After a three-week spring break, Formula One returned to within 25 miles of its European heartland to see if there’s anyone stopping Red Bull this year. At Istanbul Park’s swan song Grand Prix, many tried. Warning: spoilers.
It’s a pity that Istanbul Park, the best of Hermann Tilke’s circuit designs for its corners, terrain, and flow, has probably seen its last Formula One race. In a chat with the BBC before the race, Bernie Ecclestone may have expressed his desire to retain the Grand Prix on the calendar, but evidence for the reason behind the organizers’ withdrawal was all around him in the shape of empty grandstand upon empty grandstand. If you’re Turkish and enjoy F1, it may be time to move to Austin, where the Circuit of the Americas, due to hold the US Grand Prix from 2012 on, will have a copy of Turn 8 of Istanbul Park, that monstruous centrifuge of terrain and asphalt which exposes cars and humans to multiple seconds of 4–5 g.
After the unusually long spring break, there was really only one question: did anyone catch up with Red Bull for real, or was McLaren’s triumph in Shanghai nothing more than a mild case of hubris on Messrs. Horner and Newey’s part? Sebastian Vettel was quick with his answer. After slamming his car into the wall during a wet Friday practice, he returned for a few more laps after it’d been fixed, then ran one qualifying lap which was 0.4 seconds ahead of everyone else, beginning with his teammate, Mark Webber. By the end of the race’s first lap, Vettel had built up a lead of almost two seconds, then turned the Grand Prix into a Sunday afternoon drive, running so fast that he managed to squeeze in an extra pitstop just for safety’s sake. Expecting, possibly, that space aliens on turbocharged jetskis would mount an attack on his flying RB7. The aliens never materialized and Vettel cruised home to take Turkey’s last checkered flag and his 13th.
Not that the race was in any particular need of space aliens on turbocharged jetskis to make it look more dazzling on TV. While Vettel observed the goings on from the comfortable vantage point of low Earth orbit, a whirlwind of racing activity swirled behind him (above). Most of the racing was contrived, but there were a few genuinely great moments. Especially in light of the Ferrari style of running a team, it is always a pleasure to watch Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button go at each other’s throats, and in a repeat of their fraternal show from 2010, they did not disappoint. They passed and re-passed each other, but not at the sharp end of the grid: beaten by a Ferrari, a Mercedes, and both Red Bulls, Hamilton finished 4th and Button 6th. It was Jenson Button who was responsible for the most beautiful non-fake overtake of the race, an ingenious feint on Nico Rosberg which was beautiful enough to deserve its own post later this week.
As for the contrived racing and the fake overtakes: 2011’s triple assault on defense—that’s the movable rear wing, the degrading tires, and the battery boost button—is rapidly turning Formula One into a freak show of sorts. The rubber degrades so rapidly that there are now
more pit stops in a dry race than in a wet-turned-dry-turned-wet-turned-drying-turned-monsoony normal race. Most people made four stops for tires in Turkey, which is so many that Lewis Hamilton, for instance, was actually confused after the race about the number of stops he’d made. Racing drivers don’t do that! For some reason, the majority of commentators and journalists and some of the drivers are making statements that it’s all terribly exciting racing, and it may be exciting at first glance, but it isn’t all terribly good racing when a defending driver is a sitting duck 90% of the time and cannot actually defend his position. And it’s all so artificial. Especially the tires, designed to fall apart, shedding so much rubber that after a few laps there remains one line in every corner because everything else is covered in chunks of rubber. It’s as if you tried to make soccer more interesting by severing the feet of defenders and fitting them with springs for higher jumps. Look ma, more goals than baskets in a basketball game!
Please excuse the ranting. You’re here for the race. Ferrari is sort of back: Fernando Alonso picked up their first podium with a pretty good drive to third. And Mercedes is also sort of back: Nico Rosberg qualified third and finished fifth. It took some time to find all this out, because the tires makes track position mostly irrelevant until the last lap or so.
In the midfield, Michael Schumacher (left) drove like a not particularly talented rookie. He finished out of the points. Maybe he should get to have a battering ram on his front wing? Death rays on his wing mirrors? It wouldn’t be more fake than a tire engineered to suck. Oh well. Formula One has survived weirdness weirder than this. And there’s always Kamui Kobayashi to watch, who did a Shanghai Webber and drove from 24th (his car broke during qualifying and he couldn’t get a lap time in) to 10th.
Before I leave you, it’s worth taking a look at Sebastian Vettel’s performance so far—three wins and one second place from four races—just to see if there’s any statistical chance that someone else will become world champion. Basically? No. In Formula One’s previous 61 seasons, 20
have opened with a driver taking three (or four) wins out of four races. In 17 of 20 seasons, that was good enough for the championship. Of the remaining three, two drivers lost to their teammates (Alain Prost to Ayrton Senna in 1988, Prost returning the favor in 1989), which leaves one documented example of someone losing the championship after kicking it off like Vettel: in 1973, Emerson Fittipaldi won three out of four, didn’t win another race in the season, and lost massively to Jackie Stewart. Then again, Emmo was driving a Lotus. Vettel is not driving a Lotus. If you have money to place a bet on Sebastian Vettel defending his title, now’s the time.
The European season will finally begin on May 22 at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona. Expect about 121,986,912,595,123 overtakes—in Sebastian Vettel’s wake.
Photography by Mark Thompson/Getty Images, Paul Gilham/Getty Images, Bryn Lennon/Getty Images and Ker Robertson/Getty Images. Gallery curated by Natalie Polgar. Illustration by Peter Orosz.