By Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent
Red Bull Racing once again demonstrated during the Turkish Grand Prix they are the team to beat this season, and although spectators are gradually getting used to the avalanche of pole positions and victories the Austrian team keeps producing, races certainly haven’t become boring as a result of Red Bull’s domination. The DRS (Drag Reduction System) once again proved what it is worth, but the winner of the race, Sebastian Vettel, only used it to get quickly past the many back markers he found on his way to his 13th career victory.
The extraordinary talented Vettel has lived up to the exactions ever since he won the Italian GP in 2008 for Red Bull’s Italian sister team, Toro Rosso, and scored the only Grand Prix victory in the 26-year history of the Formula One team that was originally founded in 1985 by Giancarlo Minardi. At Istanbul Red Bull scored their first one-two of the season, and Vettel is now comfortably leading the championship with 93 points out of a possible 100, with his nearest rival, Lewis Hamilton, now 34 points behind him.
Vettel again put his stamp on the Turkish Grand Prix in the way he usually does: he took pole position on Saturday, and got away first when the lights turned to green on Sunday. He only gave away the lead to Jenson Button when he pitted on lap 11, and was back in the lead again on lap 13 when Button made his pit stop. During qualifying, Red Bull was so confident they skipped the last five minutes of Q3, and both Vettel and Mark Webber watched the fruitless attempts of McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes to improve their time on the screens in the garage, saving an extra set of Pirelli Option (Soft) tyres in the process.
The overwhelming domination of the 23-year old German at the Istanbul Park circuit might be described as ‘a walk in the park’, but it was far from that. During a wet Friday morning practice session Vettel completely trashed his RB7 when he ran just a little bit too far on the curbs in the by now famous Turn 8. He lost traction on his right rear wheel and the 2010 World Champion became a passenger as his car helplessly slid into the barriers, causing so much damage his mechanics needed the rest of the day and night to rebuild Kinky Kylie, the nick name of his by Adrian Newey designed Red Bull.
Modest as he is, he apologized to his team and mechanics for causing so much extra work, but on Saturday morning everything was forgotten and Vettel was back where he usually is: at the top of the time sheets. He missed a lot of track time, and only put in 17 laps during the final free practice session, but he was nevertheless able to score a pole position a few hours later.
Despite his incredible performance, Vettel himself is adamant the other teams will one day close the gap to Red Bull. “We don’t know what happens next, so we have to take it race by race. There will be days when we are beaten for definite, but we need to minimize the loss -- but for today, it was a great result for the team,” he commented after the race.
Hamilton vs Button, and Heidfeld vs Petrov
Although there was no clash between the Red Bull drivers this weekend like last year when they collided just ahead of Turn 12 -- and thus a sure one-two victory went down the drain which also caused some animosity between the pair for the rest of the season -- there were other clashes between drivers of the same team this weekend. Especially the battle between Hamilton and Button was reminiscent of the battle that unfolded during last year’s Turkish Grand Prix. Both McLaren drivers made good use of the DRS and their KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) and switched position many times on the long straight and in the following Turns 12 and 13, but it was a clean battle and for spectators a joy to watch.
“The battle with Jenson was good and fair, as always, but that, and the fact that I had too much front-wing dialed into my car meant I struggled to look after the rear tyres,” Hamilton declared after the race. Button had a similar opinion, “My battle with Lewis was great fun and there was a lot of excitement on the track, but I was disappointed to finish where I did: the car felt very good but we just went the wrong way on strategy.”
Team principal Martin Whitmarsh was probably holding his breath while witnessing the battle on the pit wall screens, but as ever refused to give his drivers instructions that could be interpreted as team orders. “At McLaren Mercedes we've traditionally never sought to prevent our drivers from racing each other -- and they certainly did that today. It was good to see: they get on extremely well off the track, as I think everyone knows, but on the track they’re as keen to beat each other as they are to beat any other driver, and that’s the way it should be,” the Briton said.
Another man holding his breath on the pit wall must have been Frenchman Eric Boullier, team principal of the Lotus Renault team. His two drivers Nick Heidfeld and Vitaly Petrov had a slightly different approach, as they were seen wheel-banging while fighting for position, and just like the McLaren pair, they also made good use of KERS and DRS. Both drivers went into Turn 13 ahead of the start/finish straight side-by-side, and Heidfeld even had the time to wave his fist to show his discontent, and although neither of the cars were damaged, it later emerged Heidfeld in particular was not at all happy with the actions of his Russian team mate.
“I am not totally happy with the race -- I was stuck in traffic for quite a while, overtaking was difficult and Vitaly made contact with me,” Heidfeld said. And after a BBC reporter asked him about the incident he replied: “Yeah, that's not nice. It shouldn't happen. He just pushed me wide and we made contact. It's not a safe thing to do.” Happy or not happy, this sort of racing is what the spectators want to see, and the Lotus Renault pair provided the necessary thrills.
New strategies emerge in Istanbul
Before all teams headed to Istanbul, there was one thing that was still puzzling them: How on earth could Webber finish in third place after he had qualified in 18th position for the Chinese Grand Prix? The answer was simple: due to the fact he didn’t make it into Q2 because he tried to qualify on the harder tyre compound, he therefore still had two sets of unused, and one set of used, soft tyres. He and his team decided to go for broke, as they had nothing to lose anyway, normally 18th position is not a good position to start a race. Webber and his engineers ultimately decided to limit the damage and embarked on a mission to score as many points as they possibly could.
Webber started his race on the hard compound, to ‘get those out of the way’ as the Australian later described it, and on lap 10 he made his first stop to change to the softer tyres. His alternative strategy almost failed at that moment, as he was held up by back markers, but when they made their stop Webber had a free track ahead of him and he was able make up a lot of time. The rest has become history, while others were struggling on used sets of softs, or by the end of the race were on a set of hard tyres that were already were slower than the softs, he was able to march forward and landed a third place on the podium.
In Istanbul a number of teams adapted a similar strategy, and saved an extra set of soft tyres for the race. They also received a little help from above, because the rain that struck the circuit on Friday morning meant they could practice on the wet tyres and didn’t have to waste a set of slicks. McLaren had problems with qualifying and had to use a set of new soft tyres to get a decent spot on the start grid, something that later proved to be one of the decisive factors.
Pirelli had predicted three or four stops, and with so many teams making four pit stops, the work of the pit crew is now also an important factor that can make the difference between success or failure. The FIA officially recorded 82 pit stops, only three went wrong, Hamilton’s third pit stop took too long when a pair of cross-threading wheel nuts on the right-front wheel caused a delay.
When Hamilton finally wanted to take off, he was stopped by the lollypop man to avoid a collision with a car that just came in. Hamilton’s second pit stop took a little over 21 seconds, but the third stop took almost 36 seconds, thus this less than perfect pit stop cost the Briton 15 seconds. Massa also had a problem with his third and fourth stop, but only lost seven seconds.
Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali, “For sure we have never seen so many pit stops and so much overtaking.” But also added, “It is difficult to follow sometimes, and also difficult for the guys to manage because when you do eight pit stops for the team it is quite heavy and the pressure is high and you may have mistakes. It could be dangerous in certain situations.”
But not only the many pit stops were responsible for the excitement, DRS also contributed to the overtaking spectacle that unfolded in Istanbul.
DRS provides overtaking spectacle
At the start Nico Rosberg overtook Webber, who was on the dirty side of the track, and couldn’t find enough traction to keep the German behind him. Hamilton ran wide into Turn 3 and both Felipe Massa and Button overtook him. Sauber driver Sergio Perez ran into the back of Pastor Maldonado’s Williams and the Mexican had to pit for a new front wing. On the second lap, Michael Schumacher collided with Petrov, the seven-time World Champion had to limp back to the pits to replace his damaged front wing.
Not long ago Rosberg hailed the system as the ‘best invention’ in Formula One in decades, but might now have a slightly different opinion, as he was on at the receiving end in Turkey, meaning he now became a sitting duck for the drivers behind him who could deploy their DRS. By lap five Webber could overtake the German thanks to his DRS wing, and not much later Fernando Alonso and Button appeared in his rear view mirrors, Alonso also passed him without a problem before the first round of pit stops.
Once Rosberg also had pitted, Hamilton was next in line and had no problems at all to pass him on the straight. Rosberg would once more become a victim of the overtaking device as Massa was the next driver who passed him using DRS after a thrilling eight-lap battle.
After the second round of pit stops, Petrov, Massa, Button, Rosberg and Heidfeld were involved in a battle for sixth place, while at the front of the field Alonso and Webber were fighting for second position. On lap 28 Alonso made his move and took second place from Webber. But the game was not yet over and after Webber pitted for the last time, he could use his fresh soft tyres to gain on Alonso, and with just eight laps to go, it was now Webber who took back second place from Alonso.
While clearly DRS and the fast degrading Pirellis provided an excellent spectacle, the end result remained unchanged, Red Bull was in command of the race and Vettel and Webber crossed the finish line in first and second position. Alonso managed to hang on to third place, while Hamilton, Rosberg and Button completed the top six. All-in-all, for spectators and indeed for drivers and teams as well, the 2011 Turkish Grand Prix became a classic, with more overtaking and more pit stops than ever recorded before.
Not everyone is convinced the adjustable rear wing is the solution to the overtaking ‘problem’, as we have seen in Turkey, the device sometimes makes overtaking very easy. BBC commentators Martin Brundle and David Coulthard suggested the detection zone was perhaps too close to the start of the activation zone, which made overtaking very easy, and indeed most drivers had already overtaken the car ahead of them well before the start of the braking zone of Turn 12 where the activation zone ended.
An unexpected bonus of the DRS system is that drivers have to fight hard to get within that famous one second time window in the detection zone before they can deploy the system, and getting within that one second is sometimes just as difficult as overtaking itself.
Alonso thinks the new Pirellis tyres were also responsible for the on-track action, “The overtaking we saw was more from tyre-performance difference than DRS. I like it; we are getting used to it. It is a new Formula One compared to last year. When we followed Rosberg in the first couple of laps, it was impossible to overtake him but when he started to have tyre degradation it was very easy to overtake him. So it is more tyre-related.”
“It is what the people asked," said Alonso. "More show, more pit stops, more overtaking. It can be a bit confusing for people. You can follow the first five guys but you cannot follow the 14th place because it is already too many stops. But the important thing is lots of people in the grandstands and lots of people in front of the television, and hopefully this year it is better,” he concluded.
There are really only two options, Formula One will go for the “show” element which means drivers and fans will have to accept a certain amount of ‘artificial’ overtaking, or do what the Formula One purists want, let the drivers provide the show and ban all overtaking aids. This discussion will without a doubt continue during the rest of the season, in Australia the system didn’t work optimal, but in Turkey it certainly showed how much easier overtaking can be. The FIA is still experimenting with the system and in particular with the setup of the detection zone, and on other circuits different results are expected.
Ferrari fights back
Although it was business as usual for the Red Bull team, the Maranello-based Ferrari team finally scored their first podium finish, courtesy of Alonso. After three disappointing races, Ferrari has been doing some soul-searching the past few weeks, and have come to the conclusion they need a more aggressive approach, not only on the track, but also regarding the design of the car. Alonso started from fifth of the grid and moved to the front, on lap 7 he overtook Rosberg, and after his first pit stop was able to overtake Webber to take second place.
Today it was great to be back fighting for the top places
He then remained in second position until Webber pitted on lap 45, and joined the race in third position on a fresh set of soft Pirellis and overtook the Spaniard with just eight laps to go. Alonso was nevertheless happy with his podium place. ”I am pleased with this result, which is down to three weeks of hard work from the entire team at Maranello and at the track this weekend,” he said.
“Today it was great to be back fighting for the top places. We had come so close to the podium already in Malaysia and in China and today we managed to jump onto it.” But he also acknowledged it is still a long way until the end of the season, “This is only a first step: we must continue in this direction. Given the shape we were in at the start of this season, this is a great finish.”
Team principal Domenicali was happy he could finally report a successful mission to his boss Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo. “It’s been a very long time since we last saw one of our drivers on the podium and today, finally, we were able to,” the Italian said. And a clearly relieved Domenicali added, “Fernando drove a very nice race, to crown a great weekend on his part: he did not put a foot wrong and was aggressive when he needed to be and prudent when he had to manage the situation.”
McLaren struggles to find the right speed
After Hamilton’s surprise win in China McLaren traveled to Turkey with high expectations, but found they were not strong enough to match the pace of Red Bull and Ferrari. Button managed to top the timesheets during the second free practice session on a dry circuit, but qualifying was far less satisfying for the Woking-based team, Hamilton took fourth on the grid, Button was almost a second slower than pole winner Vettel and took sixth position.
Hamilton used five sets of tyres during the race, three used softs and two unused sets of hard tyres. He made a mistake during the first lap, and his third pit stop was a fiasco. “I got a pretty decent start but made a mistake on the opening lap and lost a lot of ground out of Turn 3 when I was trying to go around Webber. That was the defining moment of my afternoon,” he said. “If I hadn’t dropped behind Fernando and Jenson, I think I could have got up to third and battled for second in the race.”
Hamilton started struggling with his tyres and that was the reason McLaren decided to resort to Plan B, which meant he would make four instead of three stops. He also referred to his very long third pit stop, “Considering the time I lost at my third stop, I think we recovered reasonably well. I don’t think that made a huge difference to our overall finishing position, and I was quite happy with the way the car behaved once we’d taken out some wing.”
Button’s sixth place was nothing to write home about, and the 2009 World Champion was disappointed after the race. “It’s a pity to finish so far back after everything in the first stint seemed to go so well. Strategy-wise, I don’t think we got it right today. I was disappointed to finish where I did: the car felt very good but we just went the wrong way on strategy.” And added, “We didn’t [change our strategy], and I was able to put a couple of laps on everyone and my tyres still felt pretty good -- but I felt the next two stops were earlier than the tyres could have done, which is disappointing.”
Whitmarsh commented about the race in his usual style, “Well, we qualified fourth and sixth, and we finished fourth and sixth. And, although clearly we'd hoped to score considerably more than the 20 points we netted as a result, both our drivers drove hard and well all afternoon.” And he added, “Although we weren’t quite as quick as the Red Bull and the Ferrari this afternoon, Lewis’s four-stop race pace was strong; Jenson was the quickest of the three-stoppers, but with hindsight it probably wasn’t the optimal strategy and consequently he struggled a bit -- through no fault of his own.”
““So, looking forward to the Spanish Grand Prix, we’ll continue to push extremely hard from a car-development point of view, and we intend to be competitive in Barcelona.”
Next stop: Barcelona
After this thrilling race in Turkey it will be difficult to top the number of overtaking maneuvers or to equal the 82 pit stops that were recorded, but as always is the case in Formula One, tomorrow everything can change again. Back on European soil and with still two weeks before the Spanish Grand Prix, teams will have time to sort out their technical problems, apart from the race on the track, there is also a race against the clock to develop and produce new parts.
Barcelona is a completely different circuit and teams are hoping their upgrades will improve their results, and for Alonso it is his home Grand Prix, and a victory in front of a home crowd will be on top of his list. Vettel is of course also poised to win the race, but there is one thing he is already certain of: whatever happens, the youngest-ever Formula One champion will cross the finish line in Barcelona still leading the championship, as his nearest rival is 34 points behind him.