Racing Point team celebrate Sergio Perez's maiden win in Bahrain

Sakhir GP - Stat Wrap

By Sean Kelly
C4F1's Virtual Statman

A week is a long time in Formula 1.

Seven days ago, Racing Point’s Sergio Perez suffered the bitter misfortune of losing a podium finish due to mechanical failure with less than four laps remaining, while teammate Lance Stroll ended the race upside down after an early collision.

And George Russell’s Williams was being lapped by Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes….

Returning to the same venue on Sunday evening, Racing Point erased those memories to become the 36th different constructor to win a world championship event, primarily due to an incredible last-to-first drive from a man who remains without a seat for next season.

The likelihood that Perez would even score points seemed slim in Sunday’s Sakhir Grand Prix after being punted into a spin by Charles Leclerc on the opening lap – in an accident that also took out Max Verstappen.

Perez was the only one to the trio to get back into the race, but was running in last place when the race resumed on lap seven.  What followed was miraculous comeback that saw him ascend to third place before the race had even reached two-thirds distance.  While he may have been fortunate to benefit from the Mercedes team shooting themselves in the foot in their pitstop calamity, Perez could not have been in position to take advantage but for the drive that preceded it.

Over 50 years have passed since the last victory by a Mexican driver.  Pedro Rodriguez won the 1967 South African and 1970 Belgian GPs, but had remained the only man from his country to triumph in a Grand Prix until Perez struck gold on Sunday night.  Success in his 190th Grand Prix start smashes the all-time record for longest F1 career until recording a maiden win, far surpassing the 130-race wait for C4F1’s Mark Webber when he won at the Nurburgring in 2009.

Making it all the more remarkable, Perez had only led two laps in the previous six years prior to this race.  The 24 laps he spent at the front of the Sakhir GP compare with 25 laps led in the rest of his F1 career combined.

It was the first victory for the Racing Point name (and likely to be the only one, as they rebrand as Aston Martin after next weekend), and in the 30 seasons that the team has existed it was the first time they’ve won a race under any name other than their original incarnation as Jordan.  The Irish team were four-time winners, most recently at the 2003 Brazilian GP.

That on its own would be enough to be a great day in team history, but with Lance Stroll coming home in third place, it was the first time they saw both cars on the podium in the same race since their first-ever Jordan win at the 1998 Belgian GP (Damon Hill, Ralf Schumacher, and all that).

It was also a good day for the continent of North America, and it literally could not have come at a better time.  The nighttime start in Bahrain made this the only Grand Prix of the 2020 season taking place in an afternoon time zone in the Americas.  They were duly rewarded with a Mexican race winner, a Canadian podium finisher and an American winning team principal (Otmar Szafnauer).

The filling in the Racing Point sandwich was an understandably-delighted Esteban Ocon, the Frenchman claiming his first podium more than four years after his Grand Prix debut.  It has been a tough season for Ocon, having been outqualified 15-1 by Daniel Ricciardo and barely scoring half as many points as his teammate.

That said, Ocon has now earned bragging rights of his own.  This was Renault’s best finish in a race since Robert Kubica finished second at the 2010 Australian Grand Prix, and it is the second race this season in which there was no previous race winner on the podium, following on from the Pierre Gasly / Carlos Sainz / Lance Stroll top-three at Monza.

Speaking of Sainz, he probably couldn’t have imagined he would finish behind Perez when he completed the opening lap in third place.  Having looked like a massive opportunity to give McLaren an almost-unassailable advantage in the battle for third in the Constructors’ Championship, instead Sainz was beaten by McLaren’s closest championship rivals from Racing Point and Renault.

Nevertheless, Sainz maintained his consistency – this was his sixth top-five finish of the 2020 season, matching his total from the rest of his F1 career combined.  He did also pick off a familiar rival in beating Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo, for whom Sakhir was a tenth consecutive points finish, extending his longest scoring streak since 2016.

Many people were happy to see Checo Perez finally claim a win, but it is unlikely that Alex Albon was among them for as long as the second Red Bull seat remains up for grabs.  Albon was the beneficiary of Perez’s misfortune last weekend in claiming third place, but having finished sixth in the Sakhir GP Albon still has less than half the points of teammate Verstappen (93-189).

Although obscured by the dramatic developments at the front of the field, Daniil Kvyat was able to remind AlphaTauri of his skills this weekend.  The Russian qualified sixth on the grid, his best performance since the 2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix (33 races ago), and it was only the third time this season that he has outqualified Pierre Gasly.

Seventh place in the race itself is a result he’s only improved upon once all year (when he was fourth at Imola).  It was the fourth time in the last eight races that Kvyat has finished in the top eight, having only done so on three other occasions in his 88-race tenure with this team.

You don’t normally have to read this far down any synopsis of a Grand Prix weekend before Mercedes are mentioned.  In reality, this should have been yet another front row lockout and 1-2 finish for the dominant team of the era, but even if that had happened it would have been in extraordinary circumstances.

Lewis Hamilton’s positive COVID-19 test ended the longest-ever streak of consecutive race starts in F1 history at 265.  Not since 2006 had a Grand Prix taken place without Hamilton among the entrants.

In fact, this was the first race of the 21st Century to take place without either of Formula 1’s seven-time world champions present, as Michael Schumacher had participated in every Grand Prix from 2000 until his final start for Ferrari at the end of 2006, the race before Lewis Hamilton made his debut.

The upshot of this was that Williams’ George Russell was promoted from the back of the grid to the front – and he lived up to expectations.  Valtteri Bottas was too good for him in qualifying, but Russell got within 0.026s of the Finn in Q3, and then had the audacity to pass him at the first corner of the race.

Russell spent the majority of the race controlling things at the front.  So much so that he has already led more laps in the 2020 season (59) than anybody besides Hamilton and Bottas!

He came within touching distance of becoming the first man to claim his maiden points finish and maiden win in the same race since Giancarlo Baghetti won on his debut at the 1961 French Grand Prix, before Mercedes mixed up Russell and Bottas’ tyres at their pitstops.

This debacle not only denied Russell a dream result, but it also ruined Bottas’ evening, making this the first race since Hockenheim last year in which there was no Mercedes in the top seven positions.

It also means that Bottas goes to the final race in Abu Dhabi with the runner-up position in the Drivers’ Championship still up for grabs, as Verstappen remains only 16 points adrift with 26 still on the table.

Regardless of who occupies the other side of the Mercedes garage, Bottas will have a point to prove at Yas Marina next weekend.