Turkish Grand Prix 2010 - 12/06/10

On lap 40 of the Turkish Grand Prix, the 2010 Formula 1 season exploded. Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel who were joint-leading the world drivers’ championship and running 1st and 2nd in the race, drew up side by side in their constructors’ championship leading Red Bull Renaults on the approach to turn 12. The race leaders, the championship leaders, the very spearheads and pacesetters of Formula 1 2010, point-to-point, neck and neck, producing one very unexpected victor. But how did things reach that stage?

Having bagged a third successive pole, the Aussie was odds-on favourite to consolidate his position as the man on form. Vettel looked to have something for him right at the end of Q3 but a roll-bar failure meant he only lined up 3rd on the grid, the Red Bulls split by Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren. Jenson Button closed out the second row confirming the pace advantage of the Red Bulls who were flat through turn 8, and the McLarens armed with their effective F-ducts. They were followed by Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg, the young German again being pipped by the Old Man. Renault looked to be the 4th fastest team in Turkey all weekend with both cars sandwiching Ferrari’s Felipe Massa. Fernando Alonso again found himself facing a difficult race after making a mistake on what would have been his best lap and lining up 12th as a result, although he didn’t believe he had the pace for Q3. Sauber finally had something to cheer as Kamui Kobayashi made Q3, also Bruno Senna qualified his Hispania ahead of Lucas Di Grassi’s Virgin. After announcing their imminent split with Dallara, this is a major result for a team that has had dominion over the back row for most of the season.

As the lights went out, Vettel turned P3 to P2 by passing Hamilton before turn 1, but crucially Lewis regained the position slipping up the inside out of turn 2, hanging it around the outside for 3 and making it stick. A very important move in the race as it placed the McLaren between the Red Bulls, forcing the pace of the frontrunners to remain hot for the duration of the event. The significance and consequences of that fact would be felt for many days after the race. Michael Schumacher also fashioned a great start for Mercedes, passing Button around the outside of turn 1, but a repeat of Barcelona was avoided for Button as he re-took 4th place from Schumacher before the lap was out. The events of lap 1 clearly demonstrated how difficult it would be for any car to shake the McLarens. Elsewhere, Nico Hulkenburg and Sebastien Buemi came together on the opening lap in keeping with their seasons so far. After Buemi felt the need to make clear to the media that he finished ahead of his teammate in Monaco, 16th place in Turkey will rankle.

The first part of the race consisted of Hamilton very much keeping pace with Webber up front, the straightline speed of the McLaren bringing it into contention by turn 12 despite the time and ground lost in turn 8. Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button running 3rd and 4th also remained in close attention while rapidly dropping the rest of the field. Vettel was the first of the frontrunners to pit as Red Bull brought him in a lap before Webber and Hamilton pitted nose-to-tail at the end of lap 15. They would have departed nose-to-tail as well had Hamilton not had an issue with the left rear, allowing Vettel to nip ahead for 2nd place as the McLaren lost ground. Button stayed out a lap further and was closer to the leading pack as a result after his stop.

Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, who started the season with a great debut victory for the marque celebrating their 800th GP in Turkey, pitted early at the end of lap 11. This allowed him to leapfrog a number of cars ahead of him and put himself in the points after a disastrous qualifying. In a season of 7 races so far to have collided with Button and Schumacher at the start of the Australian GP, to have started towards the back and retired due to a bad tyre call in Malaysian GP qualifying, to have jumped the start in China, to have put the car into the wall in Monaco GP Practice when winning pace was evident, Alonso’s Turkish GP qualifying mishap marks one of the most error-strewn starts to a campaign the double world champ has ever experienced. It is a reflection of the bizarre happenings this year that Alonso is still well in touch with the championship leaders.

The suspense continued to build as Hamilton made advances on Vettel, forcing Vettel in turn to put pressure on Webber up front, exchanging fastest sectors and laps. A sense of anticipation was building unlike anything experienced so far this year, a certainty in the air that something cataclysmic would unfold at the front of the Turkish Grand Prix against a backdrop of possible rain. All the while, fuel consumption at McLaren was an issue as the pace turned out to be hotter than predicted. By lap 39 Mark Webber had been asked to turn down his engine, something he later alluded to in the press conference, while apparently Vettel had managed to eke out his fuel consumption a lap further. This allowed him to run the engine richer for a lap or so longer, thus bringing us to the point of convergence on lap 40. Vettel, having gotten a great run on Webber from turn 8 onwards, looked right then ducked left on approach to turn 12. Webber, as he has done to so many others, squeezed Vettel onto the marbles leaving just enough space for a solitary Red Bull RB6 which Vettel duly filled. Time slows down. Both cars maintain their line for a miniscule moment in time, or was it miniscule? How long was it for? A second? 10 seconds? Vettel moves half a car-length ahead, his rear wheels alongside Webber’s sidepod. Then, eager to elbow his way into a better corner entry, Vettel visibly turned the wheel to the right and drove into Webber’s side. Both were spat off the track, Vettel’s car with terminal damage, Webber requiring a pit stop. McLaren cannot believe their fortune as Hamilton and Button inherit the lead.

The gravity of this event may well be felt strongly throughout the rest of the season and throughout Red Bull Racing as it has highlighted that the much lauded team spirit in RBR isn’t quite the beacon of unity once believed. The extreme sports brand that turned itself into a serious F1 team now has a serious F1 problem. Red Bull motorsport advisor Dr Helmut Marko openly sided with Vettel, despite his protégé having a penchant for turning right on opponents (see Vettel vs Hamilton in Shanghai pitlane), and Christian Horner has had much smoothing work to do since. Webber had allegedly requested that Vettel back off, but his request was denied due to the close proximity of the McLarens. Neither driver has accepted any blame for the incident 2 weeks on.

That was not the end of the excitement at Istanbul Park as on lap 49 with both McLarens being urged to save fuel and look after their tyres amid a few spots of inconsequential rain, Hamilton was assured by chief engineer Phil Prew that Jenson would not overtake him after he turned down the wick. Hamilton backed off considerably through turn 8 allowing Jenson a strong run at him. He made a move around the outside of turn 12, which became the inside of turn 13 and the subsequent lead of the Turkish GP. Button’s compromised entry into the final corner allowed Hamilton the opportunity to re-pass him into turn 1 where after very light contact, he retook the lead. A demonstration to Red Bull as to how teammates battling for the lead should respect each other’s track position and anticipate a competitor’s whereabouts on the tarmac during such an occurrence. The contrast couldn’t be starker between the two sets of events, however McLaren were not to come out of the Turkish GP smelling of roses amid accusations of fuel saving and tyre management instructions being used as a disguise for team orders. The two McLarens proceeded to follow each other home to record their second one-two of the season, and Hamilton’s first victory of 2010. Lewis’s less-than-ecstatic demeanour after the race and the obvious confusion fuelled rumours of misunderstood team orders. Genuine fuel and tyre concerns remain McLaren’s official explanation for the confusion and backing off.

Behind the fortunate McLarens, Webber managed to hobble back to the pits for new tyres and a replacement front wing, while having enough of a gap back to Schumacher in 4th place to retain the final podium position. Schumacher himself held teammate Rosberg off again to finish just ahead. Behind the Mercedes duo, driver of the season so far Robert Kubica put on another solid show in his Renault ahead of Ferrari’s Felipe Massa. Fernando Alonso’s somewhat clumsy pass on Vitaly Petrov in the closing stages promoted him to 8th behind his stable mate, but Petrov needed to pit for new tyres due to a resulting puncture, dropping him out of a well-deserved points finish. Adrian Sutil passed Kamui Kobayashi as well late on, the latter scoring BMW Sauber Ferrari’s first point of the 2010 season.

So who exactly was the aforementioned unexpected victor of the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix? Was it Lewis Hamilton who showed enough pace and tenacity in Turkey and indeed all season to be deserving of the win regardless of the energy drink explosion ahead of him, giving McLaren the lead in the constructors’ championship? Was it Mark Webber, who in light of the ensuing intra-team drama and seeming marginalisation actually came out of the Turkish GP with an extended points lead in the drivers’ championship? Or was it in fact the millions of F1 supporters and fans who witnessed a magnificently tense race which for once actually had a fitting climax with equal measures of gasp-worthy drama and unforgettable side-by-side racing at the very front? One desperately hopes that in future, “fuel-saving”, “tyre management” and the forced reigning-in of F1 drivers’ competitive instincts by nerve-shattered team principals do not rob us of the very things that made the 2010 Turkish GP unforgettable.

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