AS with most F1 races in 2021, the Turkish Grand Prix was as highly anticipated as most of the others than have gone before it this season.
Halfway through the weekend the gauntlet was thrown down to Lewis Hamilton. Despite having the clearly quicker car over the weekend the Mercedes driver would drop down 10 places from wherever he finished qualifying, due to taking on board a new internal combustion engine.
Hamilton was fastest overall on Saturday afternoon which saw him drop to 11th on the starting grid.
Valtteri Bottas inherited the pole while Max Verstappen started alongside him in second.
The Red Bull, sporting a striking white and red livery as a Honda homage, never had the pace of the Mercedes but there was still the potential for an advantage to be gained.
Conditions proved testy with a damp track necessitating the start on intermediate tyres.
Bottas led cleanly away from the start and never faced any sustained or serious pressure from Verstappen.
The opening lap saw only one incident between Pierre Gasly and Fernando Alonso which saw the Spanish driver tipped into a spin at the exit of turn one. Although Gasly was adjudged at fault, and given a five-second time penalty, the Frenchman was hard done by, as he found himself sandwiched between Alonso on the right and Sergio Perez on the left.
Hamilton made steady, if unspectacular, progress at the start until he spent several laps stuck behind the Alpha Tauri of Yuki Tsunoda. But the Brit pulled off a sumptuous move around the outside of turn four to run sixth by the end of lap 10.
Although the rain had ceased before the race started, the track remained wet. As cold conditions lingered, it delayed the drying of the track. Because no dry line was forthcoming, the decision of when to pit was delayed more and more.
However, albeit slow, the drying track was transforming the inters to slick tyres. It didn’t faze many drivers though as they continued to pound around the Istanbul Park circuit.
By the halfway stage of the 58-lap race, it was clear that Verstappen did not have the pace to beat Bottas. At this point Hamilton was bearing down on Sergio Perez for P4.
Hamilton, clearly with superior pace, drew alongside Perez going into the turn 12 braking zone and the pair ran side-by-side through the final sequence of corners. But the Mexican held his own against Hamilton and denied him the position in a manner that will undoubtedly have pleased his Red Bull bosses.
By lap 38, both Bottas and Verstappen had stopped for a new set of inters, while Charles Leclerc took over the lead of the race.
The Monagasque sniffed a chance of an opportunistic win but would have to do so without making a pitstop.
Ferrari rolled the dice on this strategy but quickly called Leclerc into the pits when he was passed for P1 by Bottas.
Meanwhile, Hamilton had initially asserted to his team that he would stay out, to which the Mercedes pitwall agreed.
However, despite running in third, Hamilton began to lose time to Perez and Leclerc. He was called in on lap 51 and emerged in fifth place and under pressure from Gasly. Hamilton was fuming over team radio at the decision to call him.
Ultimately, Mercedes’ decision was the correct one albeit too late.
Hamilton would likely have been overtaken by Perez and Leclerc on fresher rubber, and be shuffled down to fifth. If Mercedes had made the call earlier to box Hamilton, he might have had more time to catch up to and pass Perez and Leclerc.
The strategy error from Mercedes may seem only like a minor error but in a championship battle as close as in 2021 every point counts.
With Hamilton mostly out of the equation for a race win Bottas took what could likely be his final opportunity to win, in impressive style. Lest we forget Bottas spun five-times in the 2020 Turkish Grand Prix. It makes his win, nearly error-free, all the more impressive then.
Verstappen will be happy with a solid day’s work in second while Perez drove a brilliant race for Red Bull which netted him third place.
Charles Leclerc was fourth ahead of Hamilton in fifth while Gasly, recovering from his penalty, was sixth overall. Lando Norris ran a fairly anonymous race to seventh as Carlos Sainz recovered from the back of the grid to eighth place.
Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll was ninth ahead of Esteban Ocon, who was the only driver to run all 58 laps on one set of tyres, in 10th.