Sergio Perez stayed calm amid the chaos at a remarkable Sakhir Grand Prix to clinch his first Formula One career win Sunday in his 190th race.
The Racing Point driver finished 10.5 seconds ahead of Renault’s Esteban Ocon, and 11.9 clear of teammate and Montreal native Lance Stroll.
“I’m speechless,” Perez said. “I hope I’m not dreaming.”
The Mexican does not even have an F1 seat next year after being replaced by Sebastian Vettel.
“I want to keep going,” Perez said. “If I’m not on the grid next year I will be in 2022.”
George Russell looked like capping a remarkable Mercedes debut with a confident win until his team made a terrible blunder after bringing him and Valtteri Bottas in for another change when the safety car was out on track with about 25 laps to go.
Russell’s stop was a bit slow but nothing compared to the one for Bottas, which took an agonizing 27 seconds as the mechanics could not fit his left front tire properly. Remarkably, Russell was then called in again because the team had fitted him with tires belonging to Bottas.
It was a rare failure for a Mercedes team which has dominated F1 since 2014 by winning every drivers’ and constructors’ championship.
Still, even with that mishap, Russell roared back brilliantly from fifth to second place and was closing on Perez when his rear tire punctured with eight laps remaining.
Perez, who made his debut in 2011, had a clear run to victory and clinched his 10th career podium, while Ocon got his first.
“I have no words,” Ocon said. “I was crying on the line.”
Russell finished ninth while Bottas was eighth on a humiliating night for F1 powerhouse Mercedes, which almost never makes mistakes. The illegal mixed compound tire change for Russell was being investigated by stewards after the race.
Russell is under contract with Williams but replaced Lewis Hamilton as the seven-time world champion recovers from the coronavirus. Hamilton, who sealed the title last month, remains doubtful for next weekend’s season-ending Abu Dhabi GP.
The race was halted after a first-lap crash caused by Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, who broke too early and clipped Perez’s car. That forced Max Verstappen to go wide in order to avoid Perez and he went off into some gravel and crashed into a wall.
Verstappen kicked the wall in frustration, then spoke with Leclerc.
“I don’t get it why they have to be so aggressive,” an exasperated Verstappen said. “It’s like a last lap. I don’t know why Charles thinks he can brake so late.”
The rapid but risk-taking Leclerc was told off by his teammate Sebastian Vettel for cutting him up at last weekend’s Bahrain GP, and he accepted blame Sunday.
“If someone’s at fault then it’s me,” he said. “I was next to Max and tried to brake a bit earlier than him.”
Leclerc was given a three-place grid position drop for the next race.
Up ahead, Russell made a great start from second and overtook pole-sitter Bottas, while the two Mercedes cars bunched up ahead of Verstappen and this prevented him getting through.
Haas driver Pietro Fittipaldi finished 17th on his F1 debut in place of the injured Romain Grosjean, who was lucky to walk away from a horror crash last Sunday when his car exploded after a crash.
Jack Aitken replaced Russell at Williams and was 16th on his debut.
Drivers again raced at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, but on a smaller outer track of 3.5 kilometres (2.2 miles) instead of 5.4 (3.3 miles), and with 87 laps rather than 54.
Halfway through, Russell led Bottas by nearly three seconds and looked to be coasting home.
But the drama was just starting.
With 26 laps left, Bottas reduced Russell’s lead to five seconds just as a virtual safety car came out after Aitken’s front wing came off following a spin.
Yet despite being 1-2 in the race, Mercedes called both drivers in for a second tire change to take advantage of the safety car situation. Panic set in and the wrong tires went on Russell’s car, while the front left required an eternity in F1 time to attach on Bottas’ car.
The hiccup put Perez in the lead, one week after his engine blew just laps from the end with third place in sight in Bahrain.
Clearly annoyed over the situation, Russell used an expletive when his race engineer told him that his new tires were going to be fast.
After the safety car moved away on Lap 70, Russell overtook Bottas with a quite brilliant move inside, then zoomed past Stroll and Ocon into second with breathtaking audacity that Hamilton would have admired.
He now had 13 laps to catch Perez, who was only 3.5 seconds ahead.
A few laps later, it was 2.5 seconds, and then a tire puncture ended Russell’s chances.
Ferrari’s day was dismal, again, as Vettel was hindered by yet another slow pit stop and released so carelessly that he almost crashed into the Alfa Romeo of Antonio Giovinazzi.
Perez, above all, will remember the race.
“I dream for so many years being in this moment. 10 years it took me,” Perez said after his win. “I said to the team the car feels like a limousine.”