Valtteri Bottas was a level above the tricky decisions the crazy non-drying Istanbul track placed upon the others – not least his title-chasing team mate Lewis Hamilton. On a weekend in which Hamilton was taking a 10-place grid penalty for his new internal combustion engine and in which the Red Bull was an unresponsive understeering pale shadow of its best self, Bottas for once had an uncomplicated task.
From pole (Hamilton qualified a tenth faster but would start 11th), Bottas won the start from Max Verstappen, opened out a gap on the Red Bull while looking after his intermediate tyres, responded when Verstappen upped the pace, then extended his margin in the second half after changing to fresh inters. He polished it all off with two outrageously fast laps at the end, as if to show how much he’d had in hand if needed.
So what were the tricky decisions Bottas managed to transcend?
Tyre versus position
A damp track and steady drizzle made it intermediate tyre weather, but the forecast suggested the rain would stop at some stage. It seemed the trick was going to be keeping the inters in shape long enough that you didn’t need to stop before the track was ready for slicks. Which wasn’t necessarily going to be easy given that the track – in stark contrast to last year – was unbelievably grippy. Drivers were saying that even in the wet it felt like almost dry levels of grip. Which at the cool track temperatures was bound to mean graining. So the early stages featured drivers keen to press on but being cautioned by their engineers to look after the tyres.
Bottas, in winning the start and pulling out over 1sec on Verstappen on the first lap, was able to take it easy through the tyre-killing fast Turn 8 and not see any threat from the Red Bull. With Verstappen being similarly constrained and keeping a wary eye on the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc close behind, Bottas soon had the gap out to around 3sec.
“The key thing today was the tyre management and not to kill the tyres at the beginning of the stint and trying to play the long game,” he said. “In the first few laps, [Verstappen] was definitely trying to keep up and put pressure on but then I think he also realised that he needed to manage the tyres but if I’m honest, at the end of the race, in the second stint, I was surprised by the pace difference, so I could really focus on my own thing, just looking ahead and trying to avoid mistakes.”
Hamilton, though, needed to press on from his starting slot. He slipstreamed past Sebastian Vettel’sAston Martin at the end of the first lap but his next target, Yuki Tsunoda, was not so accommodating and over the next eight laps would put up a stern defence, using the slipstream from Lance Stroll ahead to be fast on the straights, then braking late at the end of them. That Tsunoda is from the Red Bull camp wasn’t lost on Hamilton, nor his rookie status, nor the poor visibility in the spray. Hamilton was alongside him on the inside into Turn 4 on the second lap and looked to have done enough to win the position but didn’t force the issue as Tsunoda hung on around the outside. He eventually passed him here by surprising him around the outside of Turn 3 from far back all those laps later. But it had cost him around 12sec to the leaders. He almost immediately then picked off Stroll, Lando Norris’s McLaren and Pierre Gasly’sAlphaTauri to go fifth, but 20sec adrift of the lead. He began to steadily close the gap on his next target – Verstappen’s Red Bull team mate Sergio Perez – while noting that his tyres were almost bald now.
That wasn’t necessarily a disastrous thing in itself, and so long as there was still plenty of tread gauge on the tyres, they still had reasonable grip. There wasn’t a lot of standing water, just patches of lesser or greater dampness and the latter could be used to keep the tyres cool. The front-right tyres did go through a graining phase, after which they’d be good again, having worn the upper surface away. But there was only so far you could take that before there would be no gauge rubber left. Still the track remained stubbornly damp, its fine-textured surface not allowing the water to drain away in its pores. After that front-right had stabilised, the right-rear would also need to be carefully nursed.
Hamilton got level with Perez on the back straight on lap 35, Perez sat it out in the braking zone on the inside and they diced through the following switchback turns onto the pit straight side-by-side, Hamilton actually ahead as they passed the start/finish line, but Perez grabbing the place back down the inside of the first turn. Again Hamilton seemed to be very aware of the necessity not to tangle, which would be potentially disastrous for his title campaign.
When to pit
It was becoming clear that with only 22 laps left the track wasn’t going to be ready for slicks any time soon but the inters were a long way past their best. Meantime, what that Perez/Hamilton dice had done was take Hamilton out of Verstappen’s pit stop window. This essentially created the cascade of the leading pit stops, with Verstappen coming in on lap 36, Mercedes responded with leader Bottas on the next lap, when Perez too was brought in. Again, no particular stress in this from Bottas’ commanding position: “Obviously Max stopping triggered us stopping,” he said, “but I think it was the right time. If I look at the whole race, I think that was the right point. It was not clear at any point if it’s going to be dry tyres or not at some point, so we needed to go pretty long in the first stint and it was good.”
But Leclerc – now leading – and Hamilton, up to fourth, stayed out. For them the decision was less clear-cut. Leclerc had done a great job in hanging onto to within a couple of seconds of Verstappen in a Ferrari with a lower downforce rear wing. It rotated into the corners much easier than the Red Bull and Leclerc was very much at ease with its slightly oversteery balance. The grippy track had given the Red Bull too much rear end with its big wing, but the team had been reluctant to trim it out because of the need to protect the tyres.
One-stop or non-stop
So now Leclerc was out front and the car still felt good. Bottas had rejoined around 13sec behind, with Verstappen a further 8sec or so back. The question posed itself: could Leclerc just stay out and try to hang on for the win?
It wasn’t such a crazy idea. Because those new inters on the cars of Bottas and Verstappen would need to be nursed when new and vulnerable, especially as the drizzle was now easing off and there was a dry line beginning to go down through Turn 8-9 and into the Turn 12 braking area. You couldn’t use all of the performance of the new tyre straight away, but needed to nurse it in for a few laps. Which meant it initially wasn’t really any faster than the worn rubber.
Hamilton was quite happy with his car’s balance too and was tracking Verstappen from only around 3sec behind. He wasn’t going to be catching and passing him but maybe, just maybe, he could stay on these tyres to the end.
But it was just an illusion. Once the fresh inters had been brought in, they were up to 2sec faster. Leclerc’s rears were the first to hit the canvas, giving him a few locked rear moments – and Bottas would soon be upon him.
Hamilton meanwhile was called in on lap 41 but he resisted. He was not at all convinced he needed to change. Mercedes acquiesced, assuming that Leclerc would stop and reasoning that if Hamilton could get the tyres to hang on he’d likely be third – and if the track did dry up enough for slicks, he might even steal a victory. It was a throw of the dice.
Bringing the tyres in
“Because the track was really grippy, I managed on the out lap to keep temperature instead of losing it,” said Bottas, “so actually it was OK and I just backed off a bit in places, not to destroy the tyres.
“When I was gaining to Charles, he was really quick on the parts that were a bit drier and I was quicker on the parts that were a bit wetter and just when I was closing onto him my tyres started to grain quite a bit, but I was still catching him and then obviously my tyres grained to the point that they were slicks again and then they were fine.”
Bottas retook the lead going into lap 46. Leclerc pitted a lap later, before Perez could get ahead, and rejoined fourth just ahead of the second Red Bull. Putting Hamilton third. But although the car felt balanced, it was no longer setting competitive times as the new-tyred cars came into their own. Not only did Bottas and Verstappen begin pulling away, but Gasly – who was only just over a pit stop’s-worth of gap behind – began lapping up to 2sec quicker. Hamilton was in no-man’s land now – and his rear tyre temperatures had dropped, indicating there was no gauge left on the rubber. Mercedes brought him in just before Gasly got into his pit stop window. The gamble had failed and he was distraught to realise he’d dropped two places when he rejoined.
One Mercedes dominates, the other secures a strong recovery drive, and yet all of the talk is on whether Mercedes screwed up. That’s the nature of this year’s championship fight.…
Leclerc meanwhile had pushed upon rejoining in an attempt at keeping Perez behind him. That resulted in his rear tyres graining spectacularly, allowing Perez to breeze by for third and leaving the Ferrari with very little rear grip. Hamilton might have been able to catch it – had he not, in his anger, pushed hard on his out-lap and triggered the exact same thing as Leclerc. So fifth it would be, it being all he could do to hold off the charging Gasly, with Norris not far behind either. Carlos Sainz was a good eighth from his penalised back-of-the-grid start for the Ferrari’s uprated power unit. Stroll’s Aston was ninth and in 10th, Alpine’sEsteban Ocon crossed the line still on his original set of tyres – but he’d been 3-4sec off the pace for the last 10 laps.
Bottas reeled off those two super-fast laps at the end to leave Verstappen further behind and related, “it had been nice to have a straightforward race for once.” Not so straightforward for the others.