Sergio Perez wins Sakhir GP from last to first; still faces uncertain 2021

Perez wins Sakhir GP
Mark Thompson/Getty Images
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Sergio Perez wins the Sakhir GP after surviving an opening lap spin and benefitting from a full course caution and chaos in the Mercedes pits. It is his first Formula 1 victory.

Drama can be an overused description in auto racing, but if it ever fit a driver’s win, it belongs to the Mexican racer. Perez picked his way through the Sakhir GP field after getting spun on the opening lap. Forced to pit after the incident, he rejoined the pack in the last car on the track.

“I hope I’m not dreaming here because I dreamed so many years of being in this moment,” Perez said from the top of the podium. “After the first lap, the race was again gone same as last weekend. But it was again about not giving up, recovering, going through it, making it the best we possibly could.”

Last week Perez driver was heading for a second consecutive podium finish for the first time in his career before an electrical failure eliminated him from competition. Perez desperately needed the win to help secure a ride for 2021 after it was announced earlier this season that he will not return to Racing Point.

“It gives me a little more peace with myself,” Perez added. “What happens (in 2021) is not so much in my hands at the moment, but I know I want to keep going.”

Perez is rumored as one of the possible drivers for Red Bull next year.

Perez was not the only emotional driver on the podium. And he was not the only driver standing there with a career-best finish.

Esteban Ocon finished second for the first podium finish of his career. He had three fifth-place results as his best, with the most recent coming earlier this year at Spa-Francorchamps.

“I cried on the line,” Ocon said. “That is how much emotion is going through my mind now. It’s been a tough season. It hasn’t paid off all the time, but we never stopped pushing. We kept working hard, stayed motivated. That was very important.”

Racing Point’s Lance Stroll took the final spot on the podium. His third-place finish matched a career best set twice previously including earlier this season at Monza. This was the first time in the history of the team that both Racing Point drivers stood on the podium.

Like his teammate Perez, it was a stark reversal of fortune. Stroll ended his race last week upside down after an incident with Daniil Kvyat.

Getting to the top of the podium wasn’t easy for Perez.

For the second straight week a full course caution waved on the opening lap.

Polesitter Valtteri Bottas succumbed to teammate George Russell in the first corner and a slow exit bunched up the field. Battling for a spot among the top five, Charles Leclerc drove into the corner hard and spun Perez. In the aftermath, Leclerc and Max Verstappen retired with crash damage. Leclerc has been given a three-grid penalty for the season-ending race at Abu Dhabi for the avoidable contact.

Perez was forced to pit to swap out his flat-spotted tires.

It was the fifth time in his career that Verstappen retired because of an opening lap crash. One of those previous incidents happened this September in the Tuscan GP.

“They were being so aggressive and reckless,” Verstappen said after the Sakhir incident. “We were all at the front and at the end of the day two cars are out, so I don’t really know why. Especially Charles in Turn 4. Why he dives to the inside like that? To brake that late; [Perez] can’t see what is happening on the inside.”

Perez won the Sakhir GP with an assist from late-race chaos.

Making F1 debut, Jack Aitken spun out of the final corner on Lap 62 and sheared off the nose of his Williams’ car. The crash brought out a full course caution that brought Russell and Bottas into the pits. The team chose to stack the stops on top of one another and mixed up the tires of Russell and Bottas.

After dominating the race to this point, Russell and Bottas both rejoined the field behind the eventual podium finishers. Russell managed to pick his way to the runner-up spot and trailed by a little more than two seconds before a left rear puncture brought him to the pits for a fourth time during the race. It sealed his fate as well as that of Perez and allowed the first-time winner to take the top spot by more than eight seconds over the field.

Alexander Rossi ‘fits like a glove’ with his new IndyCar teammates at Arrow McLaren Racing

Alexander Rossi McLaren
Nate Ryan

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – There are more than three dozen fresh faces on the Arrow McLaren Racing IndyCar team, but there was one that Felix Rosenqvist was particularly keen to know – Alexander Rossi.

The driver of the No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet is the most high-profile new hire for McLaren, which has expanded to a third car to pair with the No. 6 of Rosenqvist and No. 5 of Pato O’Ward.

And there is another layer than Rossi just being the new kid. McLaren marks only his second team in NTT IndyCar Series after seven seasons at Andretti Autosport, where he began with a victory in the 2016 Indy 500 and was a championship contender for several seasons.

Rossi is a mercurial talent, and when things go wrong, the red mist quickly descends (and sometimes has led to feuds with teammates). He went winless during two of his final seasons at Andretti and was out of contention more often than not, often bringing out the prickly side of his personality.

Yet there has been no trace of the dour Rossi since joining McLaren. The pragmatic Californian is quick to remind everyone he hasn’t worked with the team yet at a track (much less been in its car), and there surely will be times he gets frustrated.

But it’s clear that Rossi, who made five Formula One starts in 2015 after several years racing in Europe, already is meshing well with an organization whose England-based parent company has deep roots in F1.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Rosenqvist said Tuesday during IndyCar’s preseason media availabilities. “I think Alex kind of has that bad-guy role a little bit in IndyCar. He’s always been that guy, which is cool. I think we need those guys, as well.

“Actually having gotten to know him, he’s been super nice, super kind. He fits like a glove in the team. I think it fills a role where Pato is kind of like the crazy guy, I’m somewhere in the middle, and Alex is the more engineering guy in the team. I think Alex has more experience, as well. He just feels like a guy who knows what he wants.

“Yeah,  good addition to the team and great guy at the same time.”

There are many reasons why Rossi’s transition from Andretti to McLaren should be smoother than his abrupt move from F1 to IndyCar seven years ago. Namely, he no longer is the only newcomer to the team’s culture.

“It’s been kind of a good time to come in because everyone is finding a new role and position and kind of learning who’s who, finding everyone’s strengths and weaknesses,” he said.

But while Rossi might have questions about the team, he has none about the series. Unlike when he arrived at Andretti without any oval experience, Rossi joins McLaren with his IndyCar credentials secured as an established star with eight victories, seven poles and 28 podiums over 114 starts.

Even in his swan song with Andretti, Rossi still managed a farewell victory last July at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course that snapped a 49-race, three-year winless drought. It seems reasonable to believe he immediately could re-emerge in his 2017-19 title contender form.

“I know the series, and I know kind of everything that goes into American open-wheel racing vs. the European open-wheel racing, which is really the biggest transition,” Rossi said. “Certainly it’s the largest kind of team switch. I’ve obviously driven for different teams in the past in Europe, in sports cars, whatever, but never really in my full-time job. I’ve driven for the same organization for a very long time and have a lot of respect and fabulous memories with those people.

“So it has been a big kind of shift, trying to compare and contrast areas that I can bring kind of recommendations and experience to maybe help fill the gaps that exist at Arrow McLaren. Again, all of this is in theory, right? I don’t really know anything. We’ll have a much better idea and plan going into St. Pete (the March 5 season opener).”

He has gotten a good handle on how things work at its Indianapolis headquarters, though, and has been pleased by the leadership of new racing director Gavin Ward (who worked in F1 before a championship stint with Josef Newgarden at Team Penske). McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown also seems omnipresent on both sides of the Atlantic, making appearances at IndyCar races seemingly as much as in the F1 paddock.

“I think what’s very cool about Arrow McLaren is we do have the resources of the McLaren F1 team,” Rossi said. “They very much are being integrated in a lot of respects. It’s not two separate entities. McLaren Racing is one organization that has its people and resources and intellect in kind of everything. It’s been pretty cool to see how that can be an advantage to us in terms of people, resources, simulations, software, kind of everything. We’ve been able to kind of rely on that and use that as a tool that maybe other teams certainly don’t have.”

That will be helpful for Rossi with the methodologies and nuances of racing a Chevrolet for the first time after seven seasons with Honda.

And of course, there will be the relationship with O’Ward, who has been McLaren’s alpha star since 2020.

Rossi was in a similar role for Andretti, which raises questions about how McLaren will handle having two stars accustomed to being the face of the team. But O’Ward said IndyCar regulations should allow each driver to maintain their own style without being forced to adapt as in other series.

“At the end of the day, as much as teammates will help in order to gather data, it doesn’t mean they’re going to specifically help you in what you need because it’s a series where you can really tailor the car to what you want,” O’Ward said. “Rather than in Formula 1, (it’s) ‘This is the car, you need to learn how to drive this certain car.’ In IndyCar, it’s very different where you can customize it to what you want it to feel like or drive like.

“From past experience, I think Alex likes a car similar to what I do. I do think we have a very strong car in certain areas, but I definitely think he’s coming from a car where that other car has been stronger than us in other racetracks. I feel like if we can just find gains where we haven’t quite had a winning car, a podium car, that’s just going to help all of us.”

Though Thursday at The Thermal Club will mark the first time the trio works together at a track, Rosenqvist said he’s hung out a lot with Rossi (both are 31 years old) and deems his new teammate “well-integrated” in the simulator.

“I think the fit has been good with him, me and Pato,” Rosenqvist said. “On a trackside perspective, it’s obviously huge to have always a third opinion on things. Every driver’s opinion is valuable in its own way.”

Said O’Ward, 23: “It’s been great. (Rossi has) been great to have around. I think he needed a fresh start. I think he’s excited to really work with all of us, create the strongest package.”

Ever the realist, though, Rossi still is tempering some of his enthusiasm.

“Again, we haven’t really done anything yet other than some meetings and some team activities together,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done in IndyCar and also their prior careers. I think that we all bring something a little bit different to the table, which I think is really unique in terms of not only personalities but driving styles and experience levels.

“I think we have the ingredients to really be able to develop the team and continue to push the team forward to even a better level than what they’ve shown in the past. It’s been a really positive experience. Really I have nothing at all negative to say and can’t actually wait to get to work, get on track and start working together.”