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Formula 1

Has grip-less Istanbul been embarrassing or great F1 drama?

by Matt Beer
7 min read

Between the surface, the temperatures and the weather, it’s been a weekend of battling to stay on track since Formula 1 first got back to Istanbul for the Turkish Grand Prix this weekend.

But was the sight of the best drivers in the world struggling to stay on the road throughout Friday and the multiple red flags of qualifying an embarrassment for F1?

Or was it a great chance for these drivers to demonstrate the heights of car control they’re really capable of, and something F1 should find a less chaotic way to replicate in the future?

Our writers give their verdicts:


A fine line between fantastic and silly

Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri Turkish Grand Prix 2020 Istanbul

There’s a very fine line between a fantastic challenge – like Styrian GP Q3 earlier this year – and a totally random situation that is not any test of skill.

Where that line is cannot be called in advance because the way the rain is falling and its interaction with the track’s grip is a totally dynamic situation.

It’s fantastic when it’s just wet and it becomes a contest of driver’s feel and improvisation.

But when it becomes just a dangerous comedy of randomly spinning cars with no merit or demerit, then it just looks silly.

It’s a judgement call – and it can only be made in the moment.


The rain tipped the balance

Nicholas Latifi Williams Turkish Grand Prix 2020 Istanbul

The rain that fell overnight and further complicated the low-grip dilemma faced by teams and drivers in Turkey has distorted the picture.

There’s a thin line between ‘this is brilliant, chaotic and extremely difficult’ and ‘the challenge is not spinning, rather than going quickly in tough conditions’. A wet track only exaggerates matters.

Even before the rainfall, drivers were dancing between those points all weekend.

The start of Friday morning practice was extremely silly. From a sporting sense, I wouldn’t like to see a competitive session like that, I think it’s entertaining for the wrong reasons.

I’d find it amusing if Premier League footballers were forced to play a game in mud, without studded boots. I wouldn’t think it’s good sport.

But the latter stages of FP1, certainly FP2, and even flashes of FP3 and the parts of qualifying when intermediate or wet tyres were just about good enough to handle the mix of wet conditions and a fundamentally low-grip surface, were brilliant.

The drivers had enough control to make a difference. It was extremely challenging but not unmanageable.

But it was always flirting with going too far in the other direction and, with the rain, it’s often been the wrong kind of spectacle. Especially when the absence of control made it dangerous.

Then in Q3, the conditions were brilliant value and vital for the drama. A great conclusion. Just a bizarre, often slightly silly, route to get there!


It’s great entertainment

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Turkish Grand Prix Practice Day Istanbul, Turkey

F1 can be a homogenised place and one of the joys of this season has been seeing different circuits on the calendar, new challenges for the drivers.

While the circuit this weekend has not allowed the drivers to attack as they want or shown of F1 cars at their best, why is that such a problem for a one-off weekend?

Although there is an element of luck at play, it’s not a bad thing that this mixes things up.

In terms of the track conditions, everyone is presented with the same circuit, the same grip level. Getting the tyres working was impossible at worst and incredibly difficult at best and the situation at the start of Friday practice was going too far, so this isn’t something to aspire to create in the future.

But while it’s been tough for the drivers, even the extended qualifying will have kept fans interested.

Everyone talks about the importance of the show and this confluence of circumstances unquestionably created entertainment. While there were plenty of offs, there were few red flags and the run-off did what it was there for.

And we’ve ended up with the most surprising pole position in a long time.

The Turkish Grand Prix weekend has created an unusually testing set of circumstances that did allow some drivers and even teams to show their prowess. F1 cars aren’t meant to go this slowly, but an extreme case of the cars – and crucially the tyres – being out of their element is creating what will likely prove to be one of the more memorable weekends of the 2020 season.

Is that such a bad thing?


2020 is about compromise

Valtteri Bottas Mercedes Turkish Grand Prix 2020

Jeez, give Turkey a break!

For years people who watch or are involved in Formula 1 have bemoaned the fact we no longer go to Turkey. Now it’s back on the calendar and it’s being ridiculed!

The track was resurfaced weeks ago and the criticism being levelled at the venue is hardly fair. It’s conducted major circuit surface work under a global pandemic and offered to hold a grand prix at short notice. It deserves a bit of slack.

OK, the slick surface offers safety worries for drivers and track workers. But if it’s that bad it’s up to the FIA to call time on the action.

So far, Formula 1 has handled the unpredictability and the fleet-of-foot reactions needed to make an ever-changing situation work brilliantly as it got its show back on the road mid-year.

In a championship where there’s usually so much scrutiny and everything has to be perfect, 2020 has led to a refreshing approach of expecting – and accepting that – things aren’t going to be the same as normal and compromise is necessary.

Don’t let that fade by lambasting Turkey despite all the work that has gone into making this race happen under the current circumstances.


Some randomness is healthy

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Turkish Grand Prix Qualifying Day Istanbul, Turkey

Is tiptoeing around at minimal speeds on tyres that are desperately not suited to the conditions a representative test of F1 driver skill? Almost certainly not, no.

But as long as it’s safe, the randomness is no reason to suspend the proceedings or to be dismayed.

Ultimately, your winner or poleman isn’t always the driver who displayed the most skill, and many of F1’s most-loved grands prix through the years were heavily influenced by chance.

Yes, that influence looks to be well above the average level with this new asphalt, but, well, so what? Some qualifying sessions and races are just lotteries, that’s just how racing is. As this wasn’t done deliberately to mix up the proceedings, how is this at all different to an act of nature?

Hybrid-era F1 has proven again and again that the standout team and the standout driver of the season will get a position close to what they deserved over a calendar of double-digit races.

That’s just probability for you, and because certain F1 teams are so well-oiled now it’s also made the championships fairly reliably boring.

So when circumstances present an opportunity to entertain, F1 is right to embrace it with open arms, even if its drivers are left looking a bit ridiculous.

Just as long as they’re acceptably safe.


Appreciate the skill

Charles Leclerc Ferrari Turkish Grand Prix 2020 Istanbul

Too often we hear that F1 cars are not challenging enough to drive. Now’s not the time to get into the merits of that argument, but there’s no disputing that the Turkish GP weekend has so far made the drivers really earn their money behind the wheel.

Don’t underestimate just how much skill was on show in that qualifying session, and better yet, make sure you appreciate it.

Even when Charles Leclerc was crawling back to the pits under the red flag, he was doing something most of us wouldn’t have been capable of.

We should all enjoy the clear display of supreme ability that was playing out in front of our eyes, and applaud every driver for putting on an entertaining show.

That the end result was a mixed up grid and a surprise (but deserving!) polesitter, was just a fantastic bonus.

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