F1 heads back to Europe-Turkish Grand Prix Preview

Formula 1 returns to its European heartland this weekend with the Istanbul Park Circuit playing host to round four of the 2011 season.

With the initial “fly-away” races completed a picture has started to develop of what to expect throughout the year but that picture could change dramatically over the coming weeks with the “ground war” set to begin.

The Istanbul Park Circuit

The Istanbul Park Circuit is a rarity-a Herman Tilke designed circuit that is loved by fans and drivers. While many “Tilke-tracks” have gained a reputation as dull and featureless the Turkish track has received unanimous praise.

Much of the reason for this praise centres on the exhilarating Turn 8 complex but the entire lap is challenging.

The first corner is an off camber left hander where the track falls away from drivers on the exit before leading immediately into turn two. This opening sequence of corners has led to numerous first lap crashes in races and with 24 drivers vying for space on Sunday this weekend’s race should be no exception!

The Turn 3, 4 and 5 complex is a challenging slow speed section where finding the right line can lead to a very fast opening sector but once drivers leave this series of corners their attention starts to drift to Turn 8.

The triple apex left hander has gained a reputation as one of the true tests for a Grand Prix driver. Measuring in at 640m and with 5G loads through the car and driver it is clear why this corner has become known as a test of precision, nerve and ability for the world’s best drivers. The minimum speed through the corner is 260 km/h and drivers spend over eight seconds navigating the complex.

Speaking about the circuit it is clear that Mark Webber loves the challenge of taking on turn 8:

I like Istanbul Park – there are a lot of undulations” said the Australian, “which makes the track a little bit more challenging in places. The circuit includes Turn 8, which is a very, very long corner with multiple apexes and is very high speed, which puts added strain on the tyres and the drivers’ necks. It’s also a corner that rewards accuracy with your racing line if you get it right early in the corner.”

Even though Turn 8 gets the majority of attention the task is far from over for drivers once they are clear of the corner. Turn 9, a slow second gear corner, is of far more importance to the overall laptime because it leads on to the long back straight. Drivers will be utilising KERS on the exit of this corner once they are no longer traction limited.

Lewis Hamilton, last year’s winner in Turkey spoke on the challenges of the slower corners:

Of course, everyone talks about Turn Eight, which is a fantastic corner, but I also love late-braking into Turns Nine and 12, because you can get the car into the corner while still carrying quite a bit of speed; and getting it right is really satisfying.”

 What are the main talking points ahead of this weekend?

Last week news spread of the uncertain future of the Turkish Grand Prix with Bernie Ecclestone looking for a vast increase in staging fees if Turkey is to continue hosting Formula 1 in future years.

The organisers have been tasked with doubling their fee to $26 million and they are obviously sceptical of the benefits of a race that does not even manage to break even at present. Attendances are poor at the circuit each year with crowd sizes falling below 40,000 in the last two years. As a result it is very difficult to see how Turkey can justify an event that fails to attract tourists to the city.

It will be interesting to see the attendance figures this weekend as another poor showing would make it all but inevitable that this will be the last race at this majestic circuit.

The terrible start to the season at Williams has led to a massive internal shakeup at the team. Technical Director, Sam Michael, will leave the team at the end of the season having agreed not to renew his contract.

The Australian is very highly regarded within the Formula 1 community and while his initial years with Williams were quite successful the team has been in a downward spiral since losing BMW engines in 2006. After performing well last year it was expected that they would continue to build on their potential and much was expected of the new car.

It’s failures on track left the team with little choice but to make drastic changes and ultimately the buck stopped at Michael’s door. He will be replaced by Tom Coughlin.

Coughlin will return to the sport after spending recent years in exile following a two year ban for his involvement in the Spy Gate scandal of 2007 when he was the chief designer for McLaren. This is a risky move by Williams but it shows the ambitions of the squad.

It would be impossible for Formula 1 to return to Turkey without thoughts turning to last year’s clash between Webber and Sebastian Vettel. The Red Bull teammates will once more be in prime position to battle at the front of the field but there is little chance of fireworks between the pair again this weekend.

The main battle will, once again, be fought out between Red Bull and McLaren with this weekend’s race set to give a great insight into what to expect in the initial European races. All the teams will bring the fruits of their work for the last month to Turkey and how these parts work is crucial for how the championship will develop.

Formula 1 2011 revolves on tyres

The key factor in performance in 2011 is quite clearly the Pirelli tyres. If a driver can maintain tyre life he can gain a huge advantage but if a driver can avail of fresher rubber for the majority of the race, as Webber did in China, the advantage is such that they can overtake with ease and move through the field unchallenged.

Speaking of the challenges facing the Italian tyre manufacturer Paul Hembery said:

“Turkey is one of the most important events of the year for us, as we have had our production facility at Izmit for more than 50 years now. As well as hosting some very important guests this weekend, we’re also looking forward to what should be a spectacular race on a stunning circuit.

“Istanbul Park should provide the tyres with one of their toughest tests of the year, because of the high-speed corners, abrasive and bumpy surfaces, and huge forces that act on the cars. The fearsome reputation of Turn Eight is in every way justified, and this should contribute to relatively high levels of tyre wear.

“I expect us to see three pit stops per car, but of course it will depend on the individual strategies that the teams choose to adopt, which have become an important feature of the races so far. While temperatures in Turkey are normally warm, the initial forecasts that we have received suggest slightly cooler conditions than usual, so I think we’re all in for another very intriguing and exciting weekend.”

What to expect this weekend

Even though the results show that Red Bull is still awaiting its first Turkish Grand Prix victory there is little doubt that the fastest car at Istanbul in recent years has hailed from Milton Keynes.

The collision between Vettel and Webber in 2010 has been discussed in great detail for the last year and overshadowed the advantage that the pair enjoyed over McLaren throughout the race. The year before a mistake by Vettel on the opening lap let Jenson Button through to take a lead that he would never relinquish.

This year it is crucial for the team to put their ghosts to rest and win this race but McLaren are sure to be strong and if Ferrari’s upgrade package works well they should also be competitive. The Prancing Horse has barely broken out of a canter in qualifying but their race pace is quite competitive.

Mercedes showed signs of improvement in China with both drivers performing well en route to points scoring positions. Their DRS is still proving troublesome but they could be quite competitive this weekend.

Sauber look set for another competitive showing and they should be well placed to take a handful of points ahead of the likes of Force India, Toro Rosso and Williams. The big challenge facing Sauber is whether they can challenge Renault this weekend. Renault started the season in great form but the coming races will be of utmost importance to Renault as they look to develop what is clearly a fast car.

Strategy for the Turkish Grand Prix

As Hembery said three stops is likely to be the norm but this race could allow Sauber to spring a surprise with another alternative strategy. For the first time in his Formula 1 career Sergio Perez will race at a circuit that he has previously raced at and the Mexican could be well placed to score the first points of his career in Turkey.

Pitstops will take in the region of 23 seconds this weekend so if Sauber, or any other midfield team, can make their tyres last for a two stop strategy it is clear that they could be well placed to take advantage of their contrary strategy.

Turkey has generally seen close racing with the average margin for victory just over six seconds. With the Pirelli tyres set to offer a challenge for the leading drivers once more this weekend another close and exciting race is to be expected.

Istanbul weather forecast

Rain is expected on Friday with the weather improving throughout the weekend. Scattered showers are expected on Sunday but with temperatures of 15C expected it could be a struggle for the track to dry out if there is rain.

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