Perez takes dramatic Sakhir GP victory as Mercedes mix-up costs Russell win

Sergio Perez came from the back of the field to grab a sensational maiden grand prix victory, after a rare pit stop mix up late in the race cost Mercedes an almost certain 1-2.

It looked for all money that a dominant George Russell would grab an amazing victory in his debut drive for Mercedes having passed teammate Valtteri Bottas into the first corner, as Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc crashed out on the opening lap.

But when Jack Aitken’s Williams spun on the final corner and brought out the Safety Car 25 laps from the finish, Mercedes botched their pit stops, stacking the drivers and getting the tyres mixed up. It meant Russell had to pit again, with Bottas left with an old set of tyres that dropped him further down the field to eighth by the finish. Even so, Russell was closing in on Perez with a fresh set of soft compound rubber before suffering a slow puncture just laps from the finish.

It also meant that a jubilant Perez took the chequered flag as race winner from Renault’s Esteban Ocon as Lance Stroll completed a highly unlikely podium. Carlos Sainz came home fourth for McLaren from Daniel Ricciardo, Alexander Albon and Daniil Kvyat as Russell recovered to ninth despite his agonising late puncture.

“I’m speechless. I hope I’m not dreaming here because I have dreamed so many years being in this moment,” said Perez after his brilliant drive to victory. “Ten years. Ten years it took me. Incredible. I mean I don’t know what to say, you know. After the first lap the race was again gone, same as last weekend. But it was all about not giving up, recovering, going through it, making the best of what we could.

“This season the luck hasn’t been with us this year, but we finally got it, and I think we won today on merit. The Mercs had some issues, but I think in the end our pace was strong enough to hold George and I think we did a fantastic race today. I did a big mistake during the Safety Car, I locked up my front left tyre badly.

“So, during my first stint, I had so much vibrations from the stint. But as soon as I recovered after the second stint I told my team ‘this feels just kike a limousine’, so easy with all the vibrations, we had tremendous pace. We came here thinking it was going to be a two stop but after my long run on Friday we knew what we had to do today.”

For every happy story, there is often a sad one, and for Russell is was certainly a case of what might have been. He drove the perfect race up until the late tyre botch up, even carving his way back past Bottas and Stroll to challenge Perez for the lead again until the late puncture scuppered his hopes.

“I can’t even put it into words, to be honest,” lamented Russell of his bad luck. “Jumping out of the car, it wasn’t a nice feeling, to be honest. “I’ve had races where I’ve had victories taken away from me. But twice? I just couldn’t believe that. I gave it everything I had. I was managing the race at the start. I felt confident, comfortable in the opening laps just managing the gap to Valtteri.

“Then obviously we had the muddle up in the pit stop. That put us on the back foot, and I had to overtake him and obviously we still could have caught Sergio. We had such a tyre advantage, the car was so quick. Gutted, but incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved and happy to have had the opportunity. That’s racing. It’s a team sport, we’re all in it together. Sometimes a driver messes it up, I have once or twice this year in the Williams.”

The stand-in Mercedes driver got the perfect start of the lights, passing Bottas into the first corner and into the lead. Behind him, carnage ensued, Leclerc contacting Perez into Turn 4 and pitching himself into the barrier. The unfortunate Verstappen was also a resultant casualty, the Dutchman running wide to avoid the incident but unable to stop his car also from hitting the barrier in the tight run off.

It led to an early Safety Car, and when the dust settled, Lando Norris had picked up nine places, Carlos Sainz into third from tenth on the grid and Daniel Ricciardo fourth from 7th on the grid.

Upon the restart, Bottas was immediately under pressure, Sainz swooping past but leaving his braking late enough that the Finn was able to retake the position out of Turn 3, as Lando Norris charged past Sebastian Vettel.

Out front, Russell was still looking like a man that had been driving the Mercedes all of his life, not as a late stand in unused to the vagaries of the steering wheel and systems, and having to fit smaller boots to manage the pedals in the cockpit tub. Still, he managed to increase his lead over Bottas to over two seconds by lap 15.

With the runners on the soft tyres stopping at around third distance through the race for the medium compound Pirelli tyre and the Mercedes duo disappearing into the distance, it appeared only a matter of which Mercedes would finish first.

And, heading towards half distance, the answer appeared to be Russell, who was maintaining that gap. Behind them, the race was on for a podium that was entirely up for grabs. It was also a strategic battle, as teams opted to go for either the hard compound to get to the end or for another set of mediums.

Russell was the first of the leaders to pit on lap 46, a smooth stop putting him back out in second behind Bottas on a new hard set of tyres. There was a moment of alarm for the Englishman, who suddenly reported a lack of power on his out lap, reported back as an HPP35 reset and a sensor issue. Problem solved.

Bottas followed lap 50, but Russell’s lead was still almost eight seconds until another problem saw him report a loss of power on the straights, Bottas narrowing the gap. A virtual Safety Car, caused by a big oversteer snap by Williams new boy Jack Aitken, then changed the whole outcome of the race and led to the Safety Car situation that saw a terrible mix up for Mercedes.

First to pit was Russell, but a mix up with the tyres saw him have a mix of his teammate’s tyres and meant that he had to stop again. Bottas, too had his tyres removed, only to be replaced with another worn set of hards. A totally untypical error for the most polished of crews.

It was a disaster for Mercedes, who threw away an almost certain 1-2. Still Russell wasn’t done, swooping past Bottas with a bold move into Turn 7 and then past Stroll into Turn 1. But he must have driven under the proverbial black cat in the process, and luck was not on his side as a left rear puncture seven laps from the finish put him back into the pits and out of contention when victory was in the bag.

“Sometimes it goes the other way, and we learn from these things,” added Russell. “It was an incredibly late call to pit, as obviously the Safety Car came out seconds before I came into the pit lane and obviously we got the tyres muddled up, so… Silver lining, I guess I got my first points in F1.

“Obviously I want to say well done to Sergio. He’s a great driver, he’s been in F1 a huge amount of time and he deserves a victory. Maybe not the one today, as I feel like that was probably our one, but he deserves to have this victor. He’s never really had the car underneath him but the car this year is great and I’m happy he’s got this chance.”

Sergio Perez, Racing Point, 1st position, contemplates on the podium

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.