• Road Cars Help Improve Track Surface Grip Ahead of F1 Race in Turkey

Turkey returned to the F1 calendar for the first time in nine years

Lockdowns the world over have re-shaped the calendar of the 2020 Formula 1 season thus bringing to the fore tracks that either had never featured in the championship before or had been absent for a number of years. We’ve had races at Imola, Mugello, and Portimao and the F1 circus simply couldn’t leave Europe without staging a race at arguably one of the best Tilke-era tracks, Turkey’s Istanbul Park. However, track conditions have caused a myriad of problems for teams and drivers in the days leading up to the first Turkish GP in nearly a decade and one of the solutions found was ingenious to say the least.

World Champion Lewis Hamilton criticized the decision to resurface Istanbul Park

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forced the folks over at Liberty Media, the company that owns F1, to shift their strategy in real-time and scale back their globe-trotting aspirations in 2020. What should’ve been a world championship that reached five continents ended up being one that focused mainly on Europe, just like in the old days. This meant that tracks that would otherwise have never had the chance to host a GP got to shine on the calendar and Istanbul Park was on the list.

Going back to the old days

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The F1 World Championship is motorsport’s highest echelon pitting the most amazing four-wheeled contraptions against one another as they’re pushed to victory by the world’s best drivers. It all has to happen, at least in an ideal world, on the world’s best tracks but, frankly, we all know that’s not the case. Political and financial interests on the hand and F1’s need to reach an increasingly larger audience to stay relevant has seen the championship stage races in what long-time fans would probably consider unlikely countries.

We nowadays have Bahrain on the calendar as well as Abu Dhabi, Singapore, and Azerbaijan, not to mention the future introduction of a race in Saudi Arabia and the proposed (and then ditched) Grand Prix in Vietnam. But far-reaching travel restrictions have made it a logistical impossibility to travel to these exotic nations (not to mention the health risk involved in traveling around the world in the midst of a pandemic) meaning that F1 was forced to go back to its roots.

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If we look, for instance, at the 1970 F1 calendar we see that only 13 GPs took place that year as opposed to no less than 23 that feature on next year’s calendar. Of those 13 races, nine were in Europe, one was in Africa, two were in North America, and one was in South America. There was no race in Asia (Japan’s Fuji Speedway first hosted an F1 race during that fateful 1976 season), nor was there one in Australia and the reasons behind F1’s focus on Europe were multiple.

For starters, all of the teams were European (but that hasn’t really changed, save for the addition of Haas GP) and a grand majority of the world’s best tracks were in Europe. There were barely any tracks in Asia and those in Australia were deemed needlessly dangerous even in an era when danger was part and parcel of every race weekend (just watch old footage of places like Longford). Then there was the fact that F1 wasn’t being televised the world over. You usually had telecasts only in some European countries and maybe some highlights reels showing across the Atlantic.

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As the global appeal of this form of racing was still a few good years into the future, there were also no international sponsors to speak of that would push for a more varied calendar.

Lotus had just inked the first-ever full-blown sponsorship deal with Gold Leaf two years before and others were slowly realizing that there were many companies out there that wanted to have their names plastered all over the lithe bodies of single-seaters. Still, there were no on-site activations (not at first, anyway) and other things that we’ve become accustomed to in today’s racing paddocks. Oh, and most of the drivers were European too. Of the 25 drivers that scored points in 1970, only eight were born outside of Europe and half of them were New Zealanders.

Turkey’s back in but not without issues

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In spite of the sport’s obvious transformation over the years from a more localized affair to an international gig, fans and teams alike say they’ve enjoyed 2020’s European bias. Tracks like Imola, which last hosted a GP in 2006, were hurriedly welcomed back as was Istanbul Park in Turkey, a track that’d previously welcomed the F1 World Championship on seven different occasions between 2005 and 2011.

Measuring in at 3.31 miles, Istanbul Park is a 14-bend rollercoaster of a track that has always been considered to be a catalyzer for great racing.

It’s no wonder, then, that the last time F1 came here, the race featured the greatest recorded number of pit stops and overtaking maneuvers in a dry race in F1’s 70-year history. You’ve got areas like Turn 8, a long, sweeping bend often referred to as Diabolica because it’s sort of similar to Monza’s Parabolica is one of the track’s most distinguishable sections as well as Turn 1.

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Designed by Hermann Tilke, the German designer who’s basically behind all of the modern Grade 1 FIA-approved race tracks we’ve seen in F1 over the last 15 years (minus Portimao), Istanbul Park hasn’t seen that much racing since F1 left in 2011. The track welcomed the World SBK championship and some truck racing as well as some World RX action but even that was six years ago.

It is, then, no wonder that when F1 announced that Turkey’s back on the calendar, the track owners decided that it was high time for the entire course to be resurfaced. Prior to F1’s return to the Turkish venue, most of the drivers that are still on the grid today and that were also active back when Istanbul Park was last part of the calendar held it in high regard. But then again, that’s just four of the guys - Lewis Hamilton, Kimi Raikkonen, Sergio Perez, and Sebastian Vettel - with everybody else having to learn the track for the first time during Friday’s free practice sessions.

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However, this proved to be a harder task than most would’ve anticipated due to the recent resurfacing apparently making the track very slippery, a situation further exacerbated by the chilly conditions (just 65F on Friday). Motorsport.com reported that Pirelli, F1’s sole tire supplier, was informed that the organizers would resurface the track too late to act accordingly.

"Obviously we had the information about the resurfacing of the track quite late," said Mario Isola, Pirelli F1 Boss. "And we didn’t know about the characteristics of the tarmac [which is why] we have a tire choice that is quite conservative considering the condition of the Tarmac." Isola also added that Pirelli "was expecting a Tarmac that was more similar to Portimao, where we had smooth tarmac, with bitumen on top, and tires were able to develop some grip."

But that’s not been the case thus far with the situation being that "we had no grip, probably a combination of the temperature, the fact that it was damp, the type of tarmac, and the selection that is quite hard, the hardest that we can have." Having said that, Isola underlined that he feels this is "not a drama, in my opinion, because it’s an additional challenge for drivers." The Italian also said that Pirelli was informed of the changes merely four weeks before the GP took place which made it impossible for Pirelli to pick different compounds. "Basically we already produced the tires, and the tires were traveling to Turkey [when we found out about it]."

Driving on an ice rink

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You know how, if you were to drive on an icy road, your best bet to avoid spiraling out of control would be a set of studded tires with a thick thread? Well, F1 cars run on slicks that lack both studs and an actual thread. That’s why the times in Friday’s FP1 session were beyond lackluster, Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen’s 1:35.077 being slower than what Romain Grosjean laid down back in his GP2 days on the same course. Things improved massively during FP2 as the track got properly dry and Verstappen, who again led the way, reeled in a 1:28.330. To put it into perspective, the current track record is a 1:25.049 set by Sebastian Vettel in 2011.

Many drivers weighed in on the situation after FP1 and all of them complained of a comprehensive lack of grip, as RACER.com reported. McLaren’s Carlos Sainz, who’s currently eighth in the standings, reckoned FP1 stood out as "The strangest session I think I’ve done in my life, the strangest Friday," with the Spaniard adding that "You need to think that we were expecting here [lap times in the] 1:23s or 1:22s and this morning we were doing 1:45s."

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"It was drift school today - that was my birthday present and it was my first day of drift school ever! It was nice," said Lando Norris who relished in the "unique" conditions that he said were behind quite a few ’code-brown’ moments, especially at Turn 8. "I enjoyed it, it was really fun, but it felt more like rallycross than F1. But yeah, it does feel different from what we used to feel in general," chimed in AlphaTaurri’s Pierre Gasly who ended up seventh quickest in both FP1 and FP2. "We can see it with the gaps a lot bigger than usual," he added. Ultimately, there was more rain on the menu as the weekend progressed and, indeed, the race’s winners were those that knew how to judge tire strategy in the slippery conditions and among them, besides champion-elect Hamilton, was Ferrari’s beleaguered Sebastian Vettel.

Organizers scramble to fix things overnight, literally

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Haas F1’s Romain Grosjean joked on Friday that, perhaps, "everyone involved in F1 should get their rental car and go on track," to rubber it in between sessions. That statement, made during an interview was apparently taken into consideration and actually put into practice on Friday night. One of McLaren’s Garage Technicians actually tweeted a clip he filmed showing road cars thundering down the track’s start/finish straight.

This decision was taken as there’re no support races filling the bill this weekend in Turkey meaning that F1 cars are the only ones meant to lap the circuit throughout the three-day event. Usually, you’d have Porsche Supercup or Formula 2 also on the menu and the track would get rubbered up accordingly as those cars did their thing too. As it is, with no other race cars around to lap Turkey’s sole Grade 1 FIA track, we’ve been gifted these insane images of random street cars doing their best to add some rubber to the racing line to make it more grippy for qualifying and the race. Much of the work was essentially washed away by the intermittent showers through Saturday and Sunday.

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Defending F1 World Drivers’ Champion Lewis Hamilton found the initial conditions less-than-enjoyable. The Briton blasted the organizers whom, he believes, wasted money with the resurfacing. "They probably could have just cleaned it maybe," said Hamilton who added that the track, which he considers to be "such a fantastic circuit," became "terrifying the whole way around," on Friday, as reported by Reuters.

"The tires aren’t working, and you see it. It’s like an ice-rink out there," the Mercedes-AMG Petronas driver said during a weekend that ended with him grabbing his seventh World Drivers’ Title. In spite of all this criticism, the race’s promoter said his team "did our job right," adding that "officials told us not to allow any car to go fast on the track until now. Therefore, the asphalt has its own extra slipperiness. They intentionally asked us to do this, so drivers can determine their own racing lines."

Michael Fira
Michael Fira
Associate Editor and Motorsport Expert - fira@topspeed.com
Mihai Fira started out writing about long-distance racing like the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. As the years went by, his area of interest grew wider and wider and he ever branched beyond the usual confines of an automotive writer. However, his heart is still close to anything car-related and he's most at home retelling the story of some long-since-forgotten moment from the history of auto racing. He'll also take time to explain why the cars of the '60s and '70s are more fascinating than anything on the road today.  Read full bio
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