The championship battle continues to twist and turn between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, but in Turkey it was time for the teams’ second drivers to take centre stage and offer helping hands to their respective team mates.
Valtteri Bottas won the race brilliantly. With Hamilton taking a 10 place grid penalty it was always going to be crucial for Bottas to deny Verstappen maximum points on Sunday and he delivered the result convincingly.
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With a wet track and cool temperatures greeting the drivers on Sunday, the odds looked to be in Verstappen’s favour: starting from the front row in conditions he usually thrives in, against a pole man who hasn’t had much success in the wet and spun five times in the wet Turkish Grand Prix of the previous year.
But this time Bottas was perfect, maintaining the lead off the line and then controlling a measured race from the front. It was important for Hamilton that Bottas won, but of course the Finn didn’t need to be thinking about helping his teammate here – as he is leaving Mercedes at the end of the season, this may have been Bottas’ last opportunity to win in Formula 1.
With Toto Wolff clarifying in recent weeks that Bottas will indeed be asked to move aside on track if he leads from Hamilton in the championship run in, it effectively means that Bottas can only win if Hamilton hits trouble – which he had before the Turkish Grand Prix weekend even began with the confirmation of his engine penalty.
Conveniently for Mercedes their departing driver didn’t need any extra motivation to do the job for the team because in this rare occasion both the team’s and second driver’s objectives were aligned in a race Hamilton couldn’t win. Bottas’ victory therefore meant that Hamilton lost only eight points to Verstappen rather than 15.
2021 Turkish Grand Prix: Valtteri Bottas wins at Istanbul Park
While Bottas was keeping the smiles on the faces of Mercedes though, Perez put in a well-timed gritty drive as well, getting back onto the podium for the first time in eight races.
The real strength of Perez on Sunday was his wheel-to-wheel battling, particularly in keeping a charging Lewis Hamilton at bay.
READ MORE: ‘He raced Lewis just as hard as Max does’ – Horner thrilled with Perez’s defence from Hamilton in Turkey
Too often recently Perez’s poor qualifying performances have rendered him redundant in helping Verstappen’s fight with Hamilton on Sundays.
It would have been the case once again in Turkey, with the Mexican only mustering up a seventh place qualifying on Saturday. The difference here of course was that Hamilton would have to come past him despite being fastest in qualifying, due to his grid penalty.
Perez’s race pace has been closer to Verstappen’s than his qualifying pace and again on Sunday he was really solid in tricky conditions.
But where he excelled most was in damaging Hamilton’s race, something it seemed clear he was intent on doing by the way he fought to keep the Brit behind him, when a couple of times in battle it looked like the place was lost.
Hamilton had passed a string of midfield cars with ease early on, and even Yuki Tsunoda – who held him back for a while – didn’t offer the greatest resistance when Hamilton finally went for a move.
As Hamilton caught Perez though he was met by a driver with a very different mindset. A driver who was willing to risk everything in their race to hold back a Mercedes which at that moment was clearly faster.
2021 Turkish Grand Prix: Hamilton and Perez race wheel-to-wheel
Into Turns 12 and 1 Hamilton was almost a car length ahead by the braking zone when Perez sent it back up his inside on the wetter part of track to hold on, and while the Mexican was being squeezed off – all the way to the pit entry and even the other side of the bollard into Turn 14 – he kept his foot in and refused to yield.
Often in Formula 1 these days it can feel futile when a driver is clinging on to a position for dear life against a car that is much faster and with a good chunk of the race to go, but Perez’s fight was absolutely worth his while.
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Had Hamilton completed the overtake he could have gone after Leclerc. He also would have been more open to pitting as well with the track position over Perez and potentially finished on the podium. Perez’s defence may have effectively earned Verstappen an extra five or six points by the time Mercedes failed to make inroads in the rest of the race.
With the championship so finely in the balance with only six races remaining, the role of the second driver could be crucial, and they have almost opposite skillsets.
Bottas has qualifying pace but not necessarily the clinical edge in the races, as proven in Sochi where he let Verstappen breeze past him with a fairly standard manoeuvre. When Mercedes are quick though he has the potential to run at the front and trail Hamilton home and increase the gap to Verstappen.
Perez hasn’t got qualifying pace at the moment, but he has got race pace and has shown an absolute willingness to throw some punches at Hamilton on Sundays if he’s given half an opportunity.
READ MORE: Verstappen calls Red Bull double-podium in Turkey ‘a very good result’ as Perez revels in Hamilton battle
This season so far the duo out front in the title race have just been too good, and really in another league from their teammates. Hamilton has only finished behind Perez twice now, while Turkey was, incredibly, the first time all year that Verstappen has finished a race behind Bottas.
While the number twos have been ineffective at taking points off their rivals thus far, Turkey illustrated how useful it can be. With Bottas hitting some consistent form at the moment, and Perez looking to regain his mojo, it could make a deciding difference to the tightest title battle in years.