Joy and heartache in Sakhir

06/12/2020
NEWS STORY

No matter what happens, today's Sakhir Grand Prix is sure to be a little different.

First off, we're talking about a near-oval layout measuring just over 2 miles and a race distance just shy of 90 laps.

While we expect traffic to be one of the biggest problems, this isn't merely going to affect the opening couple of laps, for the leaders are likely to be lapping the backmarkers two or three times over the course of the evening.

Following an overnight engine change, Lando Norris will start from the back of the grid alongside Pietro Fittipaldi who also received a number of additional engine elements.

While the Haas driver is likely to spend much of the evening battling at the rear of the field, Norris will be wanting to join the front of the midfield scrap as early as possible.

The battle between McLaren, Racing Point, Renault and Ferrari for third in the standings was always going to be one of the key elements to the race, but now we have AlphaTauri storming up on the outside.

This weekend, rather than skipping over the inevitable Mercedes win, we have the prospect of a real battle here also. With Lewis Hamilton laid low by COVID, this is Valtteri Bottas' opportunity to silence his sceptics and stake his early claim to the 2021 title.

However, there is the little matter of George Russell. Following two strong opening sessions, the Briton struggled noticeably in FP3 before getting it all together again in time for qualifying.

Though he insists he has nothing to prove, a strong result will serve notice to Mercedes that he is ready to step up, though it remains to be seen if that is to Valtteri's car or Lewis'.

At the same time however, a win on his first time out in the car would surely give some weight to those who still argue that Hamilton's seven titles are the result of having the best car.

With the Mercedes pair told they are free to race, Max Verstappen can only sit back and hope to benefit from any silliness. That said, his strong pace on Friday while on the long runs suggests he could pull of a surprise of his own this evening.

Someone who really needs to pull off a surprise is Alex Albon, who for a cat-lover is showing a worrying trend of using up his nine lives. We know he has talent, but it is difficult to keep making excuses when he underperforms as he did yesterday.

He's been told the 2021 seat is his to lose, however, despite the backing of Messrs Horner and Marko he appears to be throwing it away with both hands.

While Albon continues to disappoint, Perez continues to impress and this evening offers the Mexican another opportunity to shine, likewise Daniel Ricciardo as Renault enjoys one of its roller-coaster weekends.

Quite where Charles Leclerc got that lap from nobody knows, but it was the lap of a champion. Meanwhile, as Yuki Tsunoda looks set to step up to AlphaTauri is this Daniil Kvyat's Last Chance Saloon?

A two-stop strategy seems set to be the fastest approach. While the demands on tyres are a bit less than they were last weekend, wear and degradation is still relatively high on the abrasive surface.

The fastest two-stopper should be two stints on the mediums of 26 laps each, plus one 35-lap stint on the hards (which could be the middle stint).

Alternatively, another good two-stopper would be one 21-lap stint on the softs plus two stints on the hards of 33 laps each. Very close to that is a strategy with 25 laps on the mediums and two stints of 31 laps each on the hards.

What's slower is using all three tyres: 23 laps on the soft, 27 laps on the medium, and 37 laps on the hard.

All of the above stints can be run in any order, and with the two Mercedes starting on the medium tyre, they have plenty of options - depending on the actual degradation rates that they encounter during the race, with track temperatures capable of falling over the course of the night race.

The pitlane opens and the drivers begin heading out and Verstappen is already being warned about the track limits at Turn 8. Teammate Albon warns that the track is very dusty (sand), thanks to the gusty wind.

Air temperature is 21.5 degrees C, while the track temperature is 24.2 degrees. There is 0% chance of rain.

Other than the Mercedes pair, Ocon, Albon, Vettel, Giovinazzi, Aitken and Raikkonen are on mediums, the rest are on softs.

As the field heads off on the warm-up lap, Ricciardo is warned not to stray off the racing line due to the dust.

Russell is slow to get away on the warm-up lap, as a result he is passed by Verstappen.

The grid forms as Gasly reports he's been hit on the hand by a stone (again).

They're away!

Good starts from both Mercedes drivers, and as they head into Turn 1, Russell has the inside line. As Russell takes the lead, heading into Turn 2 there's a wobble from Bottas. The Finn loses ground which allows Verstappen and Perez - who are side-by-side - and Leclerc to close in.

Through Turn 3 Bottas, Verstappen and Perez are three abreast, while further back there's a great cloud of dust and smoke as Raikkonen spins.

In Turn 4, Bottas is ahead, with Perez behind and Leclerc now on the inside of Verstappen. However, as Verstappen suddenly loses ground, Perez moves to the inside where the Ferrari driver clips the rear-right of the Racing Point sending him into a spin, causing Leclerc and Verstappen to take avoiding action.

Unfortunately though they avoid the spinning Racing Point they are both in trouble. Leclerc has damaged the front-left of his car in the clash with Perez whilst Verstappen heads into the barriers. They are both out.

"F***, I couldn't do anything, F***," moans Verstappen, who proceeds to kick the barrier.

Perez pits as the Safety Car is deployed.

Russell leads Bottas, Sainz, Ricciardo, Kvyat, Stroll, Gasly, Ocon, Vettel and Norris.

The stewards have noted the Perez/Leclerc/Verstappen clash.

Albon was hit further back down the field, but he is assured that his car is fine.

The Safety Car is withdrawn at the end of lap 6. A Russell heads off into the distance, Sainz is all over the rear of Bottas. They are side-by-side in Turn 1 and as the McLaren driver takes second the Finn immediately retakes the position.

At the start of lap 8, Norris passes Vettel in Turn 1 to takes 9th. Russell leads by 1s.

Check out our Sunday gallery from Bahrain, here.

Albon is now battling Vettel, their respective teammates' retirements offering both a chance to shine.

As Aitken battles Raikkonen and Latifi battles Giovinazzi, Albon complains that his car is slow on the straights.

Albon passes Vettel who is subsequently passed by Perez also.

As Sainz reports "the deployment is wrong", Ricciardo is all over the rear of the McLaren with Kvyat and Stroll hard on the heels of the Renault driver.

Indeed, a train of four cars is trailing the Spaniard's McLaren.

"We are target plus 9," Bottas is told.

On mediums following his early stop, Perez is told to take care of his left-front. The Mexican is currently 11th.

Lap 17 sees Bottas post a fastest lap (57.978), as he trails Russell by 2.082s.

As Albon looks at Norris, Perez sizes up the pair of them.

A lovely move sees Albon pass Norris in Turn 6, with Perez nailing the McLaren driver, who is struggling on his softs, in the following corner. Norris pits.

A lap later and a bold move sees Perez pass Albon to take ninth.

Out front, after 22 laps, Russell leads by 1.8s.

"I'm hanging in there," Vettel assures his team.

Lap 23 sees Russell become the latest to have his time deleted for exceeding the track limits at Turn 8.

Sainz has built a lead of 1.898s over Ricciardo, while behind Stroll is sandwiched between the two AlphaTauris.

At the other end of the field, Norris has passed Raikkonen and Fittipaldi to take 16th.

At the end of lap 27, Kvyat pits, as do the Alfas and Magnussen.

Kvyat rejoins in 11th.

Sainz and Gasly both pit next time around, the Spaniard rejoining in 9th and the Frenchman in 11th, Kvyat being the meat in the middle.

As both Mercedes drivers are told to stay off the kerns at Turn 8, Ricciardo pits. He rejoins in 10th, behind Kvyat, who posts a new fastest lap (57.080).

Replay reveals that Ricciardo was told to pit after he'd already begun another lap.

Vettel pits at the end of lap 31, as Russell has already lapped everyone up to 13th-placed Latifi.

Bottas reports that he is struggling with his fronts in Turns 7 and 8.

Ricciardo is all over the back of Kvyat, but the Russian is in no mood to surrender. Are they ever?

Behind the Black Arrows, Stroll is now third, albeit 20.9s behind. Ocon is fourth, ahead of Perez and Albon. Seventh-placed Sainz is the only driver, other the Perez, in the leading group, to have pitted.

Albon is warned that he's had "two strikes at Turn 8".

Ocon is told to put pressure on Stroll, the French driver is on 37-lap old mediums while the Canadian is on 37-lap old softs.

Leclerc blames himself for his first lap retirement, which is handy because Verstappen blames him also.

Ocon pits at the end of lap 41, the Renault driver rejoining in 10th on hards.

Racing Point reacts to Renault's move by pitting Stroll. Switching to mediums, the Canadian rejoins in 9th, ahead of Ocon. However, the Frenchman has the momentum, and subsequently goes around the outside of the Canadian in Turn 4.

The move is watched by the legendary Alain Prost who nods his approval.

Russell is told that his first stint is being extended.

Ahead of his stop, Russell is told to up his pace.

The Briton pits at the end of lap 45, switching to hards he rejoins in 2nd, 20.187s down on his Mercedes teammate, and 6.9s ahead of Perez.

"No power," reports Russell as he goes quickest in S1. Quickest again in S2 he is advised to make some setting changes.

As we all breathe a sigh of relief, Russell posts a new fastest lap, an impressive 56.664.

Perez and Albon both pit at the end of lap 47, rejoining in 9th (Perez) and 11th (Albon).

At the end of lap 48, Bottas pits, as Albon is shown the black and white flag for exceeding the track limits three times.

Bottas rejoins in second, albeit 8.5s down on Russell.

Russell is told to be careful with his front-left in Turns 7 and 8 as his car is suffering track-rod overload. Indeed, Bottas is given the same warning.

Whatever happens from here on, this is very, very impressive from Russell.

Gasly pits at the end of lap 51, rejoining in 11th, the Frenchman the first driver to make a second scheduled stop.

After 52 laps, it's: Russell, Bottas, Sainz, Kvyat, Ocon, Stroll, Perez, Albon and Norris.

Latifi has pulled to the side of the track at Turn 9. The VSC is deployed.

Moments before, Gasly had passed Vettel for 11th.

Under the VSC, Norris, Vettel, Giovinazzi and Fittipaldi all pit.

Sainz also pits, just as the VSC is withdrawn, as does Ricciardo.

A lock-up by Stroll in Turn 4 sees Perez move up to 4th. Albon is now 6th, ahead of VSC 'pitters' Sainz and Ricciardo.

Perez makes short work of Ocon to take third. "Your pace is seriously strong," he is told.

5.1s down on his teammate, Bottas posts a new fastest lap (56.613).

"We need to push, I cannot hang around here," warns Sainz.

Aitken has lost his front wing on track after spinning and clouting the barrier in the final corner, and as a result the VSC is deployed.

With the front wing in the middle of the track the full Safety Car is deployed. The Mercedes pair are double-stacked and it is a total cock-up. Russell's stop is bad enough, but Bottas' is even worse, the crew have the wrong tyres ready and his front-left brakes are overheating.

Check out our Sunday gallery from Bahrain, here.

Indeed, Russell has been given a mixed set of tyres and needs to pit again. The Briton pits and rejoins in 5th, behind his Mercedes teammate.

A disaster for Mercedes.

So, behind the Safety Car, Perez leads Ocon, Stroll, Bottas, Russell, Sainz, Ricciardo, Kvyat, Gasly and Albon.

"You have good pace, all is not lost," Bono assures Russell. "I f****** hope so," comes the reply.

On 23-24 laps old tyres, Ocon (hard) and Stroll (mediums) should be easy picking for the Mercedes pair, but Perez will be another battle entirely. Bottas is on hards and Russell mediums.

Ironically, that whole chain of events was set in motion by a Williams driver.

The Safety Car is withdrawn at the end of lap 68, and Stroll almost takes out Ocon in his eagerness to get going again.

Another mistake from Bottas, and Russell doesn't wait for an invitation, he sticks with and then nails the Finn to claim fourth. Brilliant stuff from the Briton.

Out front, Perez leads by 2.5s.

At the start of lap 72, Russell sweeps by Stroll in Turn 1, the Briton setting off after Ocon.

Magnussen is shown the black and white flag.

Heading into Turn 4, Russell passes Ocon, with Perez 3.4s up the road.

"It feels like we have a problem with the engine," complains Vettel, as Sainz complains about Bottas' lack of pace.

In his pursuit of Perez, Russell posts a new fastest lap (56.393).

"You are the fastest man on track," Russell is told, "keep it up."

Sainz passes Bottas, with Ricciardo also nailing the struggling Finn.

Adding insult to injury, Albon sweeps past the Mercedes as Russell is warned of a rear puncture. The Briton pits and rejoins in a hugely disappointing 15th.

"Argh! I don't know what to say," says Russell. Neither do we George, neither do we.

So, Perez leads Ocon by 8.4s with Stroll a further 9.9s.

"Keep leaning on them," Perez is told of his tyres, "keep the temperature."

Meanwhile the stewards announce that they will investigate Russell for the tyre debacle after the race.

Russell is up to 12th, the Briton looking likely to match his previous best finish off the season. A result which doesn't even begin to tell the story.

In the Racing Point garage emotions are running high.

Norris passes Gasly for 9th as Bottas is warned that Russell is closing in. Indeed, the Briton is all over the back of 10th-place Gasly, subsequently passing the Frenchman.

Perez starts his final lap as Russell passes Norris for 9th.

Perez wins, ahead of Ocon and Stroll as Racing Point grab a double podium finish.

And on a day or ironies, joy and despair, let's not forget that as it stands Perez doesn't have an F1 drive next year.

Sainz is fourth, ahead of Ricciardo, Albon, Kvyat, Bottas, Russell and Norris.

Gasly is eleventh, ahead of Vettel, Giovinazzi, Raikkonen, Magnussen, Aitken and Fittipaldi.

Understandably, Perez is crying, in the circumstances he's probably not the only driver shedding a tear right now.

While it is a popular win, surely a win for Russell would have been just as popular. That said, in their own ways, both men have proved a point today.

Quite what Mercedes was playing at no one knows, but one shudders to think the reaction had Hamilton been robbed of a sure-fire win in such an amateur move.

In the same way that Perez must be on the grid next season, so Russell cannot be allowed to waste another year at Williams.

After the horror of last week, this week was exactly what we needed, a mixture of tears, jeers, joy, sadness, smiles, groans thrill and spills.

Indeed, that was a fun race.

Check out our Sunday gallery from Bahrain, here.

Article from Pitpass (http://www.pitpass.com):

Published: 06/12/2020
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