A first-time visit to a brand new circuit in a country never before visited by Formula One is always exciting. The timing of the inaugural Turkish Grand prix is perfect as the championship battle is finely poised and the outcome of the race for the three protagonists could be critical.
The teams may benefit from computer-simulated predictions and years of racing experience, but fans wanting to predict the outcome have to make to with educated guesses based on what little knowledge we have.
The Istanbul circuit is yet another Hermann Tilke-designed track – the fifth consecutive new or substantially modified venue penned by the same architect, following Sepang (Malaysia, 2001), Hockeheimring (Germany, 2002), Bahrain (2004) and Shanghai (China, 2004). However, the new track appears markedly different to its predecessors.
Tilke has apparently conceived a more flowing circuit layout – there are far less of the tight corners separated by short straights that characterise his other venues. Also, it seems he has finally discovered gradient. While most of his other circuits are very flat, the Istanbul circuit has rises and dips, chamber changes and blind corners.
Whether the circuit will be a truly challenging one is impossible to say until the F1 cars are finally unleashed on it in anger. The promises that one particular bends will emulate Spa-Francorchamps mighty Eau Rouge remains to be seen.
It is also difficult to predict how well the circuit will encourage overtaking. The longest flat-out section is punctuated by a kink – romantically named ‘turn 12′ – which may serve to scupper any hopes of passing into the tight turn 13 as the aerodynamic grip needed to pass through the kink at speed may be too much for a closely following car. Plus, it gives the leading driver the option of legitimately changing their line ostensibly to navigate the kink, but actually to keep a pursuer at bay. The start and finish straight is surprisingly short.
Another point of the track is anti-clockwise, unlike the majority of Formula One circuits (the other two being Imola and Interlagos). This may provoke some neck strain in certain drivers, but only expect it to show up on those less than 100%-fit or possibly some of the rookies.
Finally, race day temperatures and humidity are expected to be very high – perhaps even rivalling the crushing highs of Sepang, at this time of year. This may work against the improving Ferrari-Bridgestone package which has struggled with tyre wear.
The race win should be Kimi Raikkonen’s to lose – he runs in the optimum qualifying slot and has the best car-engine-aero-tyre package in the business. Team mate Juan Pablo Montoya will run early in qualifying (one more a victim of the asinine 2005 regulations) and McLaren will surely radicalise Montoya’s strategy in an attempt to get him ahead of the Renaults.
The team to watch in Turkey, though, are Ferrari. They showed clear signs of being closer to the pace in Hungary and another three weeks’ testing while their rivals stick to the testing ban can only have improved the car. Can they leapfrog Renault, or McLaren, or both? This is what will decide the championship.