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Graham Read
Formula 1 Correspondent
2:17 PM 15th November 2020
sports

Hamilton Equals Schumacher’s Title Record In Turkey

Lewis Hamilton claimed a seventh Formula 1 drivers title in Turkey today and equalled Michael Schumacher’s long-standing record, his all-conquering Mercedes team having won all bar two of this year’s Grands Prix and having sealed its seventh consecutive constructors title at the previous race in Italy.

A seventh drivers title for Lewis Hamilton, with one for McLaren followed by six for the dominant Mercedes team
A seventh drivers title for Lewis Hamilton, with one for McLaren followed by six for the dominant Mercedes team
As the F1 circus set up camp in Istanbul the only remaining contenders for the drivers title had been the German outfit’s own two drivers, Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, with the former by far the hot favourite, and it was the British if longtime Monaco based driver who added a further victory to his CV ahead of Racing Point’s Sergio Perez and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, currently third in the championship, had looked on form in Turkey and was disappointed to finish only sixth, but did acknowledge that Mercedes had again done the best job, if playing down Hamilton’s achievement by saying “To be honest 90% of the field could win in Lewis’ car.” Verstappen’s father Jos, a former F1 driver himself, called on his son’s Milton Keynes based team to simply give his son a car fast enough to take the fight to Hamilton on an equal footing.

Formula 1 first raced in Istanbul in 2005 and last visited nine years ago. When it was added to this year’s much revised calendar there were plans despite the pandemic to allow upto 100,000 fans to attend, but these had to be shelved back in early October due to a rise in the number of coronavirus cases in the host country.

On the F1 news front Liberty Media had issued a provisional 23 race 2021 calendar on the Tuesday before the Turkish event, which is essentially as per my feature published back on 28 October, but with the removal of the intended April Grand Prix in Vietnam and a change of venue for the proposed race in Brazil in November. The schedule still has to be taken with a large pinch of salt though due to the unpredictable ongoing worldwide impact of coronavirus.

Vietnam’s government had advised Liberty Media and the FIA governing body that they now have other priorities for their resources next year due to the pandemic and this followed the arrest in August of the Hanoi People’s Committee chairman Nguyen Duc Chung after corruption charges involving state secrets. He had been the main local official looking to bring the sport to his country. Talks are already underway regarding a possible race in 2022, but this may well not come to be. This year’s inaugural Vietnamese Grand Prix at a purpose built new circuit in Hanoi never happened due to the spread of Covid and there are already various candidates to fill next year’s cancelled Vietnam date, including Turkey, Italy’s Imola, Portugal’s Portimão and even Sepang in Malaysia.

Vietnam (pictured whilst still under construction) is no longer on next year’s calendar
Vietnam (pictured whilst still under construction) is no longer on next year’s calendar
São Paulo’s Interlagos track, the longterm home of the Brazilian Grand Prix, seems to have saved its place on the 2021 calendar and for a further four years as a result of ongoing environmental issues afflicting the proposed building of a new circuit in Rio. It’s also ironic that, despite the ongoing domination of the Mercedes team, Formula 1 will not be racing in Germany next year just as it didn’t in 2015 or 2017, with neither the Nürburgring nor Hockenheim able to gain support from public spending.

Down in the Ferrari camp at Istanbul Park the familiar face of team principal Mattia Binotto was missing as he opted to experiment by running the team remotely whilst remaining back at the team’s Maranello HQ in northern Italy and over at Racing Point Perez was accepting that, if an opening at Red Bull did not materialise as a replacement for the under pressure Alex Albon, he may be forced to take a sabbatical from F1 next year.

Williams’ acting team principal Simon Roberts was another familiar face missing from the Turkish paddock, if for a very different reason to Binotto’s. Roberts had tested positive for coronavirus on the Wednesday before the event and so stayed in the UK self-isolating, this revelation following a previous announcement from the Grove based team that it was changing several members of its crew for Istanbul after other positive tests. Their young British driver George Russell was set for a challenging weekend too after the decision to replace most key parts of his power unit meant he would have to start from the back of the grid, whatever he achieved in practice and qualifying.

Elsewhere, there was great news that the all-female single-seater W Series will join the support bill at eight yet to be decided Formula 1 weekends next year after the intention to include two this season in the USA and Mexico had to be cancelled due to the pandemic. On the media front there was also confirmation that 55 year old Ben Edwards would be stepping down as the Channel 4 F1 commentator at the end of this season, having fulfilled the role since 2016 and before that since 2012 for the BBC.

Max Verstappen waiting to go on track and so hoping for a faster Red Bull car next year
Max Verstappen waiting to go on track and so hoping for a faster Red Bull car next year
When Formula 1 previously raced in Turkey it became universally accepted as a truly enjoyable challenge, so when the cars headed out on track for Friday morning’s opening free practice session it was time for the older drivers to reacquaint themselves with it and a new experience for the younger ones as driving a track for real always surpasses advance preparation on a simulator. However, cool temperatures and a distinct lack of grip meant there was little meaningful running. The timing clock still ran though and Verstappen and Albon topped the timesheets, with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Vettel sandwiching the fourth placed AlphaTauri of Pierre Gasly. Bottas was only ninth fastest, with Hamilton down in 15th after missing much of the session as the Mercedes mechanics worked on his car.

The cool, low grip conditions remained for the afternoon second practice period, but Verstappen maintained his earlier superiority ahead of Leclerc and the pair of black Mercedes. Hamilton didn’t hold back with his criticism of the recently relaid ultra-smooth track surface though, describing it as “terrifying the whole way around” and “s**t with a capital S”! Come Saturday’s final practice session heavy rain added to the drivers’ problems, but Verstappen still went quickest again ahead of Leclerc and Albon, with Hamilton and the Williams duo of Russell and Nicholas Latifi failing to set a time.

The conditions were extremely challenging as the drivers tiptoed round the slippery circuit at the start of qualifying and with rain forecast to fall again shortly everyone sought to set a time. At least it was the same for every driver and a great leveller where driver skill counts for more than car advantage. However, there is a point where it just becomes too dangerous and, even though Intermediate tyres were soon swapped for full wet weather ones, the race director Michael Masi stopped the session as the rain started to fall heavily again. In due course the action resumed with seven minutes of the first part of qualifying still to be completed, but further red flags soon flew after Romain Grosjean beached his Haas in the Turn 1 gravel. Eventually it was completed and it was a relief when the second part of qualifying ran without interruption, although it was scary to note it was allowed to start whilst Nicholas Latifi’s car was still being removed from a gravel trap by a rescue truck under yellow flags. A situation which brought memories flooding back of the awful incident at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix which resulted in the death of Manor’s Jules Bianchi. At least in Turkey Alfa Romeo was delighted to get both cars through to the top ten shootout whereas Ferrari had both cars eliminated.

There was more drama come the crucial final part of qualifying as Racing Point’s Lance Stroll, who’s come in for a lot of criticism recently, claimed a maiden pole position ahead of a clearly unhappy Verstappen. This ended Mercedes’ record of starting from pole position at every race this season and the second row was also to be a Racing Point/Red Bull affair as Perez and Albon made it their own. Meanwhile, Hamilton could only qualify sixth fastest in the difficult conditions, his best time being almost five seconds slower than Stroll. McLaren’s Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris subsequently received three and five place grid penalties respectively for impeding and not slowing for double waved yellow flags, whereas Stroll and his team were able to prove he did slow whilst passing his off-track team-mate.

Racing Point’s Lance Stroll was thrilled to claim his first ever pole position
Racing Point’s Lance Stroll was thrilled to claim his first ever pole position
With a three hour time difference between Istanbul and the UK, the Grand Prix was set to start at 13.10 local time today and so ten past ten on Sunday morning for those watching the race back in Britain. The weather was still a real challenge with a damp, greasy track, witnessed by Russell even crashing his Williams and damaging his front wing whilst entering the pit lane at slow speed before the race had even begun.

As the start time neared there was F1’s anti-racism message on the grid, with as usual some drivers opting to take a knee and some preferring not to. Various cars were set to start from the pit lane and that was probably no bad thing given the potential chaos at the opening lefthand corner. On a lighter note though, it was highly amusing to see several drivers on the grid literally jump and cover their ears when a Turkish F1 fighter jet surprised them as it blasted down the pit straight at relatively low altitude!

There’s always a real sense of anticipation before the start of every Grand Prix, something I never tire of personally, and this feeling is only heightened when the conditions are so unpredictable. When the red lights went out Stroll made a great start, whereas Verstappen made a dreadful one and we quickly had a Racing Point one-two out front. Hamilton also jumped up to third position before quickly dropping back to sixth and the star of that opening lap was Vettel who progressed from 11th on the grid to third place.

Soon the opening pit stops were being made as drivers, including all the frontrunners, reacted to the slowly drying circuit by switching from full wet to intermediate tyres. By lap 13 the Racing Point duo were still circulating ahead of the rest, with Stroll showing maturity beyond his experience, as a brief Virtual Safety Car period enabled the safe recovery of Antonio Giovinazzi’s retired Alfa Romeo. Verstappen soon had Perez in his sights, but an over-ambitious attack resulted in a high speed spin and demotion down to sixth position, followed by a second pit stop to offload his flatspotted rubber.

“You’ll be needing this, Seb”
“You’ll be needing this, Seb”
Race Control decided on lap 30 that the conditions were safe enough for DRS overtaking assistance to be enabled and just a handful of laps later both Vettel and then the still leading Stroll pitted for a second time for more intermediates as the track was still far too damp in places to risk slicks. Hamilton had been gradually picking up places and on the 37th tour made a DRS assisted move past Perez into the lead.

Significantly Hamilton and Perez opted to remain on their second set of tyres, hoping to have a one stop strategy unlike all their closest rivals, whilst on lap 41 Leclerc snatched fourth position from his Ferrari team-mate as they approached Turn 12. Three tours later the young Monégasque driver then usurped Verstappen for third, the latter pitting for more intermediates.

Bottas, who seemed to spend much of his Turkish afternoon spinning his Mercedes and particularly at the Turn 1/2 sweeps, suffered the ultimate ignominy with 12 laps remaining when he was lapped by the leading Hamilton. With Hamilton and Perez having last changed tyres on laps eight and ten respectively their intermediate rubber was becoming increasingly worn and slick-like, but Mercedes reassured their number one driver that there was no risk of a sudden failure.

However, with two tours remaining Mercedes called Hamilton in for a precautionary tyre change as he was far enough ahead of Perez, but he overruled his team’s strategy instruction, staying out on track and preferring to avoid the risks inherent with a stop which perhaps wasn’t essential. A lesson very much learnt earlier in his career.

As the chequered flag was made ready for the champion to be, we had further last lap drama as Leclerc claimed second place from Perez, only to lose it back and with Vettel nipping through into the final podium position too. So it was all smiles for the top three as Hamilton was delighted to match Schumacher’s title record, Perez was thrilled to show what he can still offer as he faces potential F1 unemployment next year and Vettel simply loved being back on the podium again after such a difficult season to date. Thinking ahead to 2021, Perez was at least aware though that Albon had only finished seventh, whilst longtime leader Stroll languished down in ninth. Eighth placed Norris claimed the additional point for the fastest lap.

Hamilton continued to display his unique dress sense in the Istanbul paddock
Hamilton continued to display his unique dress sense in the Istanbul paddock
In such difficult conditions it truly was a time for three highly experienced drivers to shine as Hamilton became the most successful British Formula 1 driver in history by an even larger margin. It remains to be seen whether his references to not knowing whether he will stay in the sport next year are for real, as this is far more likely a negotiating tactic with his Mercedes contract expiring next month and there being a large financial gap between what Hamilton is looking for and what his team and crucially its Daimler parent company want to pay him in these difficult pandemic affected times.

With both this year’s titles now wrapped up, there remains a pair of races in Bahrain to be contested before the usual season finale in Abu Dhabi. Mercedes is already the leading contender to win both titles again next season for an eighth year running before the arrival of new technical regulations and a further reduction in budgets in 2022, which it is hoped may jointly help to level the playing field more and increase competition within world motorsport’s highest category.

2020 Formula 1 Turkish Grand Prix

1 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1hr42m19.313s
2 Sergio Perez (Racing Point) +31.633s
3 Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) +31.960s
4 Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +33.858s
5 Carlos Sainz (McLaren) +34.363s
6 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) +44.873s
7 Alex Albon (Red Bull) +46.484s
8 Lando Norris (McLaren) +1m1.259s
9 Lance Stroll (Racing Point) +1m12.353s
10 Daniel Ricciardo (Renault) +1m35.460s
11 Esteban Ocon (Renault) Lapped
12 Daniil Kvyat (AlphaTauri) Lapped
13 Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) Lapped
14 Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) Lapped
15 Kimi Räikkönen (Alfa Romeo) Lapped
16 George Russell (Williams) Lapped
17 Kevin Magnussen (Haas) Lapped
18 Romain Grosjean (Haas) Retired
19 Nicholas Latifi (Williams) Retired
20 Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo) Retired

2020 Formula 1 Drivers Championship

1 Lewis Hamilton 307
2 Valtteri Bottas 197
3 Max Verstappen 170

2020 Formula 1 Constructors Championship

1 Mercedes 504
2 Red Bull 240
3 Racing Point 154