F1: Round 7 – Istanbul, Turkey – 30 May

Well, what an extraordinary race. It’s one of those Grands Prix that on paper looks like a processional affair with only a few changes in running order, punctuated by a couple of noteworthy incidents; and yet in practice, the experience of watching it made it perhaps the most edge-of-the-seat, pure racing F1 events of the year.

What made it so thrilling was the way qualifying had left the two main rivals, Red Bull and McLaren, interleaved in the front two rows of the grid; and that McLaren had proved to be far closer to the pace of the Red Bull here in Turkey than in recent races. Battle seemed to be most definitely on.

Unfortunately for McLaren, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button had qualified on the dirty side of the track off the racing line, 2nd and 4th respectively, and it gave Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel a key advantage at the start, with Mark Webber leading Sebastian Vettel into turn 1.

But Hamilton wasn’t going to let that stand, and into turn 2 he counterattacked and took the position back from Vettel, who had clearly overextended himself. Behind him, Lewis’ team mate Jenson Button was also struggling, getting overtaking by a daring move around the outside of turn 1 by the old master Michael Schumacher. It took Jenson a little longer to undo the damage than it did Lewis, but on turn 12 of lap 2 he simply out muscled the multiple world champion to reclaim third place.

While Hamilton went all out on the back of Webber – and looked the faster car for much of the opening stint in a fascinating and at times thrilling battle for the lead – there were incidents further back. Sebastien Buemi pitted for new tyres at the end of lap 1 after sustaining a puncture, and Nico Hulkenberg was also in for running repairs after a clash with Adrian Sutil on turn 1.

Pitstops began with Kamui Kobayashi on lap 11, whose fresh rubber translated to a threat for Fernando Alonso who responded quickly by pitting himself on the following lap. After the pit stops filtered through he would find himself behind Vitaly Petrov, a driver that Alonso’s race engineer quickly dismissed as not a problem for long but who in fact bottled up the Ferrari for much of the remaining race.

The leaders didn’t start pitting until lap 15 when Sebastian Vettel came in, and then the following lap the two leaders – Webber and Hamilton – came in together. It looked like a golden opportunity for McLaren, but in fact the pit box placements and the regulations governing “safe release” were against them – Webber was already running down the pit lane again and too close for Mclaren to usher Hamilton out ahead, and so they lost precious seconds waiting for Webber to pass. Not only did it mean Hamilton failed to take the lead, the delay meant he returned to the track behind Vettel who had been putting in a fast lap on his fresh rubber.

By mid-distance, the race had settled into two distinct groups, with the top four (Webber, Vettel, Hamilton, Button) some 22s ahead of Schumacher who was a decent 3s ahead of Nico Rosberg, Robert Kubica, Felipe Massa and Vitaly Petrov still frustrating Fernando Alonso in 10th. So it looked as though the Red Bulls had pulled it off, and clinched another 1-2 to the immense frustration of the Woking crew. But things were far from over; despite some excellent racing for the lead thus far, we’d barely begun.

For starters, there was a sudden build up of cloud. Even before the professional weather systems piped up, watchful viewers could see the sudden blossoming out of nowhere of a huge rain cloud in the distance … and getting nearer. Sure enough, the forecasters spoke of a brief but heavy rain shower bearing down on the circuit at mid-race distance. This seemed to suddenly freeze the teams and drivers in place as they waited to see what would happen; in the end the rain was barely a light drizzle and in the 80F conditions of Istanbul the rain quickly evaporated into nothing, but it was enough to keep the teams tense and off-balance.

We hadn’t even seen any retirements by this point, despite a pre-race panic for Lucas di Grassi’s Virgin after an overnight engine change. Instead it wasn’t until lap 35 that the first cars retired, and sadly it was a double blow for Lotus, with both cars’ hydraulics failing virtually simultaneously. As Heikki Kovalainen later tweeted: “hydraulics went lost steering first, then gears and throttle. It was going fine up to that point.”

Still, nothing to threaten the Red Bull domination. The team has developed something of a reputation this season for “standing on their tails”, and they’d had a worrying series of technical problems through practice, but all seemed well in the race itself. Sure, Sebastian Vettel was looking a bit racy, and seemed to be pressing hard on Mark Webber, but surely … surely …

Oh.

I can’t have been the only one shouting some pretty unequivocal expletives at the TV set after the screen was suddenly filled with shards of Red Bull-livered wreckage going down into turn 12. It was simply unbelievable – unforgivable – that two top drivers should collide and take each other out, especially when they’re in the lead and set for a 1-2 finish. Surely that didn’t just happen? It was an illusion, right?

You can watch the footage for the rest of the night and still come to a split decision as to whose fault it was. Vettel was faster, lunged down the inside and nearly completed the pass. Mark Webber said he was holding a centre line, but in fact was further over to the left than he would care to admit, leaving Vettel with minimal room. And then Vettel seemed unable to hold a straight line, twitched to the right – and there was contact.

Vettel’s car was by far the worst off, brutally shattered and left spinning helplessly into the run-off area. That blocked Mark Webber from making the corner and he had to run wide too, but amazingly the damage on his car seemed slight. He’d lost the lead of course, as both McLarens sailed past, and he needed to pit for a new front wing and tyres which put him even further adrift, but he managed to rejoin the race and still hold third place ahead of Michael Schumacher. Small consolation, but a third place isn’t too shabby when it comes to damage limitation.

But still, it wrecks the first, golden rule of F1: whatever else, never take out your team mate. Accusations flew, with Vettel – back in the pits as the race continued – getting the first chance to state his point of view which was of course that it wasn’t his fault, it was Webber’s. But no, of course it wouldn’t affect team solidarity …

Except it just might. The storm clouds gathering over Red Bull was looking far more serious than the light rain clouds over Istanbul Park that had arrived with minimal consequences. The conspiracy theories raging around Red Bull were another matter entirely: stories that Mark had been instructed to turn his engine down the lap before the crash, while Seb had been told to turn his up. In other words, accusations that the team had engineered a lunge for the younger driver. Why? The consiracy theory said that it was because the Austrian Vettel is the team’s blue-eyed boy and future world champion, and Australian Webber’s phenomenal run of recent successes was screwing up the plan. he team argued that Hamilton was catching Vettel and he had to speed up, while Webber’s fuel was critical and he was holding his team mate up in conservation mode. Feasible? Of course. Although the race stats seemed to show that Hamilton was maintaining a fairly constant distance from Vettel and wasn’t threatening at all…

The feeling that there was a split fast developing in the team and that Webber was on the wrong end of it was emphasised after the race when Webber got his right to reply and he instructed reporters to “dig elsewhere” and “deeper” for the truth behind the disastrous incident. Also notable was the way that all the media experts were blaming Vettel for the crash, while the team itself seemed to be blaming Webber. Something very strange was afoot, and the mood couldn’t have been further away from Red Bull’s jubilant swimming pool celebrations just two weeks ago in Monaco.

Still, that left McLaren running 1-2 on track: and with the example of Red Bull fresh in their minds to discourage them from doing anything outrageous, surely Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button were immune from the red mist that had consumed their rivals?

But on lap 48, the unbelievable seemed to be unfolding before our eyes. Lewis had slowed up a touch, either through caution at the slightly wet conditions as the rain continued to fall lightly, or because of a strange warning he’d received from the pit wall a couple of laps earlier about the urgent need to save fuel. Whichever, Button was closing rapidly and he made his move on the same approach down to turn 12 that had done for the Red Bull duo. It was as though we were watching a slow-motion replay of the earlier incident, simply in different team colours. Were they about to throw the race as well?

Fortunately these were two world champions at work: Hamilton was not as brutally obstructive as Webber had been, and Button was more careful and tidier than the impetuous Vettel. Button didn’t seek to finish the move all in one turn, but had it plotted to follow through the next sequence of corners through to the end of the lap, at which point he had pulled off a quite sublime piece of overtaking on his team mate.

If the move had shown up the effectiveness of Button’s legendary “smooth and intelligent” driving style, what followed was an equally effective demonstration of Lewis’s “never give up, never surrender” go-with-the-gut style. He came out of that final corner in Button’s slipstream, positioned himself, and then at the perfect moment he pulled out to claim the first corner of lap 49 and block Button from countering. The lead was his again; while meanwhile back in the pits, an entire team had simultaneous nervous breakdowns and heart attacks.

Within a few laps, Jenson had also received a warning to conserve fuel (oddly described as “critical” by the team) and he duly slacked off – the racing was over. Was the fuel warning genuine and caused by the fast lap times, or was it a coded instruction from the team to hold station and stop fighting? If the latter, it would explain why Lewis subsequently described Jenson’s move as “unexpected”, but why had Lewis been given the warning so much earlier than Jenson – or had Jenson missed/ignored the early warning?

Ether way, there was a very strange atmosphere descending over the F1 paddock as the race ran out its final laps with an entertaining, long-running and hard-fought battle between Alonso and Petrov for 8th, Petrov finally making a mistake on the final corner of lap 54 that gave Alonso the opportunity to pass. They had made slight contact in the process, Petrov ending up with a puncture that required a costly crawl back to the pits for a new set of tyres that ruined an extremely good race for him up to that point.

It was a notably subdued Lewis Hamilton who looked and sounded less than jubilant in the after-race presentations, interviews and press conferences. Jenson Button – despite coming off second best in the one-on-one confrontation with Lewis, seemed far happier with the state of affairs. While Lewis was careful not to betray any hostility through his body language toward Jenson, it was clear some serious race notes were being discussed between them about what had happened, and while Lewis freely dubbed Jenson “the best team mate I’ve ever had”, there was clearly something badly amiss. Was Lewis sensing some sort of team conspiracy against him, in a version of the same paranoia now playing itself in a dour Mark Webber’s mind?

Either way, this had emerged as perhaps the most significant race of the season. With two teams displaying cracks and fractures, and Red Bull once again handing over vital points (and the lead of the constructors championship) to McLaren, we could be looking back over the season at the end of the year and saying, “Ahh yes. It was at Istanbul. That’s when it all started to unravel.”

Plus we also got one of the best flat-out races of the year – the showdown between precisely-matched rivals that we’ve wanted ever since Bahrain. We got it here, and it was indeed a sight to see.

Race result

Pos  Driver       Team                 Time
 1.  Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes     1h28:47.620
 2.  Button       McLaren-Mercedes     +     2.645
 3.  Webber       Red Bull-Renault     +    24.285
 4.  Schumacher   Mercedes             +    31.110
 5.  Rosberg      Mercedes             +    32.266
 6.  Kubica       Renault              +    32.824
 7.  Massa        Ferrari              +    36.635
 8.  Alonso       Ferrari              +    46.544
 9.  Sutil        Force India-Mercedes +    49.029
10.  Kobayashi    Sauber-Ferrari       +  1:05.650
11.  De la Rosa   Sauber-Ferrari       +  1:05.944
12.  Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +  1:07.800
13.  Liuzzi       Force India-Mercedes +     1 lap
14.  Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth    +     1 lap
15.  Petrov       Renault              +     1 lap
16.  Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +     1 lap
17.  Hulkenberg   Williams-Cosworth    +     1 lap
18.  Glock        Virgin-Cosworth      +    2 laps
19.  Di Grassi    Virgin-Cosworth      +    3 laps

Fastest lap: Petrov, 1:29.165

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                         On lap
Chandhok      HRT-Cosworth                 53
Senna         HRT-Cosworth                 47
Vettel        Red Bull-Renault             40
Kovalainen    Lotus-Cosworth               34
Trulli        Lotus-Cosworth               33

World Championship standings after round 7

Drivers:                Constructors:             
 1.  Webber       93   1.  McLaren-Mercedes     172
 2.  Button       88   2.  Red Bull-Renault     171
 3.  Hamilton     84   3.  Ferrari              146
 4.  Alonso       79   4.  Mercedes             100
 5.  Vettel       78   5.  Renault               73
 6.  Massa        67   6.  Force India-Mercedes  32
 7.  Kubica       67   7.  Williams-Cosworth      8
 8.  Rosberg      66   8.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari     4
 9.  Schumacher   34   9.  Sauber-Ferrari         1
10.  Sutil        22  
11.  Liuzzi       10  
12.  Barrichello   7  
13.  Petrov        6  
14.  Alguersuari   3  
15.  Hulkenberg    1  
16.  Buemi         1  
17.  Kobayashi     1 
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