F1: Lewis Hamilton races to a record-equalling feat

Lewis Hamilton snatched victory at Istanbul Park from sixth on the starting grid as the drivers around him floundered on race strategy.

Lewis Hamilton snatched victory at Istanbul Park from sixth on the starting grid as the drivers around him floundered on race strategy.   -  REUTERS

All Lewis Hamilton needed to do was finish higher than Valtteri Bottas at the Turkish Grand Prix. Instead, the British racer captured a record-equalling seventh Formula One World Drivers’ Championship with a drive that highlighted an aspect of his abilities that has very often been overshadowed by his Mercedes machinery’s pace and reliability — race craft.

In a rain-soaked weekend that seemed headed for Red Bull domination, one in which he struggled through the three free practice sessions and then qualifying, Hamilton snatched victory at Istanbul Park from sixth on the starting grid as the drivers around him floundered on race strategy.

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In the end, Hamilton finished more than half a minute ahead of second-placed Sergio Perez and even lapped the only driver who still had a mathematical chance of denying him the title — his Mercedes team-mate Bottas, who never recovered from a first-lap spin and crossed the chequered flag in 14th.

Tyre miscalculation and changing weather conditions

Pirelli brought its three hardest compounds for the Turkish GP. The tyre manufacturer had expected dry weather over the weekend, and it later admitted it had not known the track had been resurfaced just two weeks before the race, giving it a smoother surface that would have suited the softer compounds.

Consequently, lap timings in the first free practice sessions were a full 20 seconds slower than what the cars were expected to clock in qualifying (Remember: this is F1, where thousandths of a second matter). Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Alexander Albon topped the standings in FP1 and FP2, and were split by Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc in wet conditions in the third free practice as Hamilton failed to set a time.

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Verstappen looked set to take the first non-Mercedes pole position of the season in a damp qualifying session, but the Racing Point’s cars — with Mercedes engines — were there to upset the Red Bull apple cart. Sergio Perez topped the sheets for most of Q3 as Verstappen didn’t get the grip he wanted while also being stuck behind Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo, and then Lance Stroll pipped the Dutch prodigy by a quarter second for the first pole position by a North American driver since fellow Canadian Jacques Villeneuve at the European Grand Prix in 1997, the year he won his only world title. It was also the first pole position for Racing Point under its current identity, which it adopted at the beginning of the 2019 F1 season; the team’s last pole came as Force India at the 2009 Belgian Grand Prix.

Stroll pulled out at the front at the start and led team-mate Perez as a slow-moving Verstappen dropped from second to eighth, while Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel surged from 11th to third. As the track dried, Leclerc stopped on lap six for intermediate tyres, triggering a series of early pit stops. Verstappen, meanwhile, was among the last drivers to switch from wets to inters, and while the decision allowed him to leapfrog Vettel after the pit stops, it compromised his race strategy — and signalled a reluctance to change tack by the most dynamic team in F1. Verstappen wasn’t helped by a spin on lap 18, and he had to pit again on his way to an eventual sixth-place finish, one ahead of his team-mate Albon.

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Stroll — who finished ninth after damage to his front wing necessitated another tyre change — led the first 36 laps of the race, and his team-mate Perez briefly took over at the front a few laps later. But Hamilton, who had been biding his time behind Vettel and Verstappen till then, closed in on the Mexican driver from second and soon took the lead, one which he kept extending till the end of the race.

Keeping his head down

Amid the drama surrounding the other racers, Hamilton stayed within sight of the lead and was up to second, behind Perez, by the time all the drivers in the top 10 had finished their first pit stops. Both Perez and Hamilton — two drivers with superb tyre-management skills — opted for a one-stop strategy, but the Mexican pitted much earlier for intermediates on a drying track, on lap 10, which allowed the world champion to easily get past and build a sizeable lead.

The win was the fourth in a row for Hamilton and his 73rd with Mercedes — the most with a single constructor, one more than Michael Schumacher’s tally with Ferrari.

In contrast, Bottas had a race he would like to forget. He spun six times, the first on the opening lap itself. The Finn started the race needing to score at least eight points more than Hamilton to keep the drivers’ championship alive. Now, with three races to go, he is left defending third place from Verstappen, who is 27 points behind with a maximum of 78 available.

Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas steers his car out of the track during the Turkish Formula One Grand Prix at the Istanbul Park circuit.   -  AP

 

Verstappan and his Red Bull team-mate Albon were the other big losers in Istanbul. The Dutch driver recovered to third after dropping to eighth at the start, but he made a dog’s dinner of an overtake attempt on Perez for second and flat-spotted his tyres, requiring an extra pit stop.

The biggest winner on a topsy-turvy day was a driver without a racing seat for next season. Perez’s second place matched his best F1 result, which came at the Malaysian Grand Prix way back in 2012. The Mexican jumped from sixth to fourth in the drivers’ standings, three points ahead of Leclerc and four ahead of Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo.

But Ferrari’s third- and fourth-place finishes were the biggest surprise of the 2020 Turkish Grand Prix, with Vettel getting the jump on team-mate Leclerc — who already had two podium finishes in the 2020 season in a massively underperforming team — after the latter went wide while trying to pass Perez on the final lap. Ferrari, F1’s most successful team, is a lowly sixth in the 2020 constructors’ table, only narrowing the gap to the three-way battle for third spot between Racing Point, McLaren and Renault in Istanbul, with Vettel nearly doubling his points tally for the year with his first podium finish since the 2019 Mexican Grand Prix.

And while Stroll was voted driver of the day, the most understated performance came from McLaren’s Carlos Sainz Jr. The Spaniard, who replaces Vettel at Ferrari next season, exhibited an ability to master changing conditions — after all, his father is a two-time world rally champion and three-time Dakar Rally winner (including earlier this year at the age of 57) — as he clawed his way from 13th on the grid to a fifth-place finish.