Sunday, 11 May 2008

Turkish Grand Prix: Race Report

Felipe Massa has secured an excellent pole to flag victory for the third successive year with a fine performance, and played his way firmly back into contention in the title race. Behind him there was a fantastic scrap for second place between the two drivers currently at the top of the points standings, Raikkonen and Massa. It was a thrilling race with passing, some great wheel-to-wheel racing, and some fascinating strategy.

It was the perfect start for Felipe Massa who lead the pack down the very short straight into turn one, but there was the customary opening lap drama behind him. Hamilton got an excellent start and made it past his team mate to squeeze into P2. Kovalainen seemed to get off the line well but strangely bogged down and was falling into the clutches of Raikkonen and Kubica. Kubica made a successful pass around the outside but Kimi found himself boxed in on the inside and had to back out of the throttle. It wasn’t enough to stop coming into light contact with Kovalainen and caused a left rear puncture to the unlucky McLaren driver. As a result of Kimi slowing Fernando Alonso was also able to get past and into fifth place

At the back of the grid there was a rather nasty collision caused by Giancarlo Fisichella. From the back row of the grid he went steaming into the braking zone at turn one way too fast and launched his Force India right over the back of Nakajima’s Williams. In the process he also punctured ‘Mr Unlucky’ Sebastien Vettel’s tyre and damaged his own team mate’s front wing. In his defence there were cars jinking left and right in front of him, but a man of his experience should know better than to go screaming so fast into what is a notoriously tricky first corner. This is the third year in a row that Fisi has failed to make it past the first corner.

During the first stint there emerged a great battle for the lead at the front of the pack. Massa and Hamilton were in a class of their own as they traded fastest laps consistently, and rapidly dropped third placed man Kubica. Raikkonen was making a good recovery and managed to get back past Alonso, although in truth Alonso just gifted him the position. We know the Ferrari is the much faster the car, but it would have been nice to see at least some kind of a fight from a double world champion. Very disappointing.

Entering the first round of pit stops Hamilton was the first man to blink, coming in surprisingly early. He was catching Massa and in truth was probably being held up a little. Whether he was really completely out of fuel or decided to change strategy mid-race we will have to see, but it was a bold move to come in so early. It was a very short stop, and it looked like he was running a risky and very bold three stop strategy. Massa came in a few laps later and was able to emerge from the stop in front of Hamilton, but the young Brit had the bit between his teeth and with a lighter car was very quickly pressuring Massa.

Championship leader Raikkonen was the last of the front runners to stop, which put his qualifying performance into perspective somewhat, and he was able to get out comfortably in front of Kubica. Meanwhile, further down the field there was a snake of very close cars in the midfield with Piquet, Button and Glock and ahead of them Trulli was getting racey with Coulthard.

With his aggressive pitstop strategy Lewis Hamilton knew he had to get past Massa as soon as possible, and he did just that. Despite Massa taking a very defensive line on the long run down to turn 12, there was just a hint of a gap and Hamilton took it with a perfectly executed late-braking manoeuvre. With clean air in front of him for the first time Hamilton set about gaining as much of an advantage as possible, and he quickly romped away into the distance. This period would perhaps decide the fate of the race.

After another super quick pit stop from the McLaren boys Hamilton was back out on the track, but behind both Ferraris. It looked as though Massa had done enough whilst following Hamilton to be able to hold onto his lead and his incredible record at the Turkish Grand Prix. Hamilton though was within a couple of seconds of Raikkonen. The story of the race would now be about who would come out on top out of the two championship protagonists.

There was some fantastic racing further down the grid, facilitated by the excellent design of the Istanbul Park circuit. Kovalainen was fighting his was back through the field after his early puncture, putting some great moves on the back markers. He had one particularly good fight with Toyota’s Timo Glock, who is well known from his GP2 days as being one of the most aggressive wheel-to-wheel racers around. He wasn’t about to give up his position without a fight! Although the Glock did well to fend him off through the final complex of corners, Heikki was able to power past him down the pit straight. Either the Mercedes engine has a big horsepower advantage over the Toyota, or the McLaren has a lot less drag. Nelson Piquet also had a great duel with Jenson Button just in front of them.

After Hamilton’s final splash and dash style stop he emerged fractionally in front of Raikkonen. Now however he was on the soft tyres which he hated so much throughout free practice. Could Hamilton hold off the Flying Finn?

In the end he was able to keep the world champion at bay by just 0.4 seconds and secure his best result for quite a while. He has a huge debt of gratitude to his pit crew who put together three fantastic stops which enabled him to squeeze ahead of Kimi for the final stint.

The BMWs followed in fourth and fifth, but in truth they were nowhere near the pace of the leaders. They have definitely fallen back somewhat since the last race. Alonso put in a decent performance to beat Mark Webber fairly comfortably, and Nico Rosberg was the final point scorer. He had one of the best battles of the race with his old GP2 sparring partner Heikki Kovalainen, but eventually got back ahead of him after the McLaren driver’s final splash and dash. Coulthard finished ninth after a good race-long battle with fellow veteran Jarno Trulli.

In the end, after all the drama of the race the biggest thing we learned from the race was that Ferrari are no longer creeping ahead of the pack in terms of pace. McLaren have definitely pegged them back somewhat. This bodes extremely well for the rest of the championship. If there are plenty more close battles like this for the rest of the season then Formula One fans will be in for a treat!

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