At the start of the week Mercedes suggested that lap times in the 1:20s could be feasible upon Formula 1’s return to Istanbul Park after a nine-year absence.
Back then Sebastian Vettel set a pole position time in the 1:25s and given the increased level of downforce there was the expectation that the ferociously fast 2020 cars would fly around Istanbul Park.
After all, in 2020 Formula 1 was seven seconds faster at Spa-Francorchamps and five seconds quicker at Barcelona compared to the pace-setters of 2011.
But on Friday at Istanbul Park the 2020 field struggled for overall pace.
In FP1 Verstappen’s best time was in the 1:35s, which was slower than the time needed to take pole position in the GP2 Series in 2011.
Times improved in FP2 – but Verstappen’s best effort was still only in the 1:28s with the slowest driver, Nicholas Latifi, still in the 1:33s.
It left drivers disappointed at being unable to unleash the high-downforce 2020 cars at a fantastic venue. But why was it the case?
The resurfaced track
Formula 1 visited Istanbul Park between 2005 and 2011 but since its departure the circuit has not remained a regular on the world stage.
The venue’s last FIA-recognised top tier event was held in 2015 and as a consequence organisers opted to renovate the entire track surface following confirmation of the return of the grand prix.
It meant an exceptionally dark track surface from which there was bitumen and other oils still escaping – and which provides little in the way of grip – with the situation exacerbated by it only being finished within the last few weeks. It was not helped by a bizarre decision to wash the track in the build-up to the weekend’s action.
“It was a bit of a disaster today to be honest,” said World Champion Lewis Hamilton. “This track is such a fantastic circuit and I really don’t fully understand when they spend millions to resurface a track.
“I know it’s been sitting around for some time but they could have just cleaned it maybe, instead of wasting all the money. Now the track is worse than Portimao was when we had the brand new surface there. So for us at least, the tyres aren’t working. You can see it, it’s like an ice rink out there and so you don’t get the enjoying of the lap as you normally would at Istanbul and I don’t see that changing.
“For some reason this surface is so smooth, a lot of the older circuits, are a lot more open between the stones, so it works the tyre more. This one is super closed, flat and shiny and I guess there’s oil seeps from the tarmac.”
The situation was also accentuated by the event taking place in November, meaning air temperature is only around 15c, while the sun does not warm the track surface as it would in the summer months.
“I’ve never experienced a day like today in a race car before,” said Williams’ George Russell.
“In FP1 I was 15 seconds off the pace and that was true. But in FP2 the high fuel pace was strong.
“We’re still 10 seconds off our projected times that we were planning. I felt like if it was wet I’d be faster than the laps I’d be doing in the dry. When you have new surfaces they always react very bizarrely and no-one has been around here on this new surface… I can tell why.”
Pirelli brought the hardest tyre compounds from its range of five dry weather tyres to Istanbul Park largely on account of the high energy it expected through the four-apex left-hander of Turn 8.
But drivers struggled to get the notoriously sensitive tyres into their ideal operating window, particularly the Hard tyre, while several had to negotiate a graining phase on the Soft tyre – which this weekend is the C3.
Second-placed Charles Leclerc set his best time towards the end of a 15-lap stint on the C3 tyres, whereas at other venues the rubber would be wrecked after just a couple of push laps.
“10 years ago we had a completely different situation, different tyres, different compounds and different cars, so we are looking at this circuit as a new track,” said Pirelli chief Mario Isola.
“We made our simulation considering this circuit as a new track and yes, obviously we had a look at the data from 2011 but I believe they are not very relevant, so maybe yes [we should have gone softer].
“We know that Turn 8 is quite severe on the tyre. The rest of the circuit is not so heavy, so severe on tyres. Knowing the characteristics of the tarmac in advance, yes, maybe it was good to go one step softer.”
AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly explained that the tyre “is playing a big factor, we can see it with the gaps a lot bigger than usual, if you get the tyres in the right window you can really extract the performance,” with Russell suggesting “if we get it right… there’s going to be seconds between cars.”
Hamilton labelled the Hard tyre as “completely useless, the Medium is so-so, and the Soft is staring to get better.”
Pacesetter Verstappen was also downbeat about the situation. “We did go a bit faster from Hard to Soft but it’s just the grip on the tarmac. For sure, you can stick even softer tyres on but then they will grain to death so that’s not the solution.”
“I ran the Hards this afternoon and I was about five seconds off the pace on Kevin [Magnussen] on the Mediums,” said Haas’ Romain Grosjean.
The lack of support categories
Friday’s practice sessions were not the first occasion in Formula 1 history that the drivers have struggled for grip.
But typically Formula 1 is joined by support categories, usually Formula 2 and Formula 3, and regularly another series as well – as was the case upon the championship’s last visit to Turkey in 2011.
However at Istanbul Park Formula 1 is by itself – an unusual occurrence but one that means there is no track activity outside of the official sessions.
It means it is down to Formula 1 and Formula 1 alone to improve the ‘green’ surface and to lay down rubber.
“Usually they contribute a lot to the track evolution and they’re not here this weekend,” said Haas’ Kevin Magnussen of the junior divisions.
“The track was rubbering in more and more,” added Williams’ Nicholas Latifi. “I think I was going through Turn 8 quicker on my high fuel run than my qualifying simulation!”
Will it stay this way across the weekend?
It will improve with each passing lap but given the cool conditions and the limited running it is difficult to envisage that there will be seismic strides – and there’s even a risk that Saturday’s action could be more challenging owing to the risk of rain in the region.
“You just saw this morning it was already a little bit wet and it took forever to dry,” said Kimi Raikkonen, victor of Istanbul Park’s first race in 2005. “If it’s wet, then normally with the new surfaces it’s even more slippery, so we’ll see what happens.”
On the prospect of wet weather Red Bull’s Alexander Albon quipped that “it’s going to be bad, it’s going to be bad. I haven’t thought of that to be honest. I think we’re going to struggle a lot.”
“If you’re off line, the grip level is back to what it was this morning,” added Grosjean.
“I think it’s 10 to 12 seconds slower than what we’re doing right now – if not more. Maybe the rain cleans it? There is a high chance of rain tomorrow, maybe that can clean the track, maybe it can make it worse, it can get the oil of the new tarmac out. I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.”