Perez stays calm to win chaotic Sakhir GP for 1st F1 win
By JEROME PUGMIRE
(AP) -- Sergio Perez waited 190 races to finally stand on the podium as a Formula One winner and end a 50-year wait of its own for Mexico.
Perez's win at a chaotic Sakhir Grand Prix in Bahrain was the first by a Mexican since Pedro Rodriguez won the Belgian GP in June 1970. He died one year later, at age 31, in a sports car race.
"I've heard that he had tremendous talent ... Unfortunately he died at a very young age," the 30-year-old Perez said. "For Mexicans it's not easy to get into Formula One and to succeed in this sport. Hopefully we can have another strong Mexican on the grid."
Perez expects it will be quite some party back in Mexico.
"Especially because it's a good time in Mexico; normally the races are six in the morning. This one it's on a Sunday at 11 o'clock, I'm sure right now they will be having some nice Tequilas," he said. "It means a lot to me, for my family. Such a tremendous day, a historic day. You see the amount of support I get in my country. Can you imagine what it's like at the moment?"
The Racing Point driver finished 10.5 seconds ahead of Renault's Esteban Ocon and 11.9 clear of teammate Lance Stroll. Perez does not even have an F1 seat next year after being replaced by Sebastian Vettel.
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.
"I don't know what to say, that was taken away from us twice. I'm gutted, I'm absolutely gutted," Russell said. "I've had some victories taken away from me, but twice? I just couldn't believe that."
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 tire incident cost Mercedes a fine of 20,000 euros ($24,000) but no further action was taken, and Russell secured his first three points in F1.
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."
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.
Drivers again raced at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, but on a smaller outer track of 3.5 kilometers (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 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. 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.
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 a tire puncture ended Russell's chances.
"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."
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Updated December 6, 2020