite another Mercedes front row lockout, the real star of qualifying was the young Monégasque driver for Ferrari. Leclerc put in an almost flawless qualifying lap, taking the fourth grid spot for the race Sunday.
But the Ferrari man’s Saturday high quickly turned to a Sunday low, as a frantic opening lap incident with Pérez caused him to retire with broken suspension. The race stewards also handed Leclerc a three-place grid drop penalty for “causing a collision.” It will be applied at the race in Abu Dhabi next week.
Red Bull driver Max Verstappen was an innocent bystander of the first-lap incident. Swerving into the runoff area to avoid contact with Leclerc, Verstappen found himself driving straight into the barriers. Russell, who had a great start off the line, led the rest of the field comfortably for the first half of the race.
The race began to come undone after Jack Aitken—the driver subbing for Russell at Williams—lost his front wing, prompting a virtual safety car.
As Mercedes called in their drivers for a pit-stop, they put Bottas’ set of tires onto Russell’s car in a costly error. This blunder cascaded into an excruciatingly long 27 second pitstop for Bottas. Russell, who was subsequently called in again to correct the mistake, lost the lead of the race to Pérez and rejoined in fifth place.
Clawing his way back to second with a series of stunning overtakes, Russell was robbed of a race win when his recovery drive screeched to a halt after a puncture played spoilsport. The British driver tumbled down the order to 15th, and finished the race in ninth.
Bottas, first fitted with wrong and then old tires, crossed the line in eighth. In a post-race interview with Sky Sports F1, Mercedes Team Principal Torger “Toto” Wolff called the incident a “colossal f*** up.”
As Mercedes floundered, Renault picked up a good haul of points with Ocon’s podium and Daniel Ricciardo’s fifth place finish. Fellow Constructors Championship third place contenders McLaren also scored with Carlos Sainz Jr. in fourth and Lando Norris in 10th.
There’s a lot at stake in the grand finale of the Formula One 2020 season at Abu Dhabi. Sebastian Vettel’s last race will be donning the scarlet Ferrari overalls, Haas driver Kevin Magnussen’s final Formula One race, and Russell’s second shot at a podium if Hamilton doesn’t recover.