Massa's hat-trick at Istanbul Park

Felipe Massa-AP

From the outset it was clear that qualifying would be a private battle between McLaren and Ferrari, writes Alan Henry.

Lewis Hamilton's title challenge is back on track after a tactically astute and impeccably executed drive to take second place in the Turkish Grand Prix. This was despite being forced to make three tyre changes, rather than two, because of concerns about the safety of his tyres.

The Briton's McLaren-Mercedes split the Ferraris to finish the 58-lap race 3.7secs behind Felipe Massa and 0.2secs ahead of the hard-charging Kimi Raikkonen. Hamilton refused to buckle under tremendous and sustained pressure from the Finnish world champion, whose lead in this year's series was cut from ? nine points to seven.

Ron Dennis, the McLaren chairman, revealed that concerns about the durability of his team's Bridgestone tyres, one of which had failed on Hamilton's car during the race here last year, had forced Hamilton and his team-mate, Heikki Kovalainen, to use a three-stop strategy compared with the Ferrari drivers' two. Moreover Kovalainen, who had qualified in second place despite running with a heavier fuel load than Hamilton, had to stop at the end of the opening lap to change a rear tyre damaged when Raikkonen's front wing touched it at the first corner.

"It is a little unfortunate for Heikki," said Dennis. "He got clipped by Kimi at the beginning and cut a sidewall and saw the tyre was deflating so he had to stop for tyres. And with Lewis we had a bit of a structural concern on the tyres which we discovered in practice and we discussed it with Bridgestone and took a decision on safety to run three stops. We've taken a few points out of the leader and are competitive. We put drivers' safety first."

Massa could savour his third consecutive victory at the Istanbul Park circuit, making the Brazilian the first driver to score a hat-trick of wins in the same event since Michael Schumacher won four U.S. Grands Prix at Indianapolis from 2003-06, and is now level with Hamilton on 28 points. But Raikkonen, who grappled with a broken front wing for the entire race after his first-corner bump, still leads the championship on 35.

From the outset it was clear that qualifying would be a private battle between McLaren and Ferrari. The eventual pole winner, Massa, and Kovalainen and Raikkonen all opted for the softer of the two available Bridgestone tyre compounds, leaving Hamilton alone among the leading runners to use the harder tyre.

The 23-year-old Briton said he had hoped his choice would give him an advantage but he qualified only third, behind Massa and Kovalainen and alongside Raikkonen. But from the second row of the grid he rocketed straight into second place behind Massa as the pack sprinted for the first corner. The tempo of the race was immediately slowed, however, as the safety car was deployed so that debris from a first-corner collision between Kazuki Nakajima's Williams and Giancarlo Fisichella's Force India could be cleared from the gravel trap. The safety car was withdrawn at the end of the second lap, allowing Hamilton to launch himself into a determined chase of Massa's Ferrari. Robert Kubica's BMW was then third, with Raikkonen elbowing his way past Fernando Alonso to take fourth midway round lap three.

Massa quickly worked out from Hamilton's speed and the pressure he seemed able to apply that he was probably running with a lighter fuel load for the opening stint. Further evidence to back up that contention came when Hamilton made an early refuelling stop at the end of lap 16, leaving both Massa and the now second-placed Kubica to come in three laps later. Massa squeezed back into the battle 0.5secs ahead of Hamilton but the Briton's momentum was building and he stormed through into the lead on lap 24 before dropping to third at his second refuelling stop at the end of lap 32.

This left Massa and Raikkonen running first and second, but after the race leader came in for his second stop on lap 40, followed by Raikkonen three laps later, Hamilton had a 14.4secs lead, albeit with his third stop pending. That cushion was clearly not enough to hold Massa at bay but it certainly looked enough to keep Raikkonen under control.

At the end of lap 45, with 13 still to run, the oil-streaked McLaren juddered to a halt in front of its pit and mechanics pouncing on it with perfectly synchronised discipline to catapult it back into the fray 10 lengths ahead of the Finn's Ferrari. From then on Hamilton, despite being on the softer tyres which did not suit his car, never put a wheel a millimetre out of line all the way to second place at the finish. He claimed it had been one of the very best races of his career. Nobody watching was about to argue with that.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008