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F1: Turkey 2020 - fans get faceache from grinning with delight.

Publication: 
Bryan Edwards
chiefofficersnet

When we wrote, in early 2010, a satire suggesting that Bernie Ecclestone might improve F1's racing by adding sprinklers to tracks (here ) we didn't expect that a few weeks later he would actually say he thought it was a good idea (but he didn't mention that we'd already put it forward). But the idea gained new impetus with the 2020 Turkish Grand Prix which turned out to be almost a proof of concept - and in doing so produced a race that, visually, looked more like the crazy days of 1970s and 1980s racing before sticky tyres and near-unbreakable downforce turned the sport into an engineering arms race that is at least as important as the driver's skill.

There are days that beggar belief. While MotoGP was having its own drama in the sun in Valencia, across the border in Asia, Istanbul was in the grips of November rain. In both places, this season's Champions would be named. In MotoGP, it was the near-perennial underdog, Suzuki, that powered Jan Mir to a just-enough points finish with one race to go . In F1, somehow, on the weekend that was going to be the one that Lewis Hamilton proved that he is without doubt the greatest Formula One driver of all time (so far), the wheels (almost literally) came off.

The owners of the Istanbul track were one of those who were called upon to see if, in this madcap season, they could help save the series by effectively lending their circuit to F1. Whether they were paid is unclear but for sure they did not pay because they received no income from ticket sales. To their credit, they not only agreed, but decided that the place needed a sprucing up. What they didn't do was quickly dab white paint on the buildings and say "that'll do." No, they looked at the track, decided that in the eight plus years since F1 was last there, the surface had become scruffy and a bit bumpy, especially in some of the heavier braking zones. So they removed the bumps and laid a totally new surface, doing an excellent job of a quality that some other circuits could learn from.

But, there was one small problem: they didn't have much time and the work wasn't completed until about a month ago.

Here's where you need some personal experience to fully understand what that means. You know when you drive along a motorway after a new topping has been applied? You can see that it glistens. And if there's even a few spots of rain, you can see oil on the surface. You know that, if you hit the brakes, you are going to slide.

When the cars arrived in Istanbul on Thursday, that's what everyone saw. On Friday, they found out that F1 cars on slick tyres not only don't go around corners in conditions like that, they sometimes have trouble on the straights when the car is "unweighted" as it reaches a crest - and Istanbul has more than one crest, some of them in corners. To make matters worse, Pirelli - to whom no criticism attaches - had long ago specified that they would bring the three hardest compound tyres, largely to protect against the ravages of the awe-inspiring Turn 8.

Cars didn't skate: skating has more control than most cars had. On Friday, most drivers realised that they had no control over the outcome of their sessions and simply started to enjoy themselves. And so did we spectators. And then, on Saturday, the temperatures dropped and the rain cascaded down. That meant even lower speeds which meant that ultimate top power was a handicap, not a benefit and that the cars weren't going fast enough for the downforce to work its magic.

But one team wasn't having a fun time. By the end of qualifying, which had stoppages and delays, the grid bore no resemblance to anything "normal." For a picture of what qualifying has been like this season, do a search for - front row lockout 2020 - it's a litany of how one team, Mercedes, put themselves into a position at every event where the race was theirs to lose. But actually, Mercedes has not had plain sailing: the statistics belie the reality. There's what software designers would call a "feature" but the rest of us call "a bug." This year's Mercedes doesn't want to get out of bed on cold mornings.

That created the bizarre circumstance where Racing Point (which will, thankfully, change that silly name next year) held two of the top three grid slots with their (alleged) clone of last year's Mercedes while Mercedes, with their latest and best car, barely scraped into the top ten.

The race showed how fundamental design philosophies can change even between very similar cars. At the beginning, the Racing Points flew off into the distance, building a lead over the pack of more than a second a lap for most laps; then their tyres went off; then they didn't work on the new tyres. Bottas drove himself out of championship contention by a series of artistically lovely but race-destructive pirouettes. He would, long before the end of the race, be lapped by his team mate. Perez kept it on the black stuff and took the same gamble as Hamilton, a gamble that seemed obvious from the outset but which even Hamilton's team were uncomfortable with.

Because the only slick tyres were hard compounds (even this year's softs are hard compared to last year), the lessons from Friday had been that even on a dry track, it was slippery. Softer tyres were needed but there weren't any. So Hamilton and Perez made their own. While everyone else tried to keep their intermediate tyres cool, Hamilton and Perez beat them to death, getting rid of all the tread, turning grooved tyres into slicks. Only Lando Norris kept pace with them (actually was faster than them and everyone else) in the closing stages of the race. The gamble was that it might rain in the last lap and that would be disastrous. Hamilton defied his team's instructions to do a "safety stop" and to come in for a change to new tyres with one lap to go - he had far more than the predicted pit-stop time in hand over Perez. No, he said, we tried that in 2007 and it cost me a championship when I crashed in the pit lane."

What most people don't seem to have noticed is that, only half-way through the race when everyone else was struggling to sweet-talk their cars into going round and round, Hamilton adopted a contrary strategy: his angle of attack sharpened, his braking distances changed, he held his gears for longer and used throttle balance and physics to make the car behave in ways similar to those that it would normally behave. Was he using more power? It didn't seem like it - if anything it seemed like he was using less and gaining his speed from finding traction that no one else could find.

It was then, with cars genuinely handling like the heyday when wings were just becoming a thing and tyre tech was little more than slick or wet, that Hamilton showed why he is truly one of the sport's greats. It wasn't that he drove up through the pack in poor (but not terrible) conditions; it was that, in conditions that equalised everyone else because no one's car had any grip and, with 1000 horsepower in a shoebox, an excess of ambition over capability, Hamilton made the decision not to try to make the car fit the conditions, but to make the conditions fit the car.

The statistics tell stories that are so impressive that they lose meaning: another record equalled or broken more or less every week is, frankly, becoming a bit trite.

Yes, Mercedes have seven championships in a row; yes, Hamilton has seven not in a row. Yes he's beaten every record in F1 except the one he equalled yesterday. Yes, he's set standards that are beyond the beyond of ken: he's won a third of every F1 race he's started, for example.

And, for once, it wasn't the team that won the race. Yes, they gave him the platform but on that day, the platform really wasn't terribly important.

But that's just fan-boy, tribal stuff.

What really matters is that, once we strip away all the frippery, the symbolism and the politics one thing remains.

Hamilton is the most complete driver that I've seen since I started watching F1 in the days of Jim Clark,

Turkey 2020 was the day he finally proved it not in the record books but on the track.

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