It was a situation that Sergio Perez felt comfortable in declaring just weeks ago that he would triumph. Just days before the second Italian based F1 GP at Mugello, that situation changed and for some, the unthinkable happened. Sebastian Vettel and Racing Point announced that the struggling Ferrari driver would be at the team, to be renamed Aston Martin Racing for 2021, and that Perez would move on to a destination unknown.
“Everybody at Silverstone is hugely excited by this news,” said Team Principal Otmar Szafnauer. “Sebastian is a proven champion and brings a winning mentality that matches our own ambitions for the future as Aston Martin F1 Team. On a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, Sebastian is one of the best in the world, and I can’t think of a better driver to help take us into this new era. He will play a significant role in taking this team to the next level.”
With this weekend marking the 1,000 race for the Ferrari F1 outfit, it’s being seen as unusual timing for the announcement. Given the form of both the team and Vettel himself, the likelihood of the release spurring both or either to a better result is a long shot.
Perez himself stands to have doors open for him now that the uncertainty of Vettel’s future, at the cost to Perez of missing out on two years of his three years contract signed just last year, has been resolved. It’s uncertain, at the time of writing, as to just what happened with the seemingly sudden about face from Racing Point’s stance. Perez released his own statement which hinted nothing about the change: “Everything in life always has a beginning and an end, and after seven years together, my time with the team will come to an end after this season. It hurts a bit as I bet on the team during very rough times; we managed to overcome obstacles and I am very proud of saving the jobs of several of my team mates.”
Racing Point’s deal is for “2021 and beyond”, suggesting a minimum two year deal for Vettel. Aged 33, Vettel says he still has what it takes in a carefully worded statement. “I am pleased to finally share this exciting news about my future.” said the German. “I’m extremely proud to say that I will become an Aston Martin driver in 2021. It’s a new adventure for me with a truly legendary car company. I have been impressed with the results the team has achieved this year and I believe the future looks even brighter. The energy and commitment of Lawrence to the sport is inspiring and I believe we can build something very special together. I still have so much love for Formula 1 and my only motivation is to race at the front of the grid. To do so with Aston Martin will be a huge privilege.”
Perez, however, has confirmed that he was blindsided by the news, with the Mexican confirming after the release that he was effectively fired from Racing Point after the team opted to use their escape clause. “I got a call from Lawrence [Stroll, team owner], he called me yesterday – that they were going into another direction… nobody told me anything [before that] but I already knew and figured out a couple of things and the final confirmation came yesterday.” said Perez. As the news was so unexpected, Perez says that he hadn’t settled on a Plan B and with the choice of retirement or taking a break, it’s the former that currently appeals.
Strikingly, Vettel confirms that retirement was also in his timeline. With the uncertainty he also had faced since Ferrari confirmed he was surplus to requirements at the end of this season, and with the discussions with other teams by no means a certainty to continue in 2021, Vettel admitted that he was close to making that call and it was a way of looking out for himself.
Qualifying on a 46 degree Celcius track and again it was Mercedes that poled first and second. Bottas will start alongside Hamilton, missing out on pole by a fraction, with his time of 1:15.203 a bare 0.059 from Hamilton. Red Bull lock out the second row with Verstappen and Albon. Ferrari in the hands of Charles Leclerc will start in P5, with the recently dumped from Racing Point Sergio Perez in P6, just 0.041 from Leclerc. P7 and P8 have Lance Stroll and Daniel Ricciardo ahead of Sainz and Esteban Ocon for P9 and P10. It should be noted that Stroll was running a car with a new barge board fitted and his time was 0.045 slower than Perez, an absolute nothing in real terms.
Ocon’s time would be enough to have him in the top ten, however in Q3 he’d baulked a number of other drivers after going into a gravel trap and spinning, interrupting some following drivers. The subsequent yellow flags would have Bottas disappointed as he said: “Definitely, the yellow flags cost me.”
Q1 and George Russell is first out. Brake issues in practice had lowered his time to experience Mugello and followed by Nicholas Latifi they’re both in the 1:18s. Stroll shows pace immediately, he’s into the 1:16s. Mercedes are out too and very quick, beating Stroll. Ferrari on their own test track are disappointing with Vettel in P13 and Leclerc in P7. Last week’s winner Pierre Gasly is caught in traffic and is eliminated from Q1 in P16, along with Magnussen, Latifi who was in P13 earlier, Russell, Giovinazzi all running 1:17s.
Q2 and Romain Grosjean’s initial pace falls off and at the end of Q2 he’s out, 4/10ths behind Vettel, who was 0.004 from Raikkonen. The Finn was as high as P9 in Q1 as Kvyat and Norris also are eliminated leaving Ocon as the cusp of the top ten.
Race day and for the second race in a row there was carnage and mayhem on the track. Being held at Mugello, in Italy’s Tuscany region, for the very first time, and on the track that Ferrari owns, history will record that two Ferraris finished in the top ten but neither would be on the podium as the Scuderia celebrate seventy years of Fomula 1. History will also record that Mugello’s first race saw a total of eight cars classified as DNF, or Did Not Finish.
First out would be Max Verstappen and Pierra Gasle, a second weekend in a row for Verstappen to not finish. Gasly gets squeezed by Raikkonen in a race incident, Sebastian Vettel loses his front wing trying to avoid a spinning Carlos Sainz, and Verstappen had nowhere to go as his car’s power unit dropped power and ended up in the gravel traps, unable to continue. Off the line his car had developed a lack of urge and as the track narrowed cars came together and Gasly became a sandwich filling, losing his front left whilst Raikkonen speared Verstappen into the dirt.
“I had a good launch so I went around Lewis [Hamilton] and I had a better launch than Valtteri [Bottas], but once I went flat out the engine just had a similar problem, I guess, to what we had in Monza – there was no power there.” said Verstappen. There would be seven laps of safety car before Bottas, leading the field, would legally hold the pack up only to see another series of crashes behind him. McLaren’s Sainz, Antonio Giovinazzi, and Kevin Magnussen would all clash and on the straight their three cars would be separated by just meters as the safety car took the remaining cars into pit lane. Nicholas Latifi’s miserable debut season continued as he was also caught up and out. For the second weekend in a row, a F1 race saw a red flag.
As the track was cleared of cars and debris, Esteban Ocon was also retired as his rear brakes, noted by a following George Russell in the safety car laps before the second round of crashes as “being on fire”, were declared by the garage as unsafe to race with. Driver wise, only Carlos Sainz would be injured and that was a sore wrist as his steering wheel whipped around during his impact.
When the race finally restarted it would again be a tussle between the two Mercedes drivers. Alexander Albon would go backwards and inside a half lap had fallen to 7th. Perez was running well, and on lap 15 a brave move from Ricciardo saw him divebomb and overtake Perez. Lance Stroll and Charles Leclerc would be in the minor podium points at this stage but wary of Ricciardo as he closed in. Stroll’s good form would continue as an opening appeared and he passed Leclerc on lap 18. Seconds later Albon would pick off Perez at the same spot. A lap later Leclerc is swamped by a rampaging Ricciardo and then Albon.
Up front it’s Hamilton and Bottas, with Hamilton eyeing his mirrors, seeing Bottas neither advancing nor retreating. Leclerc pits on lap 22 for new rubber and falls to P13, the last position after the earlier carnage. Lap 28 and it seems to be the point that tactics come in as Ricciardo pits, as does Raikkonen. It’s not a good stop for the Finn and vital seconds are lost. This sparks Perez into a pitstop as well and he’s on mediums, the same as the Australian whilst Raikkonen opted for hards. It’s Hamilton, Bottas, Stroll, and Albon for the top four and it’s game on behind the Red Bull as this race reaches the half-way point.
The race settles for a few laps before Bottas is called in for new rubber; it’s lap 32 and he is fitted with slower but longer lasting hards. Hamilton gets called in and swapped for the same, equalising the two as Ricciardo jumps Stroll and looks for a vital podium. Albon pits, he’s now P5 behind Stroll. That tire equalisation works for Bottas as he nails it and sees a gap of 7.0 seconds back to Hamilton. Albon on mediums also seems fresher and livelier.
Twenty laps left and Bottas is feeling his rubber go off. He needs to nurse them as Ricciardo continues his dice with Stroll and Albon. Leclerc pitted a lap ago and immediately his Ferrari, clad in a shade evoking the original F1 cars of the 1950s, responds. Hamilton is distracted as tire strategy affects both he and Bottas. The garage radios and warns them to stay off the ripple strips. There’s hard racing in the middle of the top ten as Norris takes on Perez for P6, moving into clean air and settling his McLaren. George Russell is finally also getting some clean air as his Williams is in P9.
Lap 43 and the hard running Stroll’s luck finally runs out. A rear tire fractures and sends the Racing Point into the barriers, shearing the nose and bending the rear. Another safety car, another flurry of tire swaps. And another red flag as Stroll’s impact moved the barriers and the officials need to confirm their stability before the race can continue.
Another restart and it’s Hamilton v Bottas, Ricciardo v Albon, Perez v Norris, and Kvyat, Leclerc, Russell and Vettel to fight amongst themselves. It’s worth noting that for the first time in some time, and on the team’s own track, a pair of Ferraris may finish in a top ten. Stroll’s car is taking longer than expected and the impact has dislodged the rear section of the car, the section that has the rear axle at a strange angle. Finally, it’s clear and with 13 laps to go Hamilton leads….Ricciardo. he’s got the tow from Hamilton and Bottas is shuffled back to P3. It’s not good news for Williams as Russell gets a slow start and is outside the top ten and outside of the points.
That tow works for Bottas a lap later and he slides past Ricciardo, retaking P2 and with 11 laps left, it will take something special for the Renault to challenge for the win. Hamilton’s Mercedes is getting quicker, racy, but Bottas is getting quicker again, lapping 3/10ths quicker than Hamilton. Disappointingly for Renault, Albon’s Red Bull and DRS see Albon move past and into P3, showing off the power differential between the two.
Rear of field and Vettel, Grosjean, and Russell are still scrapping, with Russell knocking on that top ten door. Vettel has overtaken Grosjean who was exceptionally vocal earlier in th erace in regards to the driving standards of those ahead of him. It’s still looking good for a double Ferrari finish. And drama as Bottas find something, getting away from Albon and closing on Hamilton. Could Bottas be in a position to snare a shock win?
Four laps to go and Russell has Vettel in his sights, chasing his maiden F1 point. Ricciardo’s pace has fallen and P4 looks to be his lot but the top three are not cemented yet. Two laps and the Renault takes a deep breath, closes onto Albon, awaiting the Thai-born driver to blink. It’s not enough and Bottas finishes P2 and close to five seconds from Hamilton, Albon three seconds from Bottas, and Ricciardo an agonising 2.4 seconds from a podium. Perez has held out Kvyat for P6 and P7, and finally, a double Ferrari finish as Leclerc and Vettel sandwich Raikkonen. It’s a close one for P9 for Vettel as he is just over 2/10ths from the veteran. Russell? 2.5 seconds from a point but ten seconds ahead of Grosjean.
Quote of the day goes to Daniel Ricciardo: “It was certainly not a dull race!” Albon, in finishing P3 and getting a podium, finally, whilst becoming the first Thai born driver to stand upon the podium: “Of course I was a little worried, but I left enough space. When you send it round the outside, you’re hopeful, and you have flashbacks to previous times when fighting for podiums, but we managed to get through unscathed.”
The win gives Hamilton his 90th F1 victory, an extra buffer over Bottas, and closing in on his seventh championship. And the final word on the race before a break goes to Hamilton: “It was all a bit of a daze, it’s like three races in one day! Just incredibly tough today… This track is phenomenal and obviously the heat, keeping Valtteri behind – he’s been quick all weekend – was not easy and I was behind at the beginning. All those restarts, the total focus that’s needed during that time, it was really, really hard.”
The next race is at Sochi in Russia but the F1 circus take a break first. Sochi is September 25 to 27.