5 Thoughts from the 2020 Turkish Grand Prix
Slippery when wet (or dry), Istanbul delivers a classic as F1 returns to Turkey
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Istanbul, Turkey - When the Intercity Istanbul Park was awarded the contract to host a last minute F1 race in 2020, work immediately began on resurfacing a race track that hadn't been used all that much since F1's last visit in 2011. That track resurfacing literally laid the ground work for a classic Formula 1 race in the months to come when F1 returned to Istanbul this past weekend. The hot topic all weekend long was the extremely slippery and low grip nature of the track surface that was more akin to driving on ice even in the dry sessions! What made this weekend even more entertaining was the wet weather that dropped over the circuit on Saturday and Sunday that eliminated car performance and brought the drivers skills to the forefront. This weekend will be remembered for quite a while with Lance Stroll taking a superb first career pole position and of course Lewis Hamilton equaling the record for most world championships. It could've been a race in which any driver would've been making the headlines but their were a lot of crucial missed opportunities in Turkey. After a long and grueling 58 laps at Istanbul Park, let's take a look a what stood out the most.
1. A Race of What Could Have Been
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We all love wet sessions in Formula 1 because it somewhat neutralizes the field and demands the driver to use every bit of skill to keep the car on the track. It also provides us with shocking moments like this past Saturday when Lance Stroll edged out Max Verstappen for pole position. After Verstappen dominated the early sessions, it was Stroll who went fastest on the final lap in Q3 to give him his first career pole. It was then all to play for on Sunday with the race starting under wet conditions and most drivers on the extreme wet tyre. I thought Stroll did an exceptional first stint with the way he got started and then built a healthy lead over his teammate and Verstappen. It was always going to be an uphill battle for Racing Point to try and hold on for a win but while the conditions were still wet, it seemed like they might just pull it off. Unfortunately, as the track started to dry and the drivers moved to the intermediates, it started to slowly unravel for Stroll. His gap over his rivals came down significantly and was starting to struggle with under steer on worn tyres. After he boxed for fresh inters, the race completely fell off the cliff for Stroll. He immediately started to complain of graining on the fronts and he just did not have the same pace anymore. Ultimately, Stroll went from P1 to P9 in what was a roller coaster ride of emotions throughout the weekend. Although the race result wasn't ideal, I still think this was a very successful and positive weekend for Stroll who further proved his worth in Formula 1.
The story of a race of what could have been can also go to Red Bull's Alex Albon. After Verstappen spun himself out of a podium position, Albon's race came alive and he started hunting down the Racing Points. At the time, Albon was the quickest car on the track and seemed to be managing his tyres better than the Pink Panthers. As I was watching Verstappen's race unravel and Hamilton struggling, I thought this was Albon's chance to steal a victory and seal his place at Red Bull for 2021. But again, the treacherous conditions caught Albon out on lap 34 as he spun round and lost positions to Hamilton, Vettel, and ultimately his teammate as well. Albon eventually finished 7th in what was another case of a driver wondering what could have been. Albon was in with a great chance at a first career victory much like Stroll but in the end it just didn't materialize. So what does this race result mean for Albon's Red Bull career? It's another tough result for Albon especially considering the man rumored to be a candidate for his seat finished on the podium.
2. History is Made in Classic Hamilton Style
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Lewis Hamilton has quite the habit of winning races he has no business winning. Germany 2018 springs to mind as another example but once again it was Hamilton crossing the line first in a wild and wet race. Mercedes were nowhere all weekend long despite their dominant W11 machine. Lance Stroll finally broke the Mercedes 2020 pole streak and put Mercedes outside the top five for the first time in the turbo-hybrid era. Even in the early stages of the race, Hamilton was struggling for grip as he ran wide and gave up position to Sebastian Vettel. Valtteri Bottas on the other hand was busy adding to his donut demo reel as he spun at least six times throughout a race he'll want to forget as soon as possible. I have to be honest here and confess that no Lewis Hamilton victory irritated me more than this one. I was genuinely hoping for another first time F1 winner like we saw in Monza and it looked very possible with Stroll, Perez, and Albon in the mix. But those hopes for another surprise winner got shattered by the G.O.A.T himself as he ended up cruising home to make more F1 history. After Stroll and Verstappen were out of the mix and then Albon spun himself around, it was Hamilton's race for the taking and he did just that. Once again he pulled off a mega stint on those intermediate tyres that by the end of the grand prix actually turned into slicks. After some early hiccups, he was flawless when it mattered the most and built up a near thirty second lead at the end which gave him some flexibility for strategy. It was a classic Lewis Hamilton race where he came from nowhere to take victory and show why he is the best in this generation. So he has now officially equaled Michael Schumacher's record of 7 world championships and he does not look to be done anytime soon. They say rain is the great equalizer in Formula 1 but not when you have a driver like Lewis Hamilton on the grid. He was on another level in Turkey despite his car, the conditions, and the chaotic nature of the race.
3. Vettel Reminds us of His Driving Excellence
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It was only one race ago that I was writing about the more than one year absence of Sebastian Vettel from an F1 podium. Its certainly been the most challenging year of Vettel's career and it seemed like his chances of spraying champagne in a Ferrari race suit were long gone. Now enter the 2020 Turkish Grand Prix. Ferrari actually had solid pace all throughout the weekend in the low grip conditions. The SF1000 is very harsh on its tyres but that enabled Vettel and Leclerc to find tyre temperature quicker than their rivals. Qualifying was quite disappointing however with Vettel starting 12th and Leclerc in 14th. That lack of quali pace was erased in a matter of three corners by Sebastian Vettel as he shot up to P4 before turn 5. It was a brilliant start with minimal wheel spin and he placed his car on all the right bits of the circuit while his rivals spun or struggled for grip. Thanks to his old rival's mistake, Vettel found himself in P3 by the end of lap one! The Ferrari pace was for real as Vettel held his position and did not allow the mighty Verstappen to pass him. Ferrari's strategy was decent and they were able to put Vettel on the right tyre at the right time. A little luck on the final lap after a mistake from his teammate allowed him to claim his first podium since Mexico 2019 and Driver of the Day honors. It took a while, but Vettel finally gave us a brilliant drive we all knew he was capable of producing. I never once thought Vettel had forgotten how to drive or had lost his ability as an elite racing driver. In the toughest of conditions, he was one of only a few drivers to keep their car planted on the track and not make a mistake. How ironic that on a day where many drivers spun off the track, the driver known for spinning the most in the last two years did not. This is a great result for Vettel and a nice parting gift for Ferrari as their relationship comes to a close. It's also a big boost to Vettel's morale as he moves to a new team for 2021 and he finally has some positivity to build on heading into the final races of 2020. Turns out that the key to Vettel's success in 2020 was Mattia Binnoto not attending the race!
4. McLaren Pull Off a Great Recovery
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The battle for the world championship might have been done and dusted for a while now but the fight for third place is where the real battle is at. Racing Point, McLaren, and Renault were all within a few points of each other in the battle for third with only four races to go. After Racing Point got both cars onto the first two rows of the grid, McLaren were in a very rough position having to take penalties from qualifying and starting 13th and 15th on the grid. To make matters worse, Renault were also starting the race 5th and 7th and looking to extend their lead in the mid-field battle. The deck was stacked against McLaren, but the long and dramatic nature of the 2020 Turkish Grand Prix completely turned the tables on the constructor's standings. After their worst Saturday of 2020, McLaren bagged a total of 15 points via Sainz's P5 and Norris' P8. Sainz utilized a great lap one start to make headway into the race and he used his wet driving skills to the maximum to navigate a tricky grand prix. Sainz made some adjustments with his engineers overnight to give him more confidence in the car on race day and it clearly paid dividends. His teammate Lando Norris was also able to capitalize on the downfall of Lance Stroll's race and the Renault's who took themselves out of top ten contention. Norris also provided McLaren with a crucial extra point via his fastest lap of the race. Ultimately, Perez's podium finish saw McLaren lose ground to Racing Point but gain on Renault. McLaren are now five points back of Racing Point for third and are 13 points clear of Renault who are back in 5th. Considering how bleak things looked for McLaren as the lights went out in Turkey, it was a tremendous result for Sainz, Norris, and the McLaren team.
5. Max Verstappen Looked Average in Turkish GP
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The Turkish Grand Prix gave us some unique circumstances, one of which was Max Verstappen looking quite average for once. It was all in Red Bull's favor this weekend as Mercedes struggled with the low grip around Istanbul and Verstappen led almost every session until Q3. Verstappen was devastated after missing out on pole to Lance Stroll but he was in a great position heading into the race considering Max is quite the master in wet and tricky conditions. The start didn't go well for Verstappen as the anti stall almost kicked in due to the low revs in order to minimize the wheel spin. But after lap one, Verstappen was able to get into a decent groove and picked up his pace once Vettel pitted and he was in clear air. Verstappen gained on Perez quickly and was lining him up for an overtake as Perez struggled for traction. But Max lost quite a bit of patience behind the Racing Point and went for a tricky pass on the outside of Perez which cost him dearly. Verstappen flat spotted the tyres and lost a couple of places in the process in what should have been at least a podium finish for the Dutchman. All race he was struggling in the slow speed corners, especially on the exit of the final corner as he ran wide multiple times during the race. It was uncharacteristic to see Verstappen struggle so much in a wet race as he usually excels at low grip conditions. For as amazing as Verstappen has been in 2020, he looked remarkably average in the Turkish Grand Prix. This was really the weekend where Red Bull could capitalize on some unique circumstances that put Mercedes on the back foot but they eventually lost out to a superior drive from Lewis Hamilton. It's a shame we didn't get to see a Verstappen masterclass in the rain but even some of the best drivers in the world have their bad days. I'm sure Verstappen will be able to learn from this race but I also do believe that the nature of this track surface really gave us a rare grand prix weekend we might not see for quite some time in F1.
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