The grey overcast skies and light drizzle in the Istanbul paddock make for a lifeless, gloomy sort of atmosphere. Drivers huddle in their rain jackets, stepping over puddles on their way from garage to motorhome. The latest forecast is for it to improve from Saturday, which is a relief.
Add in the total lack of crowd or any kind of buzz around the event and F1 seems to be in a sterile bubble this weekend, going about its business behind closed doors.
But it still has to put on a show and luckily there is a lot going on in the sport at the moment, much to talk about. And on Sunday the TV cameras will transmit what is likely to be another exciting and unpredictable race to the waiting world in the 170+ countries in which F1 is followed.
There is talk that this might be the last race at this circuit; there is no local interest and voices here have said that there’s no appetite to pay to keep it here. We’ll see. I lost count of how many times I attended the last GP at Magny Cours, before the actual last race. For all its weaknesses in terms of atmosphere and failure to create a motorsport infrastructure here, this is a great race track and the drivers all said that they would really miss it if it fell off the calendar.
Felipe Massa is chief among them; he has won three times here and the little Brazilian has a spring back in his step, being back on favoured ground with some momentum back in his career. He had to fend off questions about a rumoured move to Red Bull, with Nico Rosberg joining Ferrari, but even that didn’t wipe the smile off his face.
Lewis Hamilton played a straight bat, talking down expectations for the weekend, after his momentous win in China three weeks ago. “I don’t have particularly high hopes. We don’t expect much here,” he said, disingenuously, before adding that he only won in China because he outdrove Vettel and McLaren outfoxed Red Bull on strategy.
Fernando Alonso was also not promising miracles from the updated Ferrari package, which features new front and rear wings. The team’s weak start to the season has been caused by correlation problems in the wind tunnel after it was scaled up from 50% to 60% models. Alonso said that he believes that the team has got to the bottom of it and has done some excellent work in the last three weeks. But he doesn’t expect the new parts to project him into a battle with the Red Bulls just yet.
“It’s a couple of tenths, not a revolution,” he said. “We won’t change the car completely in one race. I expect a slow reaction, step by step. But we are losing points and we need a reaction as soon as possible.”
I asked him specifically about his starts, which have been bad this year. Looking at the start analysis of positions at the end of sector 1 on the opening laps, he has lost seven places in three races, while Massa has gained five. He said that it was a combination of factors, some clutch control problems and mistakes on his part and acknowledged that these things needed working on. It’s been hard enough for Alonso with the car he has, but the poor starts compound the problem. *
Meanwhile Mark Webber has gone and used the “R” word, which is always a genie out of a bottle with the media.
There were some quotes from him before the weekend about his options for next season and the first thing he said when he sat down today was that he wouldn’t decide on next year until August. That invited the media to ask him lots of questions about next year and he said that there are three options,
“Either I stay here, or I stop, or I go somewhere else… which is unlikely, ” he added.
Last season his contract renewal with Red Bull was famously announced during the kiss-and-make-up moment after he and Vettel collided here. There’s no chance of a repeat this year, as Webber has made it clear that he wants to consider offers from outside and “keep things open” as he puts it.
The key question as far as him moving on is concerned is whether other teams feel he has “peaked” as a driver, does he still have capacity for fresh exploits, they will ask themselves. It’s been a long career, mostly flatlining with the odd blip at Jaguar and Williams, until exploding into life at Red Bull in the last two years.
As he showed again in China, he’s still a formidable racer and he’s always been good at judging the grip level just right in qualifying. But is there such a thing as a move away from Red Bull for the man who turns 35 this summer?
Once the “R” word – Retirement – starts getting used, it follows a driver round like a wasp, constantly reappearing until finally it becomes a self fulfilling prophesy. Rosberg’s management maintains a market for his services, making him always look in demand. By “keeping things open” Webber is doing the same.
Webber’s show in China made many teams rethink their strategies for using the Pirelli tyres in qualifying with an eye on the race. One senior engineer told me that all the fast teams are thinking about doing Q3 on hard tyres, so sacrificing grid position in order to have extra new sets of tyres for the race and also getting the hard tyre out of the way first.
Vettel said that he won’t be doing that, “I still think that starting from pole position is where you want to be. Mark had a good race, but there’s a lot of risk involved. Now people are panicking a bit and saying they have to save tyres, but if your target is to win, you would start from the front.”
Sporting a new short hair cut, he again seemed slightly edgy. He was also asked what was his memory of last year’s race.
“A blank” he said, with that sardonic smile on his lips.
* For my full Strategy Briefing, analysing all the considerations the teams will make about the best way to do qualifying and the race, race start analysis and much more – with input from F1 team engineers – go to Strategy Briefing and click on the Istanbul Track in the graphic