F1's Euro visions
From qualifying quandaries to Turkish tyre tests, Tony Jardine previews F1's return to Europe.
Last Updated: 05/05/11 3:34pm
After three 'fly away' races in Australia, Malaysia and China the teams have enjoyed three weeks back at base regrouping and developing their cars in preparation for the start of an exhausting European leg at the challenging Istanbul Park circuit on the Asian side of the city.
Instead of operating out of massive flight crates and storage units, teams will have the comparative luxury of their own trucks crammed with technical equipment and HQ-linked engineering nerve centres as work areas.
Even the smaller teams such as Marussia Virgin have had time to update their cars and produce developments which they hope will drag them nearer to the front or ahead of their closest rivals.
Red Bull Racing and Sebastian Vettel are the pace setters leading the title chase with two wins and a second but Lewis Hamilton and McLaren were mighty in China, winning after his second place in Australia in March. The Briton is now just 21 points behind with 25 points awarded for a win and 18 for second place.
The challenge facing the refreshed teams is the 5.3 kilometre Istanbul Park track with its dips and rises as it spectacularly follows the contours of the land. The first turn is like the famous corkscrew turn at Laguna Seca in the USA and it is akin to the testing Senna S immediately after the start at Interlagos in Brazil.
Although the track has only been in existence since 2005 when Kimi Raikkonen won the first Turkish Grand Prix, its notorious Turn Eight bared its teeth biting the then leader of the race Juan Pablo Montoya sending him spinning out with just two laps left and handing the lead to the Finnish Ferrari driver.
Wind ahead to 2007 and GP rookie sensation Lewis Hamilton put so much pressure on his right front tyre on the fastest, longest corner in GP racing that his aggressive style caused his rubber to deflate and he had to make a pit stop, dropping to fifth as the race win went to Felipe Massa's Ferrari.
Turn Eight is four bends melded into one; 640 metres long with a triple apex representing 12% of the lap distance! Drivers are subjected to 4.5g which is as good as you can get in a swooping jet fighter.
Now Pirelli tyres degrade as designed, this will be a bend to try and keep your rubber in check. It could be that Jenson Button's smoother style will be kinder to the tyres although Hamilton along with the other top runners are learning fast about the characteristics of the 2011 rubber and how to manage them better during the race.
McLaren team mates Button and Hamilton enjoyed a close fight at the front last year, swapping the lead in spectacular fashion with Lewis winning but only after the biggest team clash of 2010.
Red Bull driver Mark Webber was leading when team-mate Sebastian Vettel pulled alongside him flat out between turns 10 to 12. They hit hard, after Vettel veered right, gifting the race to the McLarens and sparking a season-long rift between the Red Bull men.
Rule number one is not to take your team-mate out and team boss Christian Horner will be anxious for the pair to avoid each other in 2011. I am sure he will remind his drivers of 2010 asking them to fight the McLarens and Ferraris - not each other.
With high levels of tyre degradation predicted, McLaren's engineer Phil Prew reckons there could be at least three pit stops each. Rumour suggests some top teams may even consider avoiding the top 10 qualifying shoot-out to save precious tyres for the race.
That thinking comes after Mark Webber blasted from 18th on the grid in China to third by the race finish after problems in qualifying and that left him with three unused sets of fresh tyres for the race. However, McLaren have said that won't be their tactics as starting from the front is still the best strategy of all.
Ferrari would be happy just to be near the front after qualifying given their recent lack of speed and downforce. Desperation set in during the Chinese event as engineers poured yellow paint all over their rear wing to try and find out where the air flow was really going. Test and research at the Grand Prix is a last resort.
The team of the prancing horse have since blamed faults with their wind tunnel back in Italy but they will arrive in Istanbul with totally new front and rear wings. They have also decided to be more aggressive in their technical approach but I fear Massa will be unable to add to his impressive three wins in Turkey, nor will Fernando Alonso notch up his first win there unless the changes transform the Ferrari.
It is possible though for one of the Maranello men to take a podium if they create the right strategy and ensure they don't use up too many sets of soft tyres in qualifying by trying to keep pace with the Red Bulls or McLarens.
Ferrari have described their 'lack of performance' review as a 'cold shower' and expect to be reinvigorated. We shall see. Last year they endured a miserable first half-year and then turned it all around. They may have to do it again.
McLaren on the other hand have made impressive strides in catching Red Bull. They are now between three to five tenths-of-a-second away but will concentrate on Vettel's amazing qualifying speed to try and match them in Istanbul.
The team believe that RBR's technical wizard Adrian Newey has found a way of tuning the engine mapping over a single qualifying lap to produce even more exhaust gasses which when guided through the rear diffuser suck the car further the ground.
McLaren men Button and Hamilton will hope their engineers can fashion the same effect, but even if they do they won't use it in the race as that would risk engine reliability.
Sadly for the Williams team their dismal start to the season just became worse as Technical Director Sam Michael and Chief Aerodynamicist Jon Tomlinson resigned.
In a surprising move, the controversial former McLaren designer Mike Coughlin will take over before Michael and Tomlinson officially leave at the end of the year. Coughlin was found guilty as a McLaren employee of the receiving and passing of a secret Ferrari dossier in the 2007 spy scandal that cost McLaren a $100 million fine, the biggest ever in sport.
Coughlin has served a two-year ban from the sport and says he has learned his lesson. Scandal and controversy are never far from Formula One.