F1 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix

© J. Francois Barnard – December 6, 2020

The Formula 1 Rolex Sakhir Grand Prix 2020 was the second of two back-to-back Grand Prix races at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, Bahrain on December 6, 2020. It was notably a different experience from any other race in the past, and it would be apt for us to discuss the circuit first.

The Formula 1 Rolex Sakhir Grand Prix 2020 was held at the same location as the previous race. Still, this time, the pilots used the outer track which yielded fewer turns (11), over a shorter distance (3.543km), and hence the quickest times (around 53 seconds) around any circuit in the sports' illustrious history. The race was contested over 87 laps.

With a much shorter track distance, the race seemed to be much "busier" than usual. Fitting 20 cars into 3.5 kilometres of the track means you have on average a race car for every stretch of 177 meters. At Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, the track is 7 kilometres long, and you will have a race car for every stretch of 300 meters.

Completing a lap in less than one minute means that the front runners will quickly lap the backmarkers. Before the race, some people predicted that the racers at the back could be lapped up to five times! But that never happened. Safety cars prevented it. Another aspect of this race, making it more unique than usual is that we saw the following shuffling of drivers:

  • Romain Grosjean could not race due to his injuries from the accident the previous week. Pietro Fittipaldi, the grandson of two-time F1 champion Emmerson Fittipaldi, stood in for Grosjean in the Haas F1 Team. Grosjean's replacement at Haas in 2021, Mick Schumacher, could not fill this position as he was occupied with a possible F2 world champion position.
  • The next shock came when the newly crowned seven-time champion, Lewis Hamilton, contracted the coronavirus and had to self-isolate. We expected that the reserve driver, Stoffel Vandoorne, would replace him. Still, Mercedes F1 surprised everyone when they called on Williams F1 to release George Russell so that he could fill Hamilton's position.
  • With Russell at Mercedes F1, his open seat was filled by Jack Aitken, a superb youngster who made waves in the F2 championship.

george russell

Picture credit: SkySports F1

During the first and second practice, George Russell topped the charts, showing that he is a worthy replacement for Lewis Hamilton. He was followed by the two Red Bull drivers, Verstappen and Albon. In the third practice session, Bottas displayed the speed of the Mercedes W11 car, followed by Verstappen and Pérez.

During the practice and qualifying sessions, turn 8 was evidently the Achilles heel for most drivers. The bumpy kerbs were damaging floors and bargeboards, making cars undrivable. Bottas, amongst others, had his track times deleted for exceeding track limits at turn 8.

The qualifying sessions showed how the track could improve as it rubbered in. The lap times quickly dropped below 54 seconds. It came as no surprise when Bottas and Russell qualified in the first and second place, and Max Verstappen came third. Charles Leclerc, however, did surprise us by qualifying in the fourth position. His quivering voice over the radio during the cool-down lap said it all: He drove that Ferrari beyond its capabilities.

On the fast and short lap of Sakhir, it is interesting to note how close the quickest qualifying time (00:53:377) and the tenth fastest time (00:54.200) are to each other (0.823 seconds). First and fifth are separated by 0.413 seconds. During 2020, the gaps were never this small.

Sunday's race started with a sterling performance from George Russell. His start was clean, while his more experienced teammate, Valterri Bottas, struggled to get his Perelli rubber gripping the tarmac. By turn one, George Russell was ahead of Bottas, and Sergio Pérez was passing Max Verstappen.

At the back, Kimi Räikkönen spun off the track after turn three. By then the front runners were going around turn four, and Charles Leclerc ran into Pérez, spinning him around. Leclerc's left front wheel came off, and Verstappen tried to avoid the carnage, running through the gravel and into the barrier. Leclerc and Verstappen were out of the race, and Race Control deployed the safety car.

Pérez pitted for new tyres. Now right at the back, he started an epic progression through the traffic which no Mexican fan will ever forget.

Meanwhile, at the front, car number 44, apparently, did not know it was rebranded as car number 63. It pulled away from the rest of the pack as it usually does, but this time with George Russell at the helm.

For the first time in his Formula 1 career, Russell was leading a Grand Prix and seemed calm and in control.

george russell

Picture credit: SkySports F1

 quoteWe had the win in the bag... - George Russell after the race


On lap 55 of 87, Nicolas Latifi hard to park his Williams next to the track, causing a very brief virtual safety car stint. It caused the cars to be bundled up again, and Sergio Pérez passed his teammate, Lance Stroll, on lap 56, and Esteban Ocon on lap 57. He was now running in third place behind the two Mercedes cars of Russell and Bottas.

On lap 63 it was again a Williams car throwing a spanner in the works. Jack Aitken lost a front wing, and a safety car was deployed.

valterri bottas

Picture credit: SkySports F1

 quoteUsually, the team is bullet-proof, not making mistakes.... - Valterri Bottas after the race


Mercedes F1 perpetrated the biggest crime against their racing pilots I have ever witnessed. With their superior speed, they could have left their cars out, but they pitted for new tyres, double-stacking Russell and Bottas. But they fitted Bottas's tyres on Russell's car and sent him out. They realized their mistake while fitting the wrong tyres to Bottas's W11. They quickly changed his tyres back to the previous set and sent him out on old rubber. Russell had to box again to have the correct tyres fitted. This mistake has cost Russell his maiden win and first podium, which would have been a massive event in his young life. You can imagine the disappointment for both drivers. For Bottas it meant that his second place in the world championship had not been cemented, as Verstappen still had a chance to take it away from him in the last race in Abu Dhabi.

Bottas rejoined the race in the fifth position and the second stop dropped Russell behind him.

When the race restarted, Sergio Pérez was leading the Sakhir Grand Prix, Ocon was second, and Lance Stroll was in third place. Russell overtook Bottas at turn seven on lap 70. By lap 73, Russell overtook Ocon and was back on the podium if he could finish in this position. Meanwhile, Bottas was dropping back as other drivers with younger tyres overtook him.

On lap 79, Russell got the heartbreaking news. His rear-left tyre was deflating due to a puncture, and he had to get new softs fitted. It denied his chance of a podium. With only eight laps left, it seems as if he was thrown back to his familiar territory amongst the backmarkers.

But hats off to Russell. He fought back and ended in the points (his first points in Formula 1) in the ninth position behind Bottas.

The most beautiful part of this tale was where Sergio Pérez, the driver without a seat in 2021, won his maiden Grand Prix in Sakhir.

sergio perez wins in sakhir

Picture credit: SkySports F1

Which begs the question: Why does Pérez not have a seat in 2021?

Racing Point Mercedes lost their third-place to McLaren, but with two drivers on the podium, they regained it again, plus the chance of getting $10 million in prize money at the end of the season.

For Esteban Ocon, his second-place yielded his first podium position in Formula 1.

The race classification:

Position Driver Constructor Grid Points
1 Sergio Pérez Racing Point-BWT Mercedes 5 25
2 Esteban Ocon Renault 11 18
3 Lance Stroll Racing Point-BWT Mercedes 10 15
4 Carlos Sainz McLaren-Renault 8 12
5 Daniel Ricciardo Renault 7 10
6 Alexander Albon Red Bull Racing-Honda 12 8
7 Daniil Kvyat AlphaTauri-Honda 6 6
8 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1 4
9 George Russell Mercedes 2 3
10 Lando Norris McLaren-Renault 19 1