Following Otmar Szafnauer’s departure as Aston Martin Team Principal, here is a special Throwback Thursday to the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix.
Having spent 12 years managing the team since arriving in October 2009 under four different team names (Force India – 2009-2018, Racing Point Force India – 2018, Racing Point – 2019-20 and Aston Martin – 2021), 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix will certainly be up there as a great highlight.
Szafnauer though decided to leave Aston Martin yesterday (5 January 2022) in a surprise announcement, which came after months of rumours linking him to Alpine..
Racing under the name of Racing Point at that time, Szafnauer and his team were enjoying a strong season, yet it was at the inaugural Sakhir Grand Prix where the team finally tasted victory under Szafnauer and here is the full story.
The 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix formed the second of a double-header at Bahrain International Circuit to close out a season impacted heavily by the Coronavirus pandemic, in which the short-circuit layout was used in a change from the traditional Grand Prix layout for the Bahrain GP.
Whilst Racing Point enjoyed a quiet week of preparation, there was drama elsewhere as world-champion, Lewis Hamilton tested positive for Coronavirus which forced Mercedes to call up George Russell from Williams to replace his British compatriot.
Williams then proceeded to promote fellow Brit and Reserve Driver – Jack Aitken to take Russell’s seat whilst Pietro Fittipaldi replaced Romain Grosjean, who had suffered hand injuries in a scary crash during the preceding Bahrain GP.
Friday Practice was unexpectedly dominated by Russell on his then one-off Mercedes debut as he bettered Max Verstappen in FP1 by 0.176 seconds, before repeating the feat in a more representative FP2 under nightfall albeit by 0.128s.
Racing Point meanwhile were 11th and 12th in FP1 as Lance Stroll headed Sergio Perez by 0.158s, yet it was Perez who found momentum under the lights in FP2 as he finished third quickest and only 0.153s off Russell as Stroll placed seventh 0.238s behind his teammate.
FP3 on the Saturday afternoon though saw Verstappen finish fastest as Russell slipped to seventh, just ahead of Perez and Stroll who finished eighth and ninth fastest in the session with 0.015s between the two teammates.
Up front, Valtteri Bottas and Verstappen did battle for pole with the Finnish driver winning out with Russell snatching second to secure a front-row lockout for Mercedes ahead of Verstappen, which also marked Russell’s first front-row start in F1.
Racing Point meanwhile endured a solid session as Perez was sixth fastest in Q1 before finishing 0.140s slower than Verstappen in Q2, although he eventually ended up fifth fastest at end of Q3.
Lance Stroll meanwhile narrowly avoided elimination in Q1 as he finished 14th fastest before improving in Q2 to seventh, yet could only qualify tenth on the grid upon completion of Q3 and 0.410s shy of Perez’s effort.
At lights out, Russell claimed the lead as Perez got an excellent start which enabled him to fight Verstappen and Charles Leclerc, with the latter sending the Mexican spinning down the order as Leclerc and Verstappen ended up in the barriers.
Perez however crawled back to the pits where he switched to medium tyres as the Safety Car stayed out until Lap Six, from which he proceeded to recover from 18th to 11th within five laps of the Safety Car restart before claiming tenth from Lando Norris on Lap 20.
A patient game then followed throughout the pit-stop phrase as Perez climbed up to third ahead of his second stop for hard tyres on Lap 48, which dropped him to ninth but he recovered to fourth within the next eight laps after Stroll locked up at Turn Four on Lap 56.
Perez then swiftly cleared Esteban Ocon for third on Lap 57 but drama unfolded for Mercedes on Lap 63 as Russell and Bottas pitted, with the Brit accidentally handed a mixed set of tyres which caused him to pit again a lap later whilst wheel nut issues left Bottas back on his old set.
Perez consequently benefitted from Mercedes’ pit-stop fumbling to claim the lead on Lap 64 under Safety Car conditions, from which he proceeded to dominate to the checkered flag after fending off Russell who suffered a cruel tyre puncture on Lap 79.
In the end, Perez clinched his maiden F1 victory ahead of Ocon and Stroll as Racing Point enjoyed a one-three podium finish, in what surely is one of Szafnauer’s finest days as Team Principal after several years of hard work to turn the constructor into a competitive team.
That victory also marked Perez’s only win for Racing Point because he left at the end of that season to join Red Bull, where he has since gone on to enjoy one further victory, albeit in further chaotic fashion this time at 2021 Azerbaijan GP.