At the 190th time of asking, Sergio Perez made himself a grand prix winner with a sensational run from the back of the pack on the first lap to victory at the Sakhir Grand Prix.
The Mexican was in devastating form all evening, his pace only accentuated by his recovery from being punted off the road by Charles Leclerc on the first lap. He made up seven places in five tours early in his recovery and eventually rose to third twice — before and after his sole racing pit stop (excluding his first-lap tyre change while last) — to highlight just how scintillating a drive he was executing.
But such is the state of Formula One that even in such sparkling form he relied on a truly classic Mercedes catastrophe to put him in a winning position.
It was only when a botched double-stack soft dropped the comfortably leading George Russell and Valtteri Bottas down the order that Perez moved from third to first and only after Russell picked up a puncture in recovery that his victory was sealed.
But it takes nothing away from Perez, who did his absolute maximum in the machinery provided, and through his perfect execution made himself the only man capable of equalling supersub Russell’s shining star on this memorable Sakhir evening.
For Russell really had this race just about under control all night, having bested teammate Bottas off the line and managed his car’s dominant pace thereafter. The Hamilton substitute was on track to hand the Finn an embarrassing and Hamilton-esque flaying until the pit stop and puncture undid his weekend.
The Bahrain International Circuit hosted its second race in a week, but the Sakhir Grand Prix utilised the ‘outer loop’ configuration, to present the sport with a different challenge.
This configuration had never been used by any competition before, never mind Formula One. Encompassing essentially the first and last sectors, the middle intermediate is a rapid dash between the two at the top of the hill characterised by its bumpiness and a single braking zone.
It cut the number of genuine corners an F1 car down to four and pushed Bahrain further into power-sensitive territory.
It also had the effect of placing reduced demand on the tyres, again Pirelli’s middle range. Lateral load was low, which combined with the cooler temperatures at the later hour to make the tyres more usable. It opened the door to the one-stop strategy — something that perhaps should have been more foreseeable given even last week race-day tyre consumption as lower than expected.
Two decisive factors worked together to put Sergio Perez in a winning position.
The most obvious of course was the communication error that caused Mercedes’s botched double stack — more on that below — but equally crucial was the division in the upper midfield between one and two stops.
Carlos Sainz and Daniel Ricciardo were running third and fourth early in the race on the soft tyre and should have been placed to capitalise on Mercedes’s misfortunes, but a Daniil Kvyat undercut attempt ensured all three drivers would stop early and commit to a two-stop race.
Kvyat stopped on lap 27, forcing Sainz to follow on lap 28 to maintain position. Renault wanted Ricciardo to do likewise, but it made the call too late — the Australian had already passed pit entry when the decision was made. He came in on lap 29 instead and lost the place to the AlphaTauri.
Sergio Perez was not so encumbered. Having switched to the medium tyre on lap one, he ran long, making his sole in-race tyre change on lap 47 to the hard compound. He dropped back behind his two-stopping rivals, but they made their second tyre changes on lap 53–55, and some slick passing on teammate Lance Stroll and Esteban Ocon — both on fundamentally the same strategy but exhibiting none of the pace — put him into third.
Third became first after Mercedes’s catastrophe, and victory was his.
To be fair to Sainz, Ricciardo and Kvyat, they each started on the soft tyre, which was expected by Pirelli to last only to around the mid-20s.
But there was more to be had from the red-marked rubber.
Lance Stroll showed what was possible. The Canadian was running directly behind the three battling drivers and extended his opening soft stint to an impressive lap 42, when he switched to the medium tyre.
It put him into Esteban Ocon’s orbit, the Frenchman starting outside the top 10 on the medium compound. Having cruised up behind Stroll, Renault just about undercut him past the pink car with a stop on lap 41. Stroll came out fractionally ahead with his stop on the next lap, but Ocon’s up-to-temperature hard tyres bettered Ocon’s mediums, allowing him to take what was net third at the time.
Perez shortly afterwards sliced past both.
The race’s most substantial talking point was of course Mercedes throwing away a comfortable one-two through a dreadfully mismanaged pit stop.
Both cars were comfortably in the lead when a safety car was called to collect debris on the front straight — rookie Jack Aitken had lost his front wing spinning out of the last corner — and keen to cover off any fresh tyre advantages from the cars behind at the restart, Mercedes decided to double stack both drivers on lap 62.
But from the off there was a problem. For reasons unknown Russell’s pit crew didn’t receive the call but Bottas’s did — Toto Wolff described it as a priority issue in the radio traffic system that essentially blocked the message — and by the time the Briton’s men scrambled, he was already in pit lane. Two of Bottas’s tyres, already ready to go, were fitted to the car along with two of Russell’s intended wheels, and he was sent back to rejoin the race.
Bottas slotted into the box immediately. His wheels were changed, but the team understood its mistake before his was released. Willing to neither risk a penalty nor waste more time, it reattached his used hards and sent him out. Russell was then called back to replace Bottas’s tyres with his own on ap 63.
At the end of the chaos Bottas was fourth — still with old tyres — and Russell fifth.
It was effectively Bottas’s race done, but with softer rubber Russell was still in with a chance, and he made great progress to be up to second with his sights set on Perez on lap 73. But disaster struck again barely a handful of laps later when he picked up a puncture and had to pit for a fourth time for new tyres.
He dropped to 14th and eventually brought home his maiden points in ninth.
An elephant in the room — or perhaps not in the room — was the absence of Max Verstappen in all this. The Dutchman had been poised to disrupt Mercedes with an alternative strategy start on the softs, but he crashed into the barriers on the first lap attempting to avoid the Perez-Leclerc crash.
The Red Bull Racing car was fast enough to be thereabouts — whether it was a race winner is a moot question — which meant it should have been down to Alex Albon to pick up the pieces and cruise home to an easy win. But again the Thai was out of the running.
He’d qualified 12th and made little progress on the medium tyre early. He run until lap 47 before switching to the hard and clawed his way up to sixth, but the team decided to pit him behind the safety car on lap 62, costing him four placed, which he only recovered after Bottas’s tyres expired and Russell picked up a puncture.
While Albon hardly covered himself in glory this weekend, his strategy was hardly spectacular.
Sergio Perez: soft (used) to lap 1, medium (new) to lap 47, hard (new) to lap 87.