Formula One’s late-night Sakhir Grand Prix kicked off at Bahrain’s never-before-raced outer loop circuit, with a whole load of changes: No Lewis Hamilton, George Russell to replace him, Jack Aitken taking that seat at Williams, and Pietro Fittipaldi manning Romain Grosjean’s vacated Haas. And yet, one hell of a chaotic race saw Sergio Perez from Racing Point lead the field to the checkered flag, with Renault’s Esteban Ocon in second and Lance Stroll in third.
In his first weekend at Mercedes, George Russell powered into the lead ahead of polesitter Valtteri Bottas. Normal frontrunners Max Verstappen at Red Bull Racing, and Charles Leclerc at Ferrari all had their races ended before the end of the first lap. A collision in the rear of the grid saw those two taken out into the wall.
Bottas backed the pack up after his poor start. Verstappen braked early, and Perez turned in early on the Ferrari, which led to Verstappen and Leclerc in the wall. Perez spun around, but he managed to get back to the pits to swap tires and take the second green.
The safety car period ended on lap seven of 87. Russell easily led the field, with Carlos Sainz Jr. taking second from Bottas for a brief period of time only to run off the track and lose the position. Russell continued to build a gap—impressive, considering he hasn’t been comfortable in the car with minimal practice time and was still on the radio asking how to use the Mercedes steering wheel.
Bottas’ weekend was characterized by mistakes: slow starts, lock-ups, and more. Most folks expected that kind of behavior from Russell, but when the green flag flew, Russell was the one setting fastest laps and building a strong lead.
Russell pitted on lap 46 with a three second gap and came out into second place—but immediately reported power unit problems. It seemed to just be down to Russell’s unfamiliarity with the steering wheel, though, and required him to reset a default power setting to rectify a sensor issue. He quickly set the fastest lap.
Bottas came in two laps later and rejoined the track over eight seconds behind his teammate.
On lap 55, a virtual safety car came out as a result of Williams’ Nicholas Latifi parking it on the side of the track. The VSC ended just one lap later, with the gap between the Mercedes drivers reduced to five seconds.
Another VSC came on lap 62 after Jack Aitken lost a front wing on the track. He’d lost control and knocked the wing against a barrier. It quickly turned into a full blown safety car.
Both Mercedes pitted back-to-back, with Russel having a slow stop but Bottas having an absolute disastrous one. First, the team went to put on the wrong compound, and then the right front brake lit on fire. Unfortunately, Russell was also fitted with a mixed set of tires, forcing him to pit. He returned to the track behind Bottas, in fifth place. It seemed that the team realized the tire set was mixed when Bottas came in, thus putting his old tires back on and sending him out to avoid a penalty.
Mercedes doesn’t frequently make mistakes, but man, when it rains, it pours.
As a result, the top five for the restart was Sergio Perez, Esteban Ocon, Lance Stroll, Bottas, and Russell. Stroll, though, ran into the rear of Ocon just before the restart. Perez led the cars to the lead and took off to over a one-second lead. Bottas ran wide at turn four, allowing Russell to force himself into fourth place in an incredibly bold move.
He did the same to Stroll on lap 72, then Ocon on lap 73. Just over 3.5 second separated him from the leader, and Russell began to cut away the time immediately, setting faster and faster laps. Bottas lost several places, and Russell had to pit with a rear puncture, seeing him lose his chance at a podium, dropping him back out of the points. On the penultimate lap, he did manage to eke out a 9th place, scoring his first ever Formula One points.
That said, Hazel Southwell tempered the disappointment:
Sergio Perez held the lead to the finish, unchallenged by second-place Ocon and third place Stroll. Out of his 189 starts, Perez took his first ever win in F1.
Perez has been rumored to be in the running for a Red Bull Racing seat. If anything convinces Red Bull, it's very likely going to be this performance.