It was not his race to win.
For almost two thirds of the Turkish Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton’s dominance over the field in 2020 appeared to have been neutered by a combination of virgin asphalt, heavy rain and temperamental tyres.
Hamilton, who had at one stage dropped as far as 20 seconds from the race lead, played only a supporting role over the first 200 kilometres around a soaked Istanbul Park.
But, by the time the chequered flag fell, the newly-crowned seven time world champion had made fools out of millions for entertaining the idea that anyone would upstage him on the day of his greatest achievement.
Poetically, Hamilton ascended to Formula 1’s most exclusive club at the same venue where his legend had arguably began before he even became a grand prix driver. His masterpiece of a recovery drive in the 2006 GP2 support race belongs in the pantheon of mythical performances from future greats, alongside Toleman driver Ayrton Senna’s exploits at Monaco or Jordan debutant Michael Schumacher lining up on the fourth row at Spa.
Now, Hamilton’s history will be forever tied to the Turkish track as the location for when he became only the second seven-time world champion in F1’s history.
Even before the sun rose on Sunday morning, the Turkish Grand Prix had already proven the strangest race weekend of this bizarre 2020 season.
An ill-judged and potentially unnecessary decision to fully resurface Istanbul Park a month prior had almost entirely robbed the fast, flowing circuit of natural grip. Friday practice was farcical, with grip levels no better in the dry than most venues would be in the wet, and lap times a risible 10 seconds off the 15-year-old benchmark.
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When the heavens opened on Saturday, qualifying became a lottery of tyre temperatures. Keep them in the narrow operating window and you would have an advantage over your rivals so great you’d make them look like they were racing in a different formula.
Just as no one had predicted heading into the weekend, it was Racing Point’s Lance Stroll who claimed pole position. Following a torrid run of bad luck and sub-par performances, Stroll had become the first North American driver to take pole in a world championship grand prix since Jacques Villeneuve during the infamous European Grand Prix of 1997 at Jerez.
“To put it on pole is a special moment for me and one of the biggest highlights of my career for sure,” said Stroll. Sadly for the 22-year-old, although he led more laps than anyone else, he did not come away with anything like the kind of result which looked possible for much of the race.
Any faint hopes the drivers had that Sunday may offer any more comfortable conditions were literally washed away as the clouds over Istanbul soaked the circuit for the second day in succession. With a steady downpour of rain in the hours before the race, it became clear that a wet race lay ahead.
Even making it to their grid slot proved fraught with danger. Having secured his best starting position of the season, Antonio Giovinazzi left the pit lane and rounded turn two at a speed that might generously be described as a crawl, only for his Alfa Romeo to break traction and send him gently skidding into the barriers. After a long wait for assistance, he was eventually recovered and allowed to limp back to the grid with a broken front wing.
George Russell further demonstrated how difficult simply keeping the car on the road was when he slipped into barriers on the entry of the pit lane, dislodging his front own wing.
“I came into the pits, I turned at slow speed and I just went straight on,” he explained. “I was tiptoeing around. Those laps to the grid was the least amount of grip I’ve ever experienced ever in an F1 car. Probably ever in my life, to be honest.”
Despite the chronic lack of grip and the standing water calling for full wet tyres, there was no consideration of a Safety Car start. When the lights went out to signal the start of the race, the scene was almost comical.
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There was very little grip on the racing line, but almost none off it, and cars floundered as they left the line. From second on the grid, Max Verstappen was swallowed up in the first 100 metres as he slipped briefly into anti-stall.
Esteban Ocon was one of the few to find some kind of traction and had major momentum heading to the downhill braking zone for turn one. Ocon tried to take his line, but with team mate Daniel Ricciardo to his left and Hamilton to the inside of the pair of them, there was an inevitable collision when the room ran out. A light tap from his team mate sent Ocon spinning.
Arriving quickly on the scene, Valtteri Bottas tried to take avoiding action and ended up looping his Mercedes in sympathy. It was the beginning of the end of his already vanishingly slim chances of beating Hamilton to the title.
The two Racing Points of Stroll and Sergio Perez had successfully converted their starting positions from the outside of the grid to lead the field through the first lap and into the unknown. Hamilton ran wide at turn nine and had to take the escape road, allowing Sebastian Vettel to slip by into third place having gained an impressive eight positions over the opening lap.
As Hamilton dropped behind the two Red Bulls of Verstappen and Alexander Albon, Bottas and Ocon had their second collision in half a lap at turn nine. The contact saw the Renault forced to pit with a puncture, while Bottas was left with front wing damage and misaligned steering on his Mercedes.
Hamilton was therefore virtually assured the title from the outset. The only question left was the manner in which he would take it.
The complex cocktail of track conditions meant that, on this wet track, keeping optimum tyre temperature was the single, overriding critical factor. With clear air ahead of them, the Racing Points took off at the front, just as they had in similar conditions in Q3.
By the end of lap three, Stroll was leading his team mate by six seconds, with the two pink machines over ten seconds ahead of Vettel’s Ferrari in third. Five laps in and the eventual winner Hamilton was 21 second adrift of the lead and struggling to make any kind of progress on challenging Albon ahead.
As the lack of grip offered no reasonable option other than rigidly sticking to the racing line, opportunities to pass on track proved few and far between.
With Charles Leclerc down in a lowly 14th place and no rain having fallen since the lights went out, Ferrari decided to gamble and called him in for intermediates at the end of lap six.
Immediately, Leclerc set the fastest middle and final sectors on his out-lap. Unsurprisingly, this prompted the rest of the field to pit and dump their full wets in favour of the green marked tyres.
Red Bull were the only team to hesitate. Verstappen had briefly been able to pick up the pace after he had been released into clear air by virtue of Vettel pitting. Moreover, the team hadn’t been able to unlock pace from the intermediates as easily as their rivals in qualifying. This was how Verstappen, having controlled proceedings until Q3, found himself bumped back to second on the grid by Stroll.
Verstappen was eventually brought in to make the swap at the end of lap 11, but was able to rejoin ahead of Vettel into third place and almost jumped second-placed Perez having made the most of the clear track.
Stroll’s ability to activate the intermediate tyres had won him pole position on Saturday and he appeared to be making them work for him once again out front. Perez began to drop back from his team mate and was now having to focus his attention on his mirrors and the pursuing Verstappen behind. Not that Perez was able to see anything in his mirrors due to the spray.
Rounding turn nine on lap 18, Perez made a mistake and presented Verstappen with an excellent opportunity to pressure Perez down the long back straight. Tucked up behind the Racing Point, Verstappen tried to stick close through the right hand kink of turn 11, but a combination of a damp track and aero wash from Perez ahead sent him wide and onto the ice-like artificial grass.
The Red Bull pirouetted through 540 degrees at over 200kph, but mercifully never left the track surface. With a five-second gap to Albon behind, Verstappen was able to safely stop on the side of the track and get his Red Bull going again – albeit now down in sixth. With his tyres ruined by flat spots, Verstappen pitted for a fresh set.
With no more pressure from Verstappen to contend with, Perez begin cutting into his team mate’s lead. But by this point, Racing Point’s advantage on the intermediates was beginning to evaporate. The leading pair’s lap times were now the slowest of all the cars in the top 10 and the front of the field slowly began to contract.
After such a strong and controlled first half of the race, Stroll was beginning to look vulnerable for the first time. “There’s so much wear, Brad,” he reported to race engineer Brad Joyce.
The notoriously graining-prone intermediates were starting to cause problems for a number of drivers. Ferrari remembered how effective their early call to bring Leclerc in had been earlier in the race and decided to be the first to try a second stop for intermediates at the end of lap 30.
Again, Leclerc was instantly quicker on fresher tyres. As he set the fastest lap of the race, Ferrari opted to bring Vettel in too from fourth. This finally released Hamilton, who had been stuck behind Vettel, biding his time and protecting his tyres.
After his team mate’s spin, Albon led the charge for Red Bull and looked quick enough to be a candidate for victory. However he faced the same problem as his team mate: a Racing Point with Mercedes grunt, no assistance from DRS, and even less grip off-line to attempt a pass. With Hamilton in clear air and catching him, Albon gifted the Mercedes driver third place by spinning at turn four.
Despite his lead, Stroll was clearly uncomfortable. Perez reported he was “losing a lot of time behind Lance” – a clear prompt for the team to take action.
Leclerc’s lap times indicated a second set of intermediates were a viable option. Racing Point called Stroll in, but when he queried the call told him to stay out.
After another lap the decision was made. “We should box this lap for a new inter,” said Joyce. “OK, it’s your call,” Stroll replied.
Hamilton had spent most of the race playing with different settings on his Mercedes’ steering wheel trying to find something that would unlock more performance. But eventually he’d found a configuration that worked and with a clear track, he began clocking a series of personal bests as the gap to Perez ahead shrank.
By now the track was dry enough that race control had decided to allow drivers to use DRS. Flipping his rear wing open on lap 37, Hamilton cruised up behind Perez on the back straight and was through into the lead before he had to touch the brake pedal for turn 12.
In what has become the defining feature of this 2020 season, Hamilton yet again began to disappear into the horizon from the moment he hit the front of the race for the first time.
While Hamilton’s worn intermediates, which were increasingly beginning to look like slicks, offered decent traction, former leader Stroll’s lap times were initially war worse on his new tyres. Over a period of six laps, he plummeted from fourth position down to eighth.
While Stroll struggled, Carlos Sainz Jnr was flying. For the first time all weekend, McLaren were finally finding their feet. After jumping from 15th to ninth on the opening lap, Sainz had kept his nose clean and was able to demote the hapless Stroll for seventh place. That soon became fifth at the expense of the two Red Bulls.
At this stage, Hamilton’s pace had been so consistent that his lead had already ballooned to 20 seconds. It may have seemed like the Turkish Grand Prix had been up for grabs for a large portion of the race, but by now it seemed clear that only a dramatic twist would prevent Hamilton from sealing his seventh title with a 94th career victory.
If Hamilton’s old intermediates were managing to hold on after over 40 laps, there were now question marks over whether Perez’s tyres in second would be able to hold on. The two Ferraris of Leclerc and Vettel were catching rapidly, consistently over a second a lap quicker than the Racing Point on inters that had done around 20 fewer tours of the Istanbul Park circuit.
As the laps began to pass and the finish drew closer, Leclerc was now close enough to Perez where he was now affected by the dirty air. He would be relying on a mistake to capitalise.
There was a final drama for Hamilton as the laps ticked down. The radars indicated a fresh cloudburst was incoming, and with his intermediates now almost bald, a sudden shower would be a perilous development. Mercedes readied a fresh set of intermediates and called him in for a ‘safety’ stop. Hamilton thought back to Shanghai 2007, and decided he didn’t want to risk the damp pit lane entrance with his well-worn tyres.
The rain stayed away, Hamilton navigated the final corners and took the chequered flag to secure his 10th win out of 14 races and the 2020 world drivers’ championship. This seventh title seemed to provoke a more emotional response in Hamilton than many that had come before it – perhaps recognising the magnitude of matching Michael Schumacher’s defining accolade.
But while Hamilton unleashed his emotions, an almighty scrap had broken out for second, half a minute behind.
Perez, his tyres finally crying enough, had run wide at turn nine, allowing Leclerc by on the exit of the next bend. But the Racing Point immediately tucked into the Ferrari’s slipstream and the pair ran side-by-side down the hill for the last time, Perez holding the racing line on the outside.
Leclerc hit the brakes at his usual mark with his usual severity, but in the midst of battle had failed to account for the standing water that remained on the inside. He locked up and ran wide, fortunate to not go off the track. It was a costly error as it not only allowed Perez to sneak back into second, but opened the door for Vettel to jump up into third too.
Perez won the drag race out of the final corner to cross the line in second and cap off a memorable weekend for Racing Point with the team’s second podium of the season. Vettel, enduring a miserable final season with Ferrari, reached the podium for the first time in more than a year.
Leclerc was incandescent with rage at throwing away a possible second place on the final lap. “I fucked it up in the last corner,” he expressed frankly after the race. “I’ve been good for one part of the race, but shit when it matters and that’s it.”
Team principal Mattia Binotto, observing proceedings from the team’s Maranello base, was swiftly on the radio to commiserate with Leclerc. Yet he offered not a word of congratulations to Vettel on equalling the team’s best result of the season.
Behind this late drama came Sainz followed by the two Red Bulls, led by Verstappen who passed Albon in the closing laps. The team’s 300th race had been a missed opportunity: A rare opportunity for a win or even a one-two slipped through their fingers.
Lando Norris finished eighth, having easily been the quickest man on track in the closing laps. He later explained that his intermediates had worn so low, he had effectively been driving on slicks by the end.
In a race that promised so much, ninth place was a gut-punch for Stroll, who’d seen the tyre performance that had helped him to pole position and early lead of the race completely abandon him for reasons unknown.
“It’s frustrating when you’re in the lead by 10 seconds and all of a sudden you finish ninth,” he said, dejected. “I don’t understand how that happens.”
Ricciardo took the final point for Renault in 10th. After such an unusual weekend, the Australian hoped the sport wouldn’t face similar circumstances again.
“We didn’t really get to push an F1 car this weekend,” he explained. “Sure, it made it tricky and exciting, but it was hard to get a lot of satisfaction out of it from a driving point of view.”
Surely no one enjoyed the race less than Bottas. Coping with a damaged car from the start, he spun no fewer than six times. Yet his second-fastest lap time of the day suggested that even if beating Hamilton was out of the question from lap one, a better finish than 14th was possible.
But one driver who had found the race intensely satisfying was the newly-crowned world champion, Hamilton. Having embraced his crew, Hamilton described his achievement as a realisation of a lifelong dream.
“We dreamed of this when we were young, when we were watching the grand prix,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to do this if I didn’t join this team and the journey we’ve been on has been monumental.”
Having moved into the Mercedes seat vacated by Schumacher in 2012, Hamilton has taken just eight seasons to match his predecessor. Alongside him on the podium, Hamilton’s most respected rival, Sebastian Vettel, encapsulated the sense of how the most successful driver in the sport somehow always seems to find a way to win.
“He took the win in a race where maybe he wasn’t supposed to win,” Vettel said.
It was a Turkish Grand Prix that will be remembered for so many reasons. Formula 1 cars may never turn a wheel at this track again, but it will remain a venue which has played a role in one of the most remarkable victories of the era – and one of the sport’s greatest ever achievements.
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