Motor sport is a dangerous sport as we all saw from Romain Grosjean’s opening lap crash last week at the Bahrain Grand Prix. However, motorsport - like every other sport - is also unpredictable. Such a word is the best choice to sum up an enthralling Sakhir Grand Prix. Missed opportunities, rags to riches stories of success, heartbreak, redemption and colossal…errors (to paraphrase Toto Wolff).
2020 has been a year of unexpected events and the world of F1 has not escaped it. In a week of breaking news stories from Romain Grosjean being released from hospital after that crash; Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher heading to Haas in 2021 and no news on Sergio Perez’ future despite his superb driving – many wondered what would come next? The answer was Lewis Hamilton missing his first F1 Grand Prix since 2007.
The omission from the grid of the 7-time F1 Drivers’ World Champion was due to the Briton testing positive for COVID-19. As a result of this absence, we knew that an unpredictable race awaited but no one could have guessed this outcome. A first lap collision wiping out Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen with the eventual race winner Sergio Perez was the start of the story.
“An incredibly frustrating end to the weekend with Max’s race being cut short on the opening lap through no fault of his own,” Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner said when reflecting on the opening lap incident between Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen.
“He managed to avoid Valtteri [Bottas] who had a slide at Turn 2 which cost him a lot of momentum and then unfortunately [Charles] Leclerc misjudged his braking and hit Perez. Max was forced to take avoiding action and subsequently hit the barrier, which was a great shame as he would have been a real contender for the win.
Due to Lewis Hamilton’s absence, there were many drivers confident of the race win but you would have found it hard to argue against a Max Verstappen victory based on the race pace the Dutchman had shown in Free Practice sessions and being a mere 0.056 seconds from pole position. However, the Red Bull talismanic driver had barely passed through Turn 2 before crashing out. Max Verstappen could not comprehend why Charles Leclerc had made such a race-ending move - as he told the media:
“I don’t really know why, especially Charles, in Turn 4, why he dives into the inside of that. Especially brake that late as well. What do you expect? Checo [Perez] cannot see what is happening in the inside and he basically locks a wheel and understeered into him. And because of that when Checo was spinning backwards I tried to go round the outside, I tried not to damage my car. But there’s nothing you can do there…”
There was nothing Max Verstappen could do - but there was something the race stewards could do afterwards.
After a gripping Sakhir Grand Prix, Charles Leclerc was handed a penalty of a three-place grid drop for the final race of a congested season. Wherever the Monegasque racer qualifies in Abu Dhabi, he will be taken back three spots further down the grid. A sorry end to the Sakhir Grand Prix for the Scuderia Ferrari driver who had qualified in 4th due to a stunning solo effort in Q3. However, as is customary for the actions of Charles Leclerc, he did not hide away from responsibility:
“I was side by side a bit behind Max and tried to overtake him into turn 4,” said Leclerc. “I had seen Checo but I expected him to go round the outside of Valtteri and stay there - but I think he decided to come back into the inside and I was there and then it was too late for me to slow down…I don’t think it’s a mistake from Checo, I’m not putting the blame on Checo; if there’s anybody to blame today it’s me but I would say it’s more unfortunate than a blame.”
So, with two big contenders out of the running early on, the neutral race fan became resigned to the fact that it would be a predictable Mercedes dominance – the only question was which Mercedes driver would take the victory. However, as we all know by now the answer was neither.
Lewis Hamilton’s absence promoted George Russell to the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula Team from Williams Racing – well, for one race at least.
Victory for the Briton would have meant it was the 300th Grand Prix to be won by a British racer and George Russell, despite starting in second, knew he had a big chance. For the Williams racer yet to score any F1 Drivers’ World Championship points, he had a real prospect of not only getting one point but rather a race winning twenty-five.
Due to a lightning start leap off the line, George Russell found himself in the lead ahead of his on the day teammate Valtteri Bottas. It was not long before Russell found himself out of DRS reach from the more experienced Mercedes racer and then he calmly told his race engineer to let him know when he needed to push – as he headed off in the distance.
Unfortunately, for George Russell, the 2018 F2 Drivers’ Champion, the action of one of the current crop of F2 racers, turned the Sakhir Grand Prix on its head.
As a result of George Russell leaving Williams Racing for the weekend, his seat was filled by his fellow countryman Jack Aitken. With the race seemingly starting to wind down as the laps flew by and Russell led the way – Aitken spun at the final turn and the debris which resulted from the loss of his front wing meant a safety car period.
This was not the first safety car of the race as the Mercedes sportscar had already been called on following the chaos caused on the first lap with Charles Leclerc as the catalyst. On that occasion George Russell mastered the restart to precision but second time round things would be far less smooth.
Mercedes had a lead of over 30 seconds from the chasing pack for their pair of drivers and so the decision was made to go for one of their classic double stacks. Such a decision was made due to an assumption that with a bunched-up pack caused by the safety car, Mercedes had reason to fear the fast-moving Racing Point drivers. In reality what they should have feared was themselves.
Mercedes Team Manager Ron Meadows radioed instructions to the tyre crew in the garages to prepare the tyres but the outcome resulted in Valtteri Bottas’ front tyres being mounted on George Russell’s and a sequence of calamitous errors from then on.
www.f1.com published an interview today with Mercedes Track engineering chief Andrew Shovlin and the reason for such an error has become clearer as a result:
“We have found a smoking gun and that has to do with how the radio system prioritises messages, for instance when Ron is calling out the crews and getting them to get the tyres ready for the two drivers. There were a number of broadcasts at that time on the radio system.
"Now, the system knows to prioritise the messages coming from Ron because the most important thing is the tyres are there, more so than whatever a driver says or whatever someone else in the crew might say but it looks like there is a period whereby as the system is deciding to let the prioritised message through, we missed a key bit of the broadcast such that half of the tyre collectors didn't get the message and it looks like half of them did.
“Therefore, we've got the cars coming in and all the tyres are not ready in the pit lane… There was very little time between the safety car and George coming into the pits and that's where we found a smoking gun.”
By the conclusion of the Grand Prix it was already known that the stewards were investigating Mercedes for the error and a sanction awaited them. Fortunately, Mercedes was able to avoid disqualification.
The stewards heard that there was a “radio communications technical issue” which meant Russell’s crew did not hear the pit wall’s call to get ready for the Briton because at the same time, a message from Russell was played out on top of that call.
Therefore, George Russell was allowed to keep his first haul of F1 Drivers’ Championship points – two in fact for his ninth place having experienced a puncture late on as he clawed his way back through the field.
When 25 points had been so close, to leave the race weekend pointless would have been the salt on an already open wound for the talented British racer. However, the stewards did not let Mercedes off completely.
Rather than penalising the driver, the FIA chose to fine Mercedes €20,000 and the judgement revealed why:
“Firstly, the team rectified the problem within one lap. This involved Car 63 [Russell] making another pit stop, thus dropping it further down the classification.
“Secondly, Car 77 [Bottas] made a pit stop to change tyres only to find that the front tyres to be fitted to it, were on Car 63, so was sent out after considerable delay, with the tyres that were on Car 77 prior to the pit stop. This also impacted the final classification of Car 77.
“Thirdly, although this type of infringement is not catered for under the “three-lap tolerance” referred to in the second paragraph of Article 24.4 b) (which currently only refers to the use of tyres of differing specifications), we consider it to be similar in nature.
“However, the responsibility to fit tyres in compliance with the regulations, still rests with any team and thus a penalty is considered as being required. It is recommended that the FIA consider amending Article 24.4 b) to accommodate this type of breach when it is rectified without delay.”
Of course the Sakhir Grand Prix had to be won by someone and the driver to do so was the much-loved Mexican Sergio Perez. The images of the Racing Point driver sat on the top step echoed those seen in Italy when Pierre Gasly claimed his first F1 Grand Prix victory.
Formula One may be labelled as predictable at times but as long as we get races as gripping as the Sakhir Grand Prix every now and again – no one will mind.
Next up is the season closing encounter in Abu Dhabi but no word yet on whether Lewis Hamilton will return. Based on the pace shown by George Russell this past weekend, Valtteri Bottas would no doubt be very happy to see his regular teammate back alongside him.
On this form though, how long can Bottas keep Russell at bay?