Analysis of the Turkish Grand Prix brought to you by Bahrain International Circuit
Even the most casual follower of F1 would probably notice that there is something special about the 2021 season. Almost without exception, every race has been mesmerising from start to finish. We’ve had surprise winners, the championship could not be closer and wet weather continues to cause chaotic racing in the latter part of the season.
So, when F1 arrived in Turkey, with a weather forecast suggesting plenty of rain, several drivers having to change engines and take grid penalties, and just two points separating the top two in the championship, the ingredients were there for yet another classic.
The debate on whether Lewis Hamilton would follow in Max Verstappen’s move of the last race to change engine components and take a grid penalty didn’t last long. At the start of the week Mercedes confirmed that those changes would be made for Turkey, resulting in a 10-place grid penalty for the world champion. Whilst that gave Verstappen and Red Bull a confident start to the week, conditions were generally pretty damp in Turkey and this year has demonstrated all too well the uncertainty that rain can cause in race conditions.
In qualifying, Mercedes showed an incredible, and almost surprising, level of pace compared to everyone else on the grid.
Whilst Hamilton took pole, his penalty dropped him to 11th on the grid. Crucially, however, his teammate qualified ahead of Verstappen, so the start was set to be more critical than ever. The key question therefore, would be whether Bottas could hold position at the start and how quickly Hamilton could get through the field from 11th.
Others to watch out for at the start were Leclerc and Gasly in fourth and fifth and an impressive sixth for Alonso, who is usually notoriously quick off the line. Add to that difficult tyre choices from the wet but drying track and there were a lot of unknowns on how this race would unfold. And if there is one thing that makes for a top class F1 race, it’s uncertainty…
As expected, everyone started on intermediate tyres. Bottas looked solid off the line, holding Verstappen at bay by about 1.5 seconds. Leclerc, Perez and Gasly were only a little further back.
After a measured start, Hamilton took a couple of places early, helped by an Alonso spin. He then went about his business moving up the field in a way only a seven times world champion can do. He took Tsunoda and Stroll on consecutive laps with ease, closely followed by Norris. Within just 10 laps he was up to six, running quickest overall and in many cases over 1.5 seconds a lap faster.
By lap 35 he had reached Perez, delivering a highlight of the race as the two battled over several corners, with Perez desperate to help his teammate by holding up Hamilton. He did a phenomenal job on that, whilst at the same time demonstrating the skill of holding position safely at such high speed in difficult conditions.
A couple of laps later, most drivers realised their tyres were on their last legs and pitted for fresh intermediates. That was all except for Vettel, Hamilton, Leclerc and Ocon. Vettel made a bold call for some slick tyres and probably realised before he even got back on track that it wasn’t going to work.
Both Leclerc and Hamilton were going long, with the hope that they would not need to stop at all. This left Leclerc leading, with Bottas second and Verstappen third, both of which had enjoyed a rather calm and uneventful race.
By lap 47, however, Leclerc’s tyres ran out so he came in for a fresh set and came back out in fourth. Hamilton was also called in but refused his team orders. However just three laps later Hamilton was ordered in, took a fresh set, and lost two places. It was a big call. Some would say potentially too conservative, as Ocon managed to run the whole race on the same tyres. Clearly there is no way of knowing whether Hamilton’s would have done the same but Mercedes was taking no chances.
So, it was down to Bottas to take the chequered flag for his first win in over a year. He described it as one of his best races ever, which is understandable given he raced with such composure.
Verstappen in second joked after the race that his biggest challenge was trying to stay awake, given how little action he saw. Perez, in third, drove a superb team drive.
With Hamilton not improving after his pit stop, his fifth place means that Max Verstappen retakes the Championship lead by six points. One wonders how much that conservative call to bring him in late could cost them in the final championship standings.
After a week off, F1 heads to Austin for the US Grand Prix.
* Laurence Jones is head of Marketing and Communications, Bahrain International Circuit