After a nine-year absence Formula 1 will return to Turkey’s revered Istanbul Park this November. Lewis Hamilton only claimed one victory at the circuit, in 2010, but it was on his way to the top that he proved he was a megastar in waiting.
Back in 2006 Hamilton was already on the brink of a Formula 1 seat, courtesy of his McLaren backing, dominant Formula 3 title, and stellar performances in his rookie season in the GP2 Series – the category that morphed into Formula 2. He competed for ART Grand Prix, the junior powerhouse which is still owned by Alfa Romeo team boss Frederic Vasseur.
Hamilton held a comfortable title advantage mid-season but a tricky Germany round was followed by a disaster in Hungary. Rival Nelson Piquet Jr. claimed both Hungary wins and controlled Turkey’s Feature Race. The gap between the pair, once 26 points, was just six. Only three races remained – Turkey’s Sprint Race, and two events at Monza, Italy.
Hamilton was to start seventh, with Piquet eighth, for Sunday’s 23-lap Sprint Race at Istanbul Park. Hamilton went to his ART mechanics and pushed for a set-up that prioritised straight-line speed, knowing he would have to pass rivals to pick up major points. ART countered that the sequence of medium- and high-speed corners meant he risked not only relinquishing time but also spinning. ART had faith in Hamilton, who vowed that if he did spin, he would know where the limit was, and fight back.
“It was really easy to work with him,” Frédéric Guyot, who acted as Hamilton’s race engineer in 2006, explained to this writer a few years ago. “He always had a positive approach and always tried to make sure he got the maximum of each person working with him by being positive. He was the strongest on braking I had ever worked with. He could not believe he could be beaten in one corner so you could be sure the next time it was fixed.”
Hamilton’s race started badly. Piquet moved up to sixth, while Hamilton maintained seventh, facing the prospect of losing more points to the Brazilian. But if lap one was underwhelming, lap two was potentially disastrous. As he rounded the downhill Turn 4 right-hander the back end of the GP2/05 looped around, leaving Hamilton facing the wrong way. Hamilton re-joined in 18th position – narrowly avoiding rivals such was his eagerness – and what followed next was nothing short of remarkable.
Hamilton was 16th by the end of the lap. 14th on lap 3. 12th on lap 4. 11th on lap 5. 10th on lap 6. He bridged a gap that had opened and on lap 10 moved into eighth, on lap 12 into seventh, on lap 13 into sixth and on lap 14 to fifth. Title rival Piquet was only two seconds up the road. On lap 15 Hamilton dive-bombed Piquet to grab fourth, though lost the spot while trying to wrestle third from Timo Glock, and had to do it all again.
“I had great battles with Lewis, especially in Turkey, we were wheel-to-wheel, battling for a couple of corners,” said Glock, who claimed the 2007 GP2 title before taking Formula 1 podiums for Toyota. “It was hard but all the time fair. He was just charging through the field and nearly everyone didn’t really fight him. The trouble for me was we had the wrong top gear because from Saturday to Sunday the wind direction changed; we didn’t think it would be a big effect, so I was down on top speed and had to fight hard against Piquet. Then Lewis turned up and I had to battle the two of them. When Lewis attacked I was so pi**ed due to lack of top speed, I said ‘OK you are going to have a hard time passing me’. That’s what I tried and it turned out to be a great battle over a couple of corners side by side!”
Hamilton finally vanquished both Piquet and Glock to earn a podium spot, and then on the last of 23 laps grabbed second from Adam Carroll. He finished just three seconds down on winner Andreas Zuber. In a race with no pit stops, tyre variation or artificial devices Hamilton’s fastest lap was 0.854s better than anyone else’s.
“It was the most amazing race I’ve ever seen,” said GP2/Formula 2 CEO Bruno Michel, in an interview conducted in 2016. “To be perfectly honest everybody thought he was cheating because he was doing so well, but the guy was completely outstanding.
“I remember he started to be very impressive at the beginning [of the season], the category was new to him, he didn’t have much experience, so he was not putting everything together at the same weekend. There was always something, maybe qualifying, maybe first corner, and I had very early in the season the feeling that the day the boy put everything together he would be unbeatable and that’s what happened later on.”
Hamilton’s recovery meant he pulled out a 10-point lead over Piquet and he sealed the crown at Monza, with his graduation to a McLaren Formula 1 seat duly following. If there were any doubts over Hamilton’s ability they were surely quashed on that Sunday in Istanbul.
Since that GP2 show Hamilton has gone on to create his own records in Formula 1, taking 88 wins and 92 pole positions, and is already on course for another world title.
Turkey’s placement as the 14th of 17 planned rounds for 2020 means – considering Hamilton’s recent achievements in wrapping up titles early – it could well be the location for a coronation. But it would have to be quite the performance to surpass his exploits from 14 years ago.