Valtteri Bottas wielded his almost uncharacteristically strong Mercedes to a straightforward victory in Turkey, but teammate Lewis Hamilton didn’t have nearly an easy time of his afternoon in Istanbul.
Despite Bottas starting from pole and aiming for what could be his final win for Mercedes – and perhaps final win of his career – it was Hamilton, starting 11th with an engine penalty, who held the attention of the spotlight throughout. The question of the race was how much he could minimise the impact of his grid drop on his championship hopes.
His car’s levels of competitiveness relative to the RB16B was in his favour, but – ironically for the renowned wet weather ace – it was the persistent rain that ultimately undid his podium charge, leaving him fifth and losing him the championship lead.
Formula 1’s second unexpected return to Turkey bore little resemblance to last year’s race, at least at first. In 2020 the sport was greeted by a freshly resurfaced track still slick with bitumen; this year, with almost 12 months maturation and some high-pressure water blasting beforehand, the track was extremely grippy and much more dynamic to drive.
But the fact the blasting in particular happened late in the piece meant it was difficult to prepare for the challenge on offer. Indeed Pirelli, which brought its middle range of tyres this weekend, expressed regret over going one step softer than last year, having been caught out by how abrasive the track had become.
It was another headache for the teams on a track they don’t know all that well and which already demands an aerodynamic compromise.
Red Bull Racing was among the most significant strugglers and put in one of its least competitive races since some of its off weekends early in the year. The RB16B struggled badly with understeer on Friday, and though overnight changes made it a better balanced, more usable machine on Saturday, it was simply no match for the W11.
THE RACE-WINNING MOVE
Such was Mercedes’s advantage here that getting off the line cleanly was all Bottas had to do to put one hand on the winners trophy – no mean feat with Max Verstappen alongside him on the front row, but achieved easily all the same.
That the track remained wet played to Bottas’s favour despite his poor track record in the rain. The paddock assumed it would dry before long, with estimates between lap 10 and half distance, depending on whether the drizzle would persist in the early stages of the race.
Thus the first stint – however long it had to be – would be and was about preserving the intermediate tyre to ensure a single switch to slicks.
But the cool conditions and the lack of sunlight combined with the still new track surface to prevent the water from evaporating or draining. By half distance the possibility of a fully wet race had dawned on the teams.
Verstappen beat Bottas to the pit lane, but there was no reason for the Finn to worry. The undercut wasn’t possible in the barely wet conditions, the intermediate tyres requiring a gentle running in to prevent early debilitating graining. He covered easily on the following tour to keep himself ahead of the Dutchman.
There was only one truly unforeseen challenge that eventually appeared on Bottas’s radar: Charles Leclerc.
Ferrari was enjoying fine form in the wet, much as it did this time last year, and Leclerc was wielding his low-downforce set-up to great effect in clinging to the podium battle. After Verstappen and Bottas stopped, he stayed out to inherit the lead and considered not stopping at all.
From around lap 40 his lap times began slowing, but the Monegasque wasn’t perturbed, figuring that losing places to Hamilton and Verstappen would still leave him with an unlikely podium finish.
But as the abrasive track wore away more and more rubber from his tyres, his lap times kept slowing and slowing. A couple of lock-ups had Bottas past easily, and it was clear that Leclerc’s tyres were finished – properly finished, with almost no usable rubber remaining on the canvas.
He came in on lap 47, clearing the way for Bottas to resume his victory cruise, eventually taking the flag 14.5 seconds ahead of Verstappen with the fastest lap of the race.
HAMILTON’S EARLY STRUGGLES
Things weren’t so straightforward for Hamilton, whose weekend got off to a bad start when Mercedes felt obliged to switch in a new internal combustion engine for concern about sounds coming from his previous units, with the spectre of championship-ending unreliability hanging over the German marque.
He did everything right from there, right up to setting the fastest time in qualifying to ensure his grid drop was contained to 11th, the combination of the uncertainty over the conditions and perhaps a conservativeness in some battles worked to undo his recovery.
He made up two places on the first lap, one from the spinning Fernando Alonso and another after passing Sebastian Vettel, and came up behind AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda, who would make himself Verstappen’s honorary teammate over the subsequent eight laps.
The Japanese driver was perfect in defence, suing the slipstream ahead to counter the powerful Mercedes engine and acing each braking zone. Hamilton had a shot early to pass him but backed out before sealing the deal, seemingly wary of the substantial impact a crash would have on his race and campaign.
It took him until lap eight to pull a sweet around-the-outside move on the rookie, but by then he’d lost more than 11 seconds to the leader – and, as would become crucial, cost himself some tyre life in battle too.
A handful of easier passes on midfielders eventually dragged him up to a battle with Sergio Perez for fourth, and the Mexican was likewise in no mood to cooperate. They diced thrillingly wheel to wheel on laps 34 and 35, with Hamilton eventually yielding through turns one and two – more time and rubber extracted.
This battle had the knock-on effect of prompting Max Verstappen to pit for fresh intermediate tyres on lap 36, having dropped Perez and Hamilton from his pit window. Perez stopped on the following lap, and by lap 40 almost the entire field had put on a fresh set of intermediates.
THE LONG SHOT FAILS
It was a gamble worth taking for Hamilton. He had the pace on used intermediate tyres, his car was the fastest machine of the weekend and in the event the surface finally dried, as it constantly teased but ultimately never delivered, he’d be able to cash in by making one fewer stop than the rest.
But the downsides were also clear, and the longer the race went on, the more daunting they became. If the rain arrived in any significant quantity with his tyres in such a worn state, he’d struggle to maintain temperature or, worse, aquaplane off the road. And even if the rain stayed away, the risk he’d wear the tyre down to the canvas and suffer a failure would be acute in the final 10 laps.
Mercedes was amendable to the gamble, though, and Hamilton was allowed to continue.
The intermediate tyres needed around six slower laps to bed in before a driver would get the fresh-rubber advantage. Realistically Hamilton passed the point of no return to make a pit stop at around lap 40, which would have given him 12 laps to the finish.
But shortly after lap 40 Ferrari and Leclerc decided their no-stop gamble wasn’t going to pay off, and he was brought in on lap 47. Further back Esteban Ocon was beginning to haemorrhage time attempting the same.
Hamilton’s pace slowed further, and Mercedes, identifying the risk and seeing that his lap times would lose him two places anyway, brought in the Briton, committing to fifth place.
With just eight laps left to run there was no opportunity to make the most of his fresh rubber. This was purely a safety stop without strategy intent. He made it to the finish and salvaged points, but a stop in the lap 30-40 window or slightly later would have won him back at least one position rather than getting himself caught in no-man’s-land.
THE COUNTERARGUMENT: ESTEBAN OCON
After the race Hamilton suggested that if Ocon had managed to complete the race without stopping, so too could he have done, although after seeing photos of his own tyres, his moderated his comments a little.
It’s true that Ocon had managed to complete the race without a stop, but looking at the state of his tyres – his front-right tyre had an enormous piece of rubber missing – he probably shouldn’t have done. Indeed Pirelli had begun suggesting to teams not to try the no-stop strategy during the race for likely the supplier thought a failure would be in the final laps.
In the end the fact Ocon finished a lap down and therefore complete one lap fewer than Hamilton probably played a part in getting him to the flag.
The Frenchman scored a point, but his painfully slow times at the end of the race – we was more than three seconds off the pace in the final stages – mean he lost the 20-odd seconds he would have spent changing his tyres anyway, neutralising any benefit that may have been on offer.
SAINZ SPECTACULAR, McLAREN MIDDLING
Despite starting from the back with a new power unit, Carlos Sainz underlined every bit as much as Leclerc the serious pace in the Ferrari package in Turkey, moving up from 19th to eighth by the flag.
He could have had more too – his sole stop was slow, at more than eight seconds, and he took the flag just four seconds behind Pierre Gasly and 10 seconds behind Hamilton.
Further, that slow stop dropped him behind Esteban Ocon, who he took 10 laps to get past – and once he did he was three seconds quicker than the Frenchman.
His fortunes contrasted starkly with fellow back row starter Daniel Ricciardo – indeed Sainz had a role in Ricciardo starting at the back, having participated in qualifying despite carrying a back-of-grid penalty precisely on the chance he could knock out one of the McLaren drivers in Q1, which he managed to do to the struggling Australian.
At a track already ill suited to McLaren’s car Ricciardo laboured throughout the race, unable to make up ground. He was the first to commit to a second set of intermediates, on lap 21, from which other teams learnt about the graining profile of the new tyres, and although that got him as high as 11th, he fell back down the order as the rubber faded late and finished 13th.
ALFA ROMEO TEAM ORDERS
Between Ricciardo and the points were Alfa Romeo teammates Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Raikkonen, who ended the race in mild controversy when Giovinazzi appeared to ignore two team orders to swap places with Raikkonen to allow him to attack the struggling Ocon ahead.
Giovinazzi instead insisted he had more pace, though if he did, he wasn’t able to marshal it. With the faster Raikkonen in tow he finished 0.7 seconds behind the Alpine ahead, which certainly makes it seem as though a badly needed point went begging for the team.
Afterwards it transpired that the team hadn’t mentioned that the positions could be switched back if Raikkonen hadn’t made the pass, but regardless, disobeying team orders is a serious sin in Formula 1, and it’s hard to see this in the context of the Italian’s fading hopes of retaining his seat at the team, if indeed the decision hasn’t already been made.