Lewis Hamilton set the pace in both practice sessions for this weekend’s Turkish Grand Prix, despite knowing he will take a grid penalty for introducing new engine parts into his pool for the season.
In FP1, he was four-tenths faster than championship rival Max Verstappen, while Charles Leclerc was five-hundredths behind. While in FP2, Hamilton continued to set the pace but Leclerc narrowed the gap to a tenth and a half while Valtteri Bottas was third.
Mercedes ahead of Red Bull
It looks as if Mercedes again are slightly ahead of Red Bull this weekend, but we expected that and we know the times are tight. This circuit I think is a high speed and high downforce one which favours Hamilton in my view he has always seemed to go very well at but we know he has a grid penalty.
Hamilton said following practice he was pleased how his car felt through Friday’s running in Turkey but recognised that he faced a big challenge fighting his way back up the order in the race.
Hamilton said, “We started off with a really good set-up. The first session was really strong. We made some changes, and the track obviously is evolving and feeling different when you get into the second session.
“[We] made some changes which were OK. I’m not sure it felt as good as it did in the first session in the second session. But we’ve got lots of good findings. So we’ll hopefully take those forward with us into the next one.”
Asked if he was 100% happy with his car’s feeling on Friday, Hamilton said he was “fairly close”. If he does run a normal qualifying and take pole I think we would ask questions about why this wasn’t delayed until Mexico City where we know Verstappen and Red Bull are incredibly strong, but this we know is a power circuit.
He said that despite him needing a setup that will allow him to overtake, the team would not lose total focus on setting it up for qualifying due to the importance of a good qualifying position. Last year we know in those mixed conditions there was a lot of overtaking in the race, so setting the aero upright is going to be key but we know the Mercedes doesn’t like dirty air.
Mercedes opted against taking a complete set of power unit elements for Hamilton as it did not believe it was necessary, avoiding a back-of-grid start that Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas faced in Russia.
His main challenge in the race is going to be trying to pass the McLaren’s, Ferrari’s and Alpines’s, that very close midfield pack can be difficult to overtake with Hamilton struggling to pass them in Sochi.
Hamilton takes grid penalty for engine change
Hamilton may have set the pace in both practice sessions, but he will take a ten-place grid penalty after Mercedes decided to introduce a new ICE unit into his pool of engine parts. His fourth ICE of the season means he exceeds the number which are permitted within the regulations.
However because its one element of the power unit change, it means he will avoid a back-of-the-grid start that title rival Max Verstappen served at the last race in Russia. The seven-time champion set the pace however in both FP1 and FP2 but if he takes pole in qualifying he can start no higher than tenth.
Hamilton played down the possibility of an engine penalty coming into the weekend, Mercedes had told Sky Sports that they wanted to avoid taking reliability “risks” in the championship battle against Verstappen. But with seven races to go, Mercedes were fearing a retirement later in the season.
Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin explained “There’s a balance of the risk of a reliability issue, obviously the thing you definitely don’t want to do is fail during a race and then have to take a penalty anyway, and then there’s the performance element because the Power Units do lose a bit of a horsepower over their life.”
Verstappen struggles with “mish-mashed” balance
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said a “balance mish-mash” was at the heart of Verstappen’s Friday struggles. The Dutchman was heard in FP2 complaining about balance in his car and finished sixth behind teammate Sergio Perez and six tenths off Hamilton.
During the session, Verstappen’s main struggles appeared to be understeer and he reported “strange” behaviour in the corners. Horner says that the team didn’t get the car into the right window as track conditions improved, something he said the team would have a long night ahead to get it right for Saturday.
Horner explained to Sky Sports, “We’ve got a little bit of a balance mish-mash. The circuit is a lot grippier than it was last year, I think we’re just a little bit out of the window with Max on set-up.
“It’s going to be a busy night burning the midnight oil with the engineers and back in Milton Keynes as well.”
Asked if he was confident the team would rectify the situation, he said: “I think so, it’s just understanding the issue. We know we have a good car, so it’s just a matter of getting into that window and I don’t think we hit that today.” However, Horner is confident that the team can get the car into the right window to take advantage of Hamilton’s midfield start.
Sainz disappointed with penalty with strong pace
Carlos Sainz says he is disappointed that he will start from the back of the grid thanks to an engine change after seeing teammate Charles Leclerc’s strong pace. In practice, we saw most of his focus be on long runs, while Leclerc on low fuel looked to be good and potentially ahead of McLaren.
Leclerc was rapid on Friday, having set the third-fastest lap in FP1 and the second-fastest time in FP2 behind Lewis Hamilton, but urged caution concerning Ferrari’s pace.
Sainz told reporters “I am excited; maybe a bit less, because now I see where Charles is in the low-fuel and you see that he could be fighting for a podium, then it makes me a bit regret the fact that I’m not going to be there on Saturday to fight for it and on Sunday to fight for it.”
“It just makes me feel a bit more down, just because I wish I could be there up with him [Leclerc], fighting for higher places, looking at where the pace of the car is this weekend.”
He said he was less excited and he only did a few laps on low fuel just to get a reference, but the majority of his running was on high fuel to understand the tyres and degradation.
But despite going third fastest, Leclerc urged caution explaining that the track got faster and he believed that there was more to come from the teams rivals because of the grip.
Adding “on high-fuel it’s been looking good, so everything looks positive for now. But again, it’s only a Friday, so for now I want to keep my head down, keep working as hard as we can, to try and fine-tune the car, to have a perfect quali tomorrow.”
Istanbul “a completely different F1 circuit” this year
One of the talking points going into this weekend was whether the circuit would have improved after last years race, where most drivers complained about the track surface.
In the build-up to this years race organisers water blasted the venue to try to improve matters. The changes appear to have worked, with drivers reporting a huge step up in grip levels from the very start of FP1 and you could see through out practice there was more grip and lap times started to improve from the very start.
Lando Norris says the changes to the circuit meant that the feel was a world away from what he experienced last year. Saying “It is quite different to what we had last season. I feel like it is five or six seconds faster than what we did last year. It feels like a completely different circuit. It is cool one and a good challenge.”
Norris actually underestimated the improvement, looking at FP1 last year the improvement was eleven seconds while in FP2 it was five seconds.
Speaking about his experience, Hamilton said: “Yeah, much, much different. I think last year was a brand-new surface, and I think oil came up, and they cleaned it off before. So I didn’t really know what to expect when I went out there today. But jeez, so much more grip than we’ve ever had before!
Pirelli admits going too aggressive on tyres
Pirelli F1 manager Mario Isola admits that the company has gone “too aggressive” on its compound choices. Following the complaints from drivers last year the tyre manufacturer decided to move the tyres one step softer, however, that decision was made after the race promoter decided to water-blast it, a process that has helped to generate more grip.
In practice today drivers suffered graining on the softs, and Isola believes that teams will now try to avoid using them in the race if they can. Teams will probably only have data gathered today when they plan their strategies for qualifying, as Saturday’s FP3 session is likely to be wet.
Qualifying could also be wet, meaning drivers would then have a free choice of tyres for the race, with Isola believing the choice of tyres was aggressive and was made before they were aware of this superficial treatment that they were planning. So looking at the data from last year, we decided to go one step softer.
Saying “The soft is quite an aggressive choice. And I believe that some teams were using the soft today just to get rid of them, and focus on the medium and hard for the race, if they want to plan a one-stop strategy.”
Although it is common for the fastest drivers to try to go through Q2 on the medium rather than the soft, Isola believes that more will attempt to do so this weekend, encouraged by a relatively small delta of 0.3-0.4s between the two.
Adding, “I believe that we will see more than two or three cars trying to qualify on the soft, because the delta lap time between the soft and the medium is very small. So it’s not like one second, where you take a big risk to go through Q2 with a medium instead of the soft, with this small difference, probably more cars are trying to qualify on the medium compound.”
Gasly explains “short arms”
Pierre Gasly finished in the top ten in both sessions showing decent long run pace, but he was not satisfied as his “short arms” message suggested. He finished eighth in FP1 and ninth in FP2, where he also had a spin, sparking this response referencing the handling of the car.
He told reporters, “It’s just a balance issue, I was not happy with the balance with a lot of understeer and it was just a way of explaining myself!. At the moment we just need to analyse everything. For sure [the balance is] a limiting factor, I believe not only for us, but we know that we need to improve it if we want to be faster tomorrow.”
Alpha Tauri finished the session behind their main rivals Alpine, but that hasn’t stopped Gasly saying he would like to target the French manufacturer. There was only a tenth between the two teams, which he says the team will try and find.
Teammate Yuki Tsunoda had a marked improvement in the session improving from eighteenth to finish less than than a tenth behind on his first outing in Istanbul. Saying from what he understands that the track has improved.
He added, “I’m really enjoying the track currently. I was watching last year’s onboard and I think between last year and this year, they did a little bit of treatment on the surface and I felt there was clearly a difference in the grip level compared to last year and it was really fun.
“I’m also improving the pace compared to previous races, which is good, and I just have to focus now and put it all together. This time it seems like I have good pace, so I’m just going to try and maximise this opportunity and aim for Q3.”