Traditionally, the Spanish Grand Prix has been the watershed at the start of the European F1 season. With the pre-season flyaways now forming a rapid-fire mini-series, it was at Barcelona that most teams brought major updates and those playing catch-up resolved to close the gap. Ironically, considering that the Istanbul Park track is on the Asian side of the city, this year's calendar casts the Turkish Grand Prix in that role.
It would be foolhardy to say that the die will be cast for the rest of the season in Turkey. But if Red Bull continues to set the pace in Istanbul, it bodes very well for its chances of a second consecutive world championship success.
Of course, Red Bull heads to Turkey with some demons to exorcise. It was there last year that its season hit its nadir. With McLaren taking a step forward in terms of pace and with both Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button breathing down its drivers' necks, Sebastian Vettel collided with team-mate Mark Webber while attempting to take the lead. Cue extensive post-race recriminations and the inevitability that what happened in 2010 will be dredged up during the build-up to Sunday's race.
More relevant to the 2011 season is whether Webber can turn the tables on Vettel, who is already 31 points up the road. On paper, his start to the season has been poor, but car problems in Australia, a minor error in qualifying in Malaysia and the Q1 debacle in China have masked Webber's pace. There's no question that he can get close to Vettel, but as far as his world championship aspirations are concerned, putting one over his young team-mate, as he did in qualifying in Turkey last year, would be a huge boost.
McLaren's update plans are modest for Turkey, but perhaps this will be the first time we see the full potential of the car realised after the hasty rehashing of its exhaust system before Australia. Following its dramatic turnaround between the final pre-season test in Barcelona, Turkey will offer it the chance to consolidate and, perhaps, take the fight to Red Bull in qualifying. At Istanbul, we will perhaps see the team's true colours.
Perhaps the team with the most at stake in Turkey is Ferrari. Ever since it bolted on its Australian Grand Prix-specification aerodynamic package during the Barcelona test, things have gone awry. The early stages of the season have all been about understanding the problem. In Turkey, there are hopes that a troubleshooting package will boost performance and allow Ferrari, which has shown podium-challenging pace without either Fernando Alonso or Felipe Massa finishing in the top three, to get into the McLaren versus Red Bull scrap.
Whatever the competitive order, expect a dramatic race. With the huge challenge of Turn Eight, which should be further amplified by high-speed oversteer as the rear Pirelli tyres degrade, plus a few good overtaking spots, there's every chance the we will see as dramatic a race as we did in China.
In particular, keep an eye on the run to Turn 12. As well as that being the spot where Red Bull's wipeout occurred last year, it's the designated DRS overtaking zone as well.
Pirelli has once again allocated its soft and hard compound rubber. How many stops will be required will be determined largely by just how big a toll Turn Eight will take on tyre life.
With track temperatures likely to be in at least the low 30s, there's a good chance that Sunday afternoon will produce a three-stopper. But if there's one thing that the first three races of the season have shown us, it's that predicting pitstop strategies is massively difficult - even with the accumulated data of two days of practice!
One other factor to watch out for is teams opting for the kind of strategy that Mark Webber employed in China. While it's very unlikely that one of the frontrunning cars will end up heading into the race with all three sets of their option tyres unused, in Shanghai we saw just how advantageous it is to be running on the faster soft rubber late on while others are either on old tyres or the slower, hard specification. Whether it outweighs the disadvantage of starting so far down the grid is another question.
Also, keep an eye out for some of the marginal Q3 runners either not running in the final session of qualifying, or settling for a sixth row slot. As both Toro Rossos and Force India driver Paul di Resta learned in China, starting the race on five or six-lap old options will compromise your entire race.
|DRIVERS' FORM GUIDE|
|Driver||China 2011||Malaysia 2011||Australia 2011||Abu Dhabi 2010||Interlagos 2010|
|Paul di Resta||11||10||10|
|DRIVERS' HISTORY - ISTANBUL|
|Paul di Resta|
From the forum
Despite all the talk of upgrades, I would expect to see a similar picture to the previous couple of races. Red Bull with a pace advantage but with McLaren holding on to their coat tails. In race conditions relative pace of all the cars will concertina, tyre management and strategy will probably decide the outcome.
This could be the race when all of the front runners discover they've used all of their tyres with 20 laps to go. Let's see Pirelli talk themselves out of that one.
I expect Red Bull to get it all right for once and go home with a 1-2. Now, will either of its pilots attack the other if he's running second but much faster in the final stint? Or any other stint, for the sake of 2010 reloaded.
|Join the debate: Forum Turkey preview|
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