The 2020 F1 Season drew to its conclusion with another triple-header, this time in the Middle-East. The Bahrain International Circuit was the venue for the first of these with the traditional Grand Prix layout.
The weekend also saw the return of Formula 2, a feeder series lower than F1 featuring contenders like Mick Schumacher, Callum Ilott, Christian Lundgaard, Yuki Tsunoda and Robert Schwartzman.
Bahrain, the first twilight race of the year, is a power-based circuit, and Mercedes powered cars have dominated races in the past.
Hamilton and Mercedes were the Champions of 2020, but a lot was at stake, be it for P2 in the Drivers' Championship or 3rd in the Constructors'.
Bottas hoped to finish the remainder of 2020 on a high and carry the momentum into 2021. Ferrari was back in the fight for 3rd in the Constructors' and could leapfrog Renault with another strong result. A seat at Red Bull in 2021 was still up for grabs, and Albon had another weekend to prove his worthiness.
How did the teams and drivers fare in the desert? Time for a quick recap of the weekend!
Track temperatures were lower than those in April, the usual race month, so teams needed to re-learn and change their setups during the practice sessions.
Pirelli had brought in their 2021 tyre compounds for the teams to test in Practice and give feedback for further development. Running the tyre compound was optional in FP1 but mandatory in FP2. Teams opted to run aero rakes and extra sensors to gather data as well.
Roy Nissany and Kubica, the reserve drivers, got the nod to take the wheels of Williams and Alfa Romeo in FP1. Grosjean suffered a big spin at turn three and damaged his tyres in the process. Turn ten had become a handful for Bottas who suffered from lock-ups throughout the session. Verstappen was another driver to suffer from a spin, but at the final turn.
Hamilton set the fastest time of FP1, half a second clear of his team-mate Bottas. Perez and Sainz were 3rd and 4th, within a second of Hamilton's time, but on softer tyres. The Alpa Tauri of Gasly was 5th, ahead of the Red Bull duo of Verstappen and Albon. Ocon, Stoll and Ricciardo completed the top 10.
11th and 12th were the best that the works Ferrari could do in FP1 while Kubica produced a commendable effort for Alfa Romeo in 13th. Grosjean and Magnussen were 14th and 15th for Haas, ahead of Giovinazzi in the other Alfa Romeo. Kvyat and Norris had a challenging practice with the Williams completing the rear of the field.
The start of FP2 began with the teams trying to complete six timed laps ( as per mandate ) with the 2021 Tyre Compounds made by Pirelli. Mercedes had stated that they would utilize the remainder of the year for the development of its 2020 contender and Hamilton and Bottas did more laps than anyone else on the prototype tyres. It wasn't smooth sailing for everyone though with Gasly getting stuck behind Bottas on his flying lap, much to the former's displeasure and Verstappen having a close call with Perez.
Leclerc had an off-track moment on the final turn but was able to continue. Albon, however, wasn't as fortunate as he ended up losing the rear of the car in the run-off at the final turn, hitting the barriers and smashing up the back of his car. It would be a long night for the mechanics to make the car track-worthy again. The session got Red Flagged to extricate the stricken RB 16. Another stoppage followed shortly after, this time due to the presence of a dog on track!
Lewis Hamilton was the fastest at the end of FP2, three and a half tenths clear of Verstappen and Bottas. Perez, Ricciardo and Gasly completed the top 6. It was 7th for Norris in his McLaren from Stroll, Kvyat and Albon.
Ocon was 11th in the other Renault with Sainz splitting the Ferraris of Vettel and Leclerc. Giovinazzi was ahead of Magnussen and team-mate Raikkonen while Latifi finished ahead of Grosjean and Russell to complete the rear of the field.
The teams needed to gather more data in the final practice session with Red Bull looking closer to the Mercedes in the fight for pole. The midfield battle would intensify on Saturday while Ferrari needed to find more pace to make it into the top 10.
The final practice session ( FP3 ) before Qualifying saw Verstappen top the timesheets despite a flapping rear wing ( DRS issue ). The Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Bottas set the 2nd and 3rd fastest time respectively, the former suffering an electrical issue towards the end of the session. Albon, in the other Red Bull, was 4th with Sainz and Gasly completing the top 6. Norris, Kvyat and the two Racing Points made it into the top 10, closely followed by the two Renaults. Only two-tenths of a second separated the eight drivers. Giovinazzi split the Ferrari drivers with Russell ahead of the two Haas cars, Raikkonen and Latifi.
Mercedes and Red Bull seemed to be locked in a battle for the front two rows with Hamilton and Verstappen having the upper hand over their team-mates. The midfield battle was close as ever, and Qualifying would be all about fine-margins.
The start of Q1 was sedate with Russell and Verstappen the only drivers on track. Russell aborted his lap after a mistake in the second sector. Everyone was out of the pits with 10 minutes remaining of Q1. Hamilton, Bottas, Verstappen, Gasly, Sainz and Perez were the top 6 at the end of the first runs with Russell, Raikkonen, Grosjean, Magnussen and Latifi in the drop zone. Leclerc was the driver on the cusp of elimination; the Monegasque getting stuck in traffic on his flying lap. Barring Stroll, the rest of the field had set their representative lap times on the soft tyres.
Verstappen, Gasly, Sainz and Ocon decided to gamble by staying in the pits while the rest of the field went out on their second runs with new soft tyres. The track was evolving, and the lap times improved for everyone.
There was a change in the top 6 with Stroll and Albon improving to 2nd and 3rd respectively. Russell was into Q2 for Williams for the 9th time in 2020 with the 14th fastest time. Norris scraped through for McLaren in 15th, but Giovinazzi, Raikkonen, Magnussen, Grosjean and Latifi got eliminated.
The soft tyres didn't seem to have the endurance for the race, and except for the Alpha Tauris and Russell ( who stayed in the pits ), everyone else chose the medium tyres for their first runs of Q2. As the drivers began their flying laps, Sainz suffered a spin at turn one which brought out the double yellow flags. The Spaniard was unable to get going again, and the session got Red Flagged with 9 minutes remaining on the clock. McLaren later discovered that the car had suffered a rear brake failure. The session restarted with the Mercedes and Red Bull drivers along with Perez and Norris exiting the pits on medium tyres with the rest choosing to stay put. Hamilton went the quickest with Verstappen splitting the Mercedes followed by Albon, Norris and Perez. Albon had run wide on the final turn and lost a considerable amount of time. It seemed that the Thai driver would have to go out again to sure up his chances of getting into Q3.
Ocon was the first of the remaining drivers to head out on track for his run in Q2. Ocon set the 7th fastest time, and Red Bull deemed it necessary for Albon to head out again, this time on soft tyres. Norris followed suit. However, the chasing pack weren't able to challenge the times set by them, and the duo aborted their laps to ensure that they start the race on the medium tyres. Ricciardo produced a stellar lap to get into the top 6 while the Ferraris failed to get out of Q2.
The drivers that made it into Q3 were Hamilton, Verstappen, Bottas, Ricciardo, Albon, Norris, Perez, Ocon, Kvyat and Gasly. Those eliminated were Vettel, Leclerc, Stroll, Russell and Sainz.
The biggest shock was Stroll, who became the victim of an error made by the team. A tyre mix-up meant that the Canadian had set his fastest lap on a used set of medium tyres! Nevertheless, he would have a free choice on Sunday and could salvage a result.
It was time for the final shootout, and everyone was on a fresh set of soft tyres. Hamilton carried his momentum into Q3 and was on provisional pole from Verstappen and Bottas. Perez was 4th with Ocon and Gasly completing the top 6. Albon was 7th in the other Red Bull with Norris getting ahead of Kvyat and Ricciardo ( who made an error ) at the end of the first runs.
The drivers returned to the pits to refuel, regroup and explore the areas where they could go faster. The battle for pole resumed in the final minutes of Q3. Hamilton and Bottas were setting scorching sector times, but it was Hamilton who got the better of his team-mate again. It was a track record for the Briton with Bottas finishing 2nd, three-tenths adrift. Verstappen could only manage 3rd while Albon improved to 4th completing an all Red Bull 2nd row. It was another stellar lap by Perez which saw him qualify 5th ahead of Ricciardo who pipped his team-mate, Ocon, to 6th by two-thousands of a second! Norris split the two Alpha Tauris of Gasly and Kvyat.
Hamilton continued his dominance in 2020 with the 98th Pole Position of his career and Mercedes bagging a front-row lockout for the 11th time this season! Bottas had struggled over the past two days and needed to produce something special to emerge victorious on race day. Verstappen did all he could to challenge the Mercedes but was unable to make it to the front row. However, he had the company of his team-mate, and Red Bull could fight on Sunday with both their cars on the sharp end of the grid.
Only four-tenths of a second separated 4th from 10th and Sunday promised to be a monumental duel between the midfield teams.
Perez continued to impress with his performances, and the audition for a 2021 seat continued. The Renault drivers had done their best on Saturday and had a great chance of bringing home a strong result for the team on Sunday. Alpha Tauri was in the thick of the midfield battle and could close the gap to Ferrari in 6th. McLaren and Racing Point should have had both cars in the top 10, but a brake failure and a tyre gaffe cost them dearly. It was a disappointing Saturday for Ferrari, but they seemed to have the pace for the race. Russell brought joy to the Williams by making it into Q2 and hoped to bag his first points of 2020. Sainz's race seemed compromised after the brake failure which had destroyed a medium set of tyres.Alfa Romeo and Haas F1 were off the pace the entire weekend, and their drivers seemed destined for a long Sunday evening.
C2, C3 and C4 were the tyres available for the race, and C4 ( the softest ) seemed to be lacking the endurance of completing a sizeable stint. However, Sainz had no option but to start on the soft tyres due to his brake failure in Qualifying which destroyed a set of mediums. Leclerc, Grosjean and Latifi chose to start on the hard tyres while the rest of the field opted for the mediums.
The race got underway, and it was a clean start for Hamilton. Bottas got bogged down and ended up losing places into the first couple of turns. The Finn was down to 6th with Verstappen, Perez, Albon and Ricciardo getting the better of him. Meanwhile, further down the field, Norris tangled with Gasly and Ocon and damaged his front wing. Stroll and Raikkonen ran wide at turn three while the cars fought for positions in the midfield. However, disaster struck near turn 4. Grosjean's Haas got hit by flying debris from Stroll's car when the Frenchman tried to switch lines aggressively. The switch resulted in the rear right wheel of his car making contact with the left front of Kvyat's. Grosjean was a passenger as he rammed into the guardrails at high speed, the car splitting in half and bursting into flames!
The race got Red Flagged immediately as the marshalls, and the Medical Car gathered at the scene of the accident and tried to put out the flames. Miraculously, Grosjean clambered out of the inferno as the Medical Team of Alan van de Merwe, and Dr Ian Roberts offered their assistance. Replays showed that the "survival cell" was the only thing that survived, and it was the Halo that saved Grosjean from a life-threatening head injury. He lost a boot in the process and was under a lot of duress, so had to be stretchered off. He received treatment at the medical centre before being airlifted for further tests. He received bruises and burns to his hands and knees beside a suspected broken rib.
The cars returned to the pits, and there was collective applause in the pit lane on seeing Grosjean clamber out of his stricken car. The FIA announced a stoppage of 45 minutes as repair work got carried out. The FIA replaced the damaged guardrails with concrete blocks.
Vettel and Norris' cars underwent repairs under the watchful eyes of the FIA Technical Delegate. The Race Director announced that the session would restart at 18:35 hrs local time, after a stoppage of almost 75 minutes. The grid got reshuffled as the cars exited the pits behind the Safety Car for the formation lap. The reshuffle resulted in Bottas gaining two places before the restart. There was also a change in the tyre choices with Kvyat joining Sainz on the soft tyres and Gasly, Vettel and Magnussen switching to the hard tyres. The rest of the drivers persisted with the mediums.
It was a standing start, and as soon as the five red lights went out, Hamilton was quick off the line and got a clean getaway. Verstappen was slow off the blocks and had to fend off a challenge by Perez into turn 1. Meanwhile, Bottas tried to pressure Perez, but the Mexican held onto third. Ricciardo had a poor start and was down in 9th. The Alfa Romeo team-mates sparred at the restart, and Raikkonen suffered damage to his front wing. The Finn was up to P13 while Giovinazzi lost places and ended up in 17th. Vettel was unhappy with Leclerc for not honouring the pre-race agreement, complaining about the lack of racing room from his team-mate.
The drivers had not completed a full lap, and the Safety Car got deployed! Stroll's Racing Point was upside down and fortunately, the Canadian was ok and crawled out of his car. Replays showed that Kvyat had tried to make an overtake, but Stroll rapidly shut the door on him, which resulted in the coming together. The incident got investigated by the stewards, and Kvyat incurred a 10 seconds time penalty. Vettel had to take avoiding action and slammed on the brakes, getting relegated to 15th in the process. Magnussen ended up hitting Vettel from behind which damaged his Haas' front wing.
Bottas' race got worse when Mercedes informed him about a slow puncture which forced him to pit on lap 5. He rejoined in 16th on the hard tyres. Magnussen pitted for a new front wing and hard tyres, rejoining in 18th and last ( lap 7 ).
The Safety Car returned to pits at the end of lap 8, and Hamilton made another flawless start. There was a lot of racing happening behind him with Leclerc challenging Ocon for 6th, but the Frenchman put up a stoic defence. Russell got past Latifi for 13th while Sainz got his soft tyres up to temperature quickly, overtaking Ricciardo for 8th. Russell then relegated Raikkonen to 13th while Hamilton started to pull away from Verstappen at the front.
DRS got enabled on lap 11, and Leclerc lost two positions on lap 12 to Sainz and Ricciardo. Vettel, in the other Ferrari, also went backwards with Bottas, Giovinazzi and Magnussen relegating him to 18th. Vettel communicated to the team that the car felt undrivable while Leclerc lost 9th to Gasly on lap 13. It was a race of recovery for Bottas who continued his charge up the field with an overtake on Latifi for 14th, and compatriot Raikkonen the next target. Despite a damaged front wing which was sparking on the straights, Raikkonen was able to hold off Bottas until his pit stop on lap 18. Ricciardo pitted for the hard tyres ( lap 17 ), rejoining in 18th and last. Ocon, Kvyat and Raikkonen followed suit a lap later, with Kvyat serving his ten seconds during the pit stop and Raikkonen getting a front wing change. Ocon switched to the mediums while Kvyat and Raikkonen emerged with new hard tyres.
Ocon overtook Vettel for 14th on lap 19 while Norris switched to the medium tyres, rejoining in 10th. Hamilton and Albon also switched to the medium tyres after pitting on lap 20, rejoining in 3rd and 7th respectively. The Renault drivers were recovering the positions lost after their pit stops with Ocon getting past Magnussen and Ricciardo overtaking Giovinazzi and Latifi. Verstappen relinquished the lead on lap 21 when he pitted for the hard tyres with Perez doing likewise, rejoining in 5th. There were more pit stops on lap 21 with Russell and Giovinazzi getting a new set of hard tyres and Vettel switching to the mediums.
Sainz had done a 22 laps stint on the soft tyres, a commendable job with regards to prolonging the life of the C4 compound. He switched to the medium tyres, rejoining in 11th behind the Renault duo. Albon got past Leclerc for 5th while Latifi pitted for medium tyres, rejoining last. Verstappen set the fastest lap of the race, reducing the gap to Hamilton to 4.5 seconds as he tried to go aggressive with his strategy ( lap 23 ).
Gasly ( 3rd ) and Leclerc ( 6th ) were the only drivers yet to pit, and the duo was losing a lot of time. Gasly lost two places to Perez and Albon in the space of two laps while Leclerc switched to the hard tyres, rejoining in 12th. Norris overtook Bottas for 6th on lap 25 while Leclerc overtook Magnussen for 11th. Gasly finally pitted on lap 27, followed by Bottas switching to the hards and medium tyres respectively.
Renault was contemplating a position swap between Ricciardo and Ocon when Sainz relegated Ricciardo to 7th and Ocon to 6th. Bottas, who rejoined in 14th, got past Kvyat, Russell and Magnussen and was up to 11th. Raikkonen had floor damage, and Alfa Romeo performed a position swap with Giovinazzi ( lap 29 )while Renault did the same with Ricciardo and Ocon ( lap 30 ). Vettel overtook Raikkonen for 15th while Bottas got back into the points with a pass on Leclerc.
Hamilton, Verstappen, Perez, Albon, Norris, Sainz, Ricciardo, Ocon, Gasly and Bottas were the top 10 on lap 34.
Verstappen, Albon and Kvyat pitted for hard tyres on lap 35, but a long stop for Verstappen hurt his strategy. Further down the field, Ocon pitted as well rejoining in 12th. Hamilton pitted a lap later, switched to the hards and extended his lead at the front. Meanwhile, Ocon got past Russell for 11th. The window for the second round of pit stops had begun with Perez and Ricciardo getting new hard tyres, and rejoining in 5th and 11th respectively. Unfortunately for Ricciardo, the undercut allowed Ocon to get past him, and the Australian had to complete an overtake on track to reclaim track position. Sainz lost 4th to Perez while Norris and Bottas pitted for the hard tyres. Albon wasted no time in relegating Sainz to 5th on lap 39, and the latter peeled into the pits for his final stop of the day.
Further down the field, Russell and Vettel pitted for the medium and hard tyres, respectively ( lap 41 ). Leclerc, who was due for a stop, tried to fend off a challenge by Sainz but was unable to do so, losing 7th in the process and pitting immediately after for hard tyres. He got past Giovinazzi for 11th on lap 43. Magnussen was the driver going backwards and lost three places to Vettel, Latifi and Raikkonen while Norris got past Gasly for 5th.
Verstappen pitted again on lap 47, this time for mediums. The Dutchman had a free pit stop and intended to bag the point for the fastest lap. Sainz was closing the gap to Gasly in the battle for 6th while Kvyat got past Giovinazzi for 12th and Bottas overtook Ocon for 9th. Verstappen set the fastest lap of the race on lap 49, bagging the extra point that comes with it. Gasly was losing traction out of the corners due to his worn-out tyres. The Frenchman had pitted only once, and the team wanted him to go till the end. He asked for more engine power to defend from Sainz who had closed up to his gearbox, but Gasly's defence was shortlived as Sainz got past for 6th on lap 52.
The field was a bit spread out after that, and the only real battle was for 8th between Ricciardo and Bottas. However, disaster struck Perez on lap 54. The Racing Point driver had smoke billowing out of the back of his car, but he kept driving. Eventually, the engine gave up, and he got forced to pull to the side of the track, the rear of his car catching fire. The Safety Car got deployed as a result, and Albon got promoted to 3rd! The marshalls tried to put out the flames, and one of them ran across the track just ahead of Norris. It was heartbreak for Racing Point which suffered a double DNF, and Team Principal Otmar Szafnauer cutting a solitary figure on the pit wall.
Mercedes informed Bottas of a "possible rear right puncture while Magnussen and Giovinazzi pitted for the soft tyres.
Racing didn't resume, and the Safety Car peeled into the pits as Hamilton took the Chequered Flag and the 98th win of his career. Verstappen and Albon were 2nd and 3rd for Red Bull, the team completing a double podium for the first time since the Japanese GP in 2017. Norris and Sainz were 4th & 5th for McLaren followed by Gasly who continued to impress in his Alpha Tauri. P7 was the best that Ricciardo could achieve, but managed to hold off a charge from Bottas. Ocon and Leclerc bagged the final points-scoring positions.
Kvyat and Russell finished just outside the points, the latter yet to score points in 2020. Vettel was 13th in the other Ferrari followed by Latifi and Raikkonen who was able to jump Giovinazzi and Magnussen due to their pit stops under the Safety Car.
Hamilton had won for the 4th time in Bahrain and remained in top gear going into the final two rounds of the season. Debris got lodged into Bottas' car resulting in a performance loss, and the Finn has been a victim of a lot of misfortune. He, however, remains 2nd in the Championship. Verstappen pushed hard, but P2 was the best that he could achieve along with Albon, who inherited P3 from Perez's retirement. McLaren would be ecstatic with the result they achieved; Norris and Sainz were flawless, and the team had scored a big haul of points against their midfield rivals. Alpha Tauri outscored Ferrari, with Gasly scoring more points than Leclerc. Kvyat, in the sister car, expressed his displeasure with the penalty dished out to him. The uncertainty and late calls by cost Renault a better result, but "something is better than nothing" as the Enstone-based outfit reduces the deficit to Racing Point to 10 points. It was heartbreak for Racing Point who were so near yet so far with Perez's retirement while running in 3rd, and Stroll getting taken out at the start of the race by Kvyat. This result could prove pivotal in the fight for 3rd as McLaren surged past them and now hold a 17 point lead.
Ferrari, a team that has enjoyed much success in Bahrain could only bag a point, a humbling experience for the most successful team on the grid. Vettel's travails with the 2020 car continued as the German failed to get past the Williams of Russell. Williams showed an improvement, but points still eluded them. Alfa Romeo was off the pace the entire weekend while Haas would have had Grosjean's crash in the back of their minds the whole race.
Everyone was relieved to see Grosjean escape with bruises and burns and no internal damage ( as per the latest update ) in what was a horrific crash. He was able to climb out of the fiery wreckage, and this was a testament to the levels of safety the sport had achieved. The incidents involving Stroll and Perez were equally heart-stopping. The Halo had saved Grosjean from a life-threatening crash, and the timely intervention by the marshalls and the FIA Medical Delegates saved him from more grievous injuries.
The safety teams and Grosjean himself were the heroes and the real victors at the end of the day!