With two rounds left in the 2020 F1 season, being the Sakhir sponsored round at Bahrain, and the finale for Abu Dhabi, one would be forgiven for thinking nothing new would happen before the season’s end. Wrong.
Newly crowned F1 champion for 2020, Lewis Hamilton, tested positive to the coronavirus and will miss the second Bahrain based event. In his place will be Williams driver George Russell. This comes about due to an agreement the teams have and the fact Russell comes from the Mercedes driver program. Jack Aitken, the reserve driver at Williams, will substitute for Russell, who becomes just the third Mercedes driver since 2010. The 25-year-old Aitken, a former Renault junior who finished second in the 2017 GP3 series, has dovetailed his Williams duties with a third campaign in Formula 2, this year scoring two podiums and eight other points finishes.
In further news, a famous name and a young tyro become the newest members of the Haas team for 2021. 21-year-old F2 driver Nikita Mazepin, a driver with plenty of experience, sits third overall in the F2 championship with one round to go, having taken two victories and four other podiums in his second campaign and has tested for Force India in 2016, 2017 and 2018, as well as world champions Mercedes in 2019.
He’ll slot into one seat, with Mick Schumacher, son of former champion, Michael, also signing with Haas. Mick arrives in F1 having won the Formula 3 European Championship in 2018, clocking up eight victories, before joining the Ferrari Academy a year later and making his debut in F2. “I’m very pleased that we’re able to confirm Mick Schumacher in our driver line-up for next season and I look forward to welcoming him into the team,” said Haas Team Principal Guenther Steiner.
Romain Grosjean will miss the Bahrain round, recovering well from his horrific crash and suffering minor burns to hands and feet. He’ll be replaced for the Sakhir round by another famous surname, in this case, a Fittipaldi, Pietro Fittipaldi.
Grosjean’s crash read as high 53G, with Steiner saying it took him 27 seconds to get out of the car. When asked if Grosjean remembers the crash, the Haas boss said: “He remembers how he wanted to get out, or how he got out, he explained that very well to me.” However, Grosjean has no recollection of the seconds leading up to the impact, where his Haas veered gently right, tapped Daniil Kvyat on the way, before the impact.
Grosjean was released from hospital mid-week, with his left hand still fully bandaged. In an interview with Martin Brundle, Grosjean gave an impassioned speech, describing how he thought he had time to be rescued only to realise quickly his position was more perilous than he thought. Investigations are still underway.
Qualifying and Russell showed that Hamilton’s car is genuinely quick. Such was the young Briton’s pace that he would miss out on a maiden pole position by just 0.02 to Bottas. The circuit is almost the same layout as last weekend’s, and covers just under 3.5 kilometres. Bottas’ lap time for pole was just 53.377. Verstappen would grab P3 and was 0.03 from Russell. Charles Leclerc made it through to Q3, laid down one lap, and slotted into P4.
Sergio Perez has P5 but will also be running an older engine, and with the spectre of last week’s MGU-K failure hanging over his head, will be wary of pushing hard. Kvyat is P6 and also will be wary, but for different reasons, after being involved in two incidents that lead to vehicle damage, including Grosjean’s.
A disappointed Ricciardo is P7, with pace enough to get through to Q3 but not to improve any further.“I do think we had top-five in us, definitely in Q2. Q2, I felt pretty quick, and the last sector, I made a pretty solid mistake, so I knew there was more lap time in the car and I thought Q3 it would come quite easily. But I actually couldn’t even repeat my Q2 time with two attempts, so I have to figure out where I went wrong.”
P8 is Carlos Sainz, ahead of Pierre Gasly, and Lance Stroll, still sore after his rollover last weekend. But it’s eyes on George Russell that will follow his progress in the race. He vindicated the team’s efforts to get him on board for this weekend after Hamilton’s positive covid-19 test. He was extremely quick in the practice sessions to the point he was at the top of the time charts. And by getting through to Q1 and missing pole by a blink of an eye, he’s shown that both the car is quick and he’s up to the task if given the right chassis. It’s also highlighted the underperformance of the Williams cars.
Russell exhibited the traditional British stiff upper lip after the final qualifying session, saying: “I guess, yesterday was a good day. I got into the car, working really well with the team, building on it lap after lap and then into FP3 was a woeful session. Mistakes, pushing too hard, trying this, trying that, and it just didn’t really come together.” However, an acknowledgement of his situation: “…but nevertheless if you told me four days ago that I’d be qualifying P2 this weekend I thought you’d have been having my pants down.”
The second half of the field starts with Renault’s Ocon, ahead of Albon, who said tyre choices slowed his progress. P13 is Vettel, ahead of Giovinazzi, Latifi, and Russell’s replacement for the weekend, Jack Aitken. P19 is Raikkonen whilst Fittipaldi rounds out the twenty.
Racetime and it’s carnage on the first lap again, this time for Max Verstappen. Charles Leclerc was the culprit, thinking that Sergio Perez would go one way in a starting right-hand turn and compensated in anticipation. Unfortunately for Leclerc, that anticipation was misplaced, as he was inside Verstappen’s right side, and locking his fronts. He would hit the rear of Perez, spinning him out of the way and breaking the front left suspension of the Ferrari.
In an effort to avoid Perez, Verstappen went wide and had no option but to hit the tyre barrier, also on the front left.
Leclerc followed without further impact and witnessed a clearly angry Dutchman kick the tyre wall in obvious frustration. The stewards agreed with Verstappen’s assessment of Leclerc and handed the Ferrari driver a three-place grid drop for the next (and final) round and two penalty points for causing a collision.
Perez would count himself lucky to avoid any damage to his Racing Point as luck would further fall his way in the form of a Mercedes stuff up for pole-sitter George Russell. The young Briton, gifted a drive with The Silver Arrows after a positive covid test result for Lewis Hamilton, would get a great start and avoid the collision. Russell would be largely untroubled for the lead until lap 63 when, in a supreme form of irony, his own Williams replacement, Jack Aiken, would tap a barrier and set off a train of events that would leave Russell heartbroken.
A safety car was called, Russell would pit for new rubber. That rubber would be the cause for him to be called in again a lap later. Why? The team had mistakenly placed the rubber for Valtteri Bottas on the Russell car instead. Team principal Toto Wolff would later state there was a radio issue. That second pit stop dropped Russell to P5 and in some carefully and brilliantly executed driving would be back up to P2…only to suffer a puncture in the closing stages with an end result of P9.
“I don’t know what to say, that was taken away from us twice,” said Russell over team radio as he appeared to wipe away tears on his lap. “It’s been a pleasure and I’ve ****** loved it. And honestly, I’m gutted, I’m absolutely gutted…”
At race end though, it was Perez, a man without a seat for 2021, that would stand atop the podium alongside an ecstatic Esteban Ocon and a driver proving he can drive if not hit by others, Lance Stroll.
Perez had gotten to the garage for new rubber after the first lap incident and swapped to mediums. This enabled a charge to P11 in lap 15. Russell was doing a masterful job of leading the field, and also quickly establishing and then maintaining a two-second gap to Bottas behind. Ricciardo’s P4 swiftly moved to P6 after first being passed by Sainz, and last weekend’s black cat, Kvyat.
Half race distance, 44 laps, and Russell was three seconds ahead of Bottas. Perez was in P3, ahead of Albon (yet to pit) followed by Sainz, Kvyat, and Ricciardo. Gasly was in P8, and ahead of Ocon and Stroll. That three-second lead evaporated after Russell reported a power loss and pitted. A quick reset and he was back out. His pace was rapid enough that when Bottas pitted four laps later, he’d emerge a full eight seconds adrift of Russell.
Lap 55 and Latifi would bench his Williams, with the Virtual Safety Car changing the order yet again. Ricciardo’s luck proved fickle too, as he had been in P4 before the VSC, only to drop to P7 after his rubber swap. Perez had been lurking, and from P4 would get to P3 passing both Stroll and Ocon who had made some impressive inroads. It’s shortly afterwards that Aitken nosed the barriers, bringing out another safety car and it’s here that Russell’s rubber dramas ensued. It would later result in a Eu20,000 fine for the team.
Lap 69 was the restart and it’s Perez that gets the jump on the field, setting himself up for the win from here. Russell had got past Bottas and was ready to dive for P1 when his puncture occurred. Although Russell would charge back through the field, it wasn’t enough to do anything more, and Sergio “Checo” Perez would cross the line for his maiden win and fifty years since fellow Mexican Pedro Rodriguez won an F1 race.
The double podium for Racing Point has proven crucial, with the team now on 194 points and ten ahead of McLaren. Ocon’s P2 finish and Ricciardo’s P5, behind Sainz, bumps Renault to 172, just 12 behind McLaren.
Albon and Kvyat would finish P6 and P7, ahead of the Mercedes duo of Bottas and Russell. Lando Norris would cap the top ten. Pierre Gasly took P11 ahead of Vettel, whilst the Alfa Romeo pair of Giovinazzi and Raikkonen finished P13 and P14. Kevin Magnussen would just pip Aitken by 1.3 seconds while Fittipadi would end his race in P17.
Said Perez, after 190 races and his maiden F1 win: “I’m a bit speechless, I hope I’m not dreaming, you know, because I dreamed so many years of being in this moment. Ten years, ten years it took me. Incredible. I mean, I don’t know what to say, you know.”
There is one more race for the season, this coming weekend at Abu Dhabi.