Lewis Hamilton has set himself the challenge of grabbing pole position on Saturday, knowing it is his best chance of escaping from the Turkish Grand Prix with his world championship dream unharmed.
That this weekend is potentially harmful to the Briton’s quest for title No 8 became clear here at 11.30am on Friday with confirmation that he would be receiving his fourth engine of the year and, therefore, be sent down the grid.
Hamilton has a new Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) but not an entire new power unit so he slides back 10 places rather than 20.
Lewis Hamilton is looking take pole position in the Turkish GP qualifying
Hamilton was the fastest in both practice sessions in Istanbul on Friday
It was not what Hamilton wanted, and he said as much. He believed he could eke out his existing two engines and save on the penalty. But, to his chagrin, Mercedes’ crack engineers with all the data to hand overruled their star driver’s instincts. So he goes up against Max Verstappen, his one rival for the crown, with a hand tied behind his back.
‘I need to be on pole to limit the loss, and understand the car well enough to do best over the long runs,’ said Hamilton. ‘I am just trying to find the right balance.
‘I don’t know how much more there is to come, but we always find something during the evening. I will then have a lot of work to do on Sunday, either way, whatever the weather.
‘The Ferraris are going to be hard to pass, as are the Renaults and the McLarens. Ferrari seem to be improving throughout the year. It is good to see them getting stronger.’
Certainly, all is not lost for Hamilton here in the wind-blown track 30 miles from the central sprawl of the old imperial capital with all its majesty and madness.
First, he can take succour from finishing yesterday’s two practice sessions in first place. Verstappen was half a second adrift in both.
There is also the example of the Dutchman roaring from last place to finish second at the last race in Russia, with the helping hand of late rain that presented the opportunity to make a timely change of tyres.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner has admitted they have had a few issues with the circuit
Even a Hamilton victory cannot be ruled out, just as he proved when he started the 2018 race in Hockenheim in 14th place and powered through to win — albeit without a challenger of the Red Bull-Verstappen strength.
As for this track, it holds a special memory for the Briton. Twice a winner here, he clinched his record-equalling seventh title in Turkey a year ago with a splendid drive of maturity and verve. He started sixth and let the race yield to him before taking the lead on lap 37 of 58. It was a performance up there with his best.
Of that visit, Hamilton said: ‘It is crazy because it feels like we were just here. It’s mad how time flies. That moment has gone but it was incredible while it lasted.
‘What a difficult race it was, so to come out on top, with no real mistakes in the race, it was an emotional day.
‘I was just saying to Bono (race engineer Peter Bonnington) that this past 18 months we have not celebrated a win, and even when I won the world championship I didn’t celebrate.’
Not exactly true — Lewis went on holiday to Dubai with friends and family and caught Covid.
This weekend the competition is not just with himself and the pages of sporting history, but the 24-year-old Verstappen. He endured an unusually wobbly preparation, as his boss Christian Horner explained: ‘We have got a bit of a balance mishmash at the moment.
‘The circuit is a lot grippier than it was last year and we are just a little bit out of the window with Max on set-up. It’s going to be a busy night tonight with the engineers here and no doubt back in Milton Keynes as well. I think we can rectify the issues before qualifying.’
Yesterday’s action was soporific — in fact, making the best case for the new sprint race format. Under the now twice-trialled formula, we would instead have been treated to qualifying instead of two hours of excitement-free running to please the engineers rather than the fans (with the sprint coming today at no cost to qualifying).
Max Verstappen has not had the best of preparations ahead of Saturday’s race
Stefano Domenicali, F1’s new chief executive, rightly wishes to shake up the mummified schedule by extending this season’s three-race trial — at Silverstone and Monza with Brazil to come — to seven races next season.
Before then come six rounds this season with no red-list countries on the roster by Monday. With Mexico and Brazil coming off the list, Formula One should complete the 22-race extravaganza without a visit to one pariah Covid state.
Speaking of Covid, Verstappen has not contracted the virus and is being well protected by Red Bull. Just a thought: it would be sad if one of the main men lost the title by missing a race through illness.