F1 back in Turkey for first time in almost a decade, but the 2020 grand prix is unlikely to bear much resemblance to 2011 — and not just because polesitter Lance Stroll would’ve been 12 years old last time out.
For one, the cars have changed substantially. Much faster, with more power and more downforce, the expected lap times ahead of the weekend were for somewhere in the vicinity of five seconds quicker, taking into account Pirelli conservatively brought its hardest compounds to Istanbul.
But the most significant change is the track itself. The circuit has been completely resurfaced in anticipation of F1’s return, but the decision was made so late — the race was only confirmed in August, after all — that works finished just 10 days before the on-track action commenced.
It meant that the oily, greasy bitumen was still rising from the track, making the circuit extremely slippery. It’s a situation not so far removed from the Portuguese Grand Prix, which had been similarly resurfaced this year, albeit with more time ahead of the race and resultantly more non-F1 action before the sport arrived.
The lack of grip was so severe that dry conditions on Friday were more akin to driving in the wet — so you can imagine how difficult things became when it actually started raining on Saturday.
The track was just about undriveable, the combination of water, oil and cold weather combining to prevent the tyres from warming up and therefore generating any kind of grip. But the spot slogged on, barring a length red flag during Q1 during the worst of the rain, to produce a chaotic and unpredictable qualifying session.
Lance Stroll emerged quickest and more sure-footed of all. The Canadian had only one lap on intermediate tyres to get the job done, and with perfect tyre warm-up and a mistake-free lap he pipped the better fancied Max Verstappen to his maiden pole.
Red Bull Racing had been favourite in the weather but couldn’t get the intermediate compound up to temperature as easily as it did the full wets — a situation not helped when Verstappen got stuck behind a slower car after leaving the pits with new tyres.
It’s arguably the first time this season the RB16’s easygoing way with the tyres cost it badly — though it takes nothing away from Stroll to say it, the Canadian historically very strong in slick conditions.
Mercedes suffered substantially more, however, all at sea from Friday practice. The team did little running in FP1 when the track was at its dirtiest and struggled even with more comprehensive running in FP2, making very few set-up changes owing to the difficulty reading the grip yield.
It similarly did little trackwork in the wet in FP3, which left it with a knowledge deficit for qualifying — but really the car just hasn’t looked comfortable on the extremely slippery track.
Lewis Hamilton was unperturbed, however — he only needs to prevent Valtteri Bottas from outscoring him by eight points or more to win his seventh title, and he’ll start ahead of the Finn, the pair qualifying sixth and ninth respectively
Does it reveal much for the race? With rain on the radar again and the track back to where it started Friday, it’s anyone’s guess how this grand prix will pan out.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
Distance: 5.338 kilometres
Lap record: 1:24.770 (Juan Pablo Montoya, McLaren, 2005)
Track record: 1:24.770 (Juan Pablo Montoya, McLaren, 2005)
Lateral load: high
Tyre stress: very high
Asphalt grip: TBC
Asphalt abrasion: TBC
Safety car probability: N/A
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 385 metres
Pit lane time loss: 17.3 seconds
Fuel consumption: 1.9 kilograms per lap
Tyres: C1 (hard), C2 (medium), C3 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.8 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.9 seconds
With very little representative running to base out strategic thinking, it’s difficult to forecast this race, particularly if the weather remains changeable.
But we can borrow a little thinking from Portugal, where the track was similarly slippery and ambient similarly cool. In particular the substantial difference in starting-tyre performance.
At Portimão there were enormous gains to be had off the line starting on the soft tyre, whereas those on mediums — in particular the Mercedes drivers — sunk down the order early. Only those extremely confident in their abilities to warm the tyres will risk the mediums.
Don’t expect the hard tyre to feature, whether at lights-out or during the race. Only a sudden burst of unseasonable warmth would make it an attractive option, because with ambient temperatures below 15°C and the surface wet from pre-race rain, the hard will be simply too difficult to warm up to be useful strategically.
The decision whether the soft or medium will be dominant tyre depends on the severity of graining and how confident the team is that it will or will not clean up. Friday practice suggested stick with the compound through the graining phase can deliver a decent improvement in performance over a longer stint, but an extended graining period in what is likely to be a short stint anyway may force teams into an earlier switch to the mediums.
But the medium will be difficult as an undercut tyre without rivals experiencing severe graining on the softs owing to warm-up. The first stop is likely to be a game of extending the stint, and only if graining is manageable but teams require a third stint will the soft come into play as a potential undercut opportunity at the final stop.
One final consideration: strategy wasn’t expected to be the defining aspect of the race result ahead of the weekend because this circuit ought to be very conducive to overtaking, as previous races here have suggested. However, but the state of the surface means deviating from the racing line, where the bare minimum of rubber has been laid down — and will continue to be laid down through the race — will be risky in trying to launch an overtake. This will particularly be the case with water on track — although rain-generated mistakes may make up for the difficulty racing off line.