A slippery, recently resurfaced Istanbul Park circuit proved a challenge for Formula 1’s drivers and led to an extraordinarily abnormal day of Friday practice running at the Turkish Grand Prix. 

Drivers were left struggling for grip throughout both of Friday’s 90-minute practice sessions at the Istanbul circuit, which was resurfaced just two weeks ago. 

The bizarre conditions resulted in a fascinating watch, particularly in FP1, with drivers grappling with their cars just to keep them facing the right direction as their machines squirmed around the 5.338km, 14-Turn track, even at slow speeds.

Conditions were so tricky that drivers ended up lapping well over 10 seconds slower than the pole effort set by Sebastian Vettel at the last Turkish Grand Prix in 2011, despite boasting much faster cars than their pre-hybrid-era predecessors. The end result was a mixed and unusual Friday order. 

Mercedes struggled for grip more than most, with reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton - who can clinch a record-equaling seventh drivers’ title this weekend - finishing the day fourth-quickest and eight-tenths of a second off the pace. 

"It's s**t with a capital S,” Hamilton summarised after Friday practice. 

"The tyres aren't working, and you see it. It’s like an ice-rink out there. You don't get quite the enjoyment of the lap as you would normally get of Istanbul, and I don't see that changing.

"It's terrifying the whole way around. It's almost like there's wet patches all over, so as you're on the slicks, you're accelerating, and it goes so fast.”

Bitumen leaking out of the newly-laid track surface and cold temperatures exacerbated the grip issues further, as did Pirelli’s decision to bring the hardest range of tyre compounds to the event.  

And with no support race action, F1 could not rely on other series to lay down some much-needed additional rubber. That meant things hardly improved for FP2 in the afternoon, when drivers were still caught out in the low-grip conditions as many suffered spins. 

Even pacesetter Verstappen turned his RB16 around with a slow-speed spin despite Red Bull appearing to fare better than its rivals as the Dutchman doubled up to complete a practice clean sweep in Turkey. 

“It can’t get any worse basically,” the Red Bull driver said after ending FP2 quickest with a lap that was still three seconds off Vettel’s 2011 pole time. 

“We’re still miles off, it’s like driving on ice. Worse than Portimao by far. At the end of the day it’s the same for everyone so we just have to adapt to it.

“I hope it’s going to evolve, of course,” he added. “For sure Mercedes tomorrow will get it together but for us today was very positive. 

“It means I think the prep we did to get here was not too bad but of course, reacting to the conditions, we did well today. I just hope we can have a competitive qualifying and the race, you never know what happens.”

Red Bull teammate Alex Albon spent a spell at the top of the timesheets in the afternoon and described the circuit as being like an “ice rink”. 

“It’s weird, it’s just weird because it’s not a normal feeling,” he explained. “We’re driving like a drift car and we’re just sliding around, which in a way is fun but more so, not what an F1 car is normally like.” 

There is a threat of rain for qualifying on Saturday as well as race-day on Sunday and such a scenario would only add to the challenge, particularly with temperatures expected to cool further across the weekend. 

“It’s going to be bad, it’s going to be bad,” Albon replied when asked about the prospect of rain. 

"I think we’re going to struggle a lot. I am sure Bernd Maylander [F1 Safety Car driver] will do a couple of laps and give us a feeling for it but I am sure we will end up racing.”

Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo joked that he would be “aiming for Olympic levels” of skating, while Alfa Romeo driver Antonio Giovinazzi described track conditions as the “worst” he’s ever had in an F1 car, and Carlos Sainz said it was the “strangest session I’ve done in my life”. 

In contrast, his McLaren teammate Lando Norris, who celebrated turning 21 on Friday, enjoyed the challenging conditions, saying: “It was a fun day! It was drift school today, that was my birthday present and it was my first day of drift school ever. It was nice.

"Tricky in a Formula 1 car, a lot of power, a lot of downforce and big snaps. So most laps you’re crapping yourself a bit, especially the high-speed Turn 8 and so on, so it’s tricky but it’s also a lot of fun. 

“It’s fun to push the car and be on the limit like that all the time, but it’s no so much you’re on the limit, it’s trying to build tyre temperature and so on.” 

Despite their struggles, the Mercedes drivers did find time when they put in laps on the Soft tyre, with Valtteri Bottas edging out Hamilton for third place with an effort that was three-tenths faster than his teammate. 

Getting up to speed quickly in low-grip conditions has been one of the Finn’s strengths since he joined the F1 grid. Could conditions therefore play into Bottas’ hands, particularly after his winter rallying experiences at the start of the year? 

“For sure it helped!” Bottas said. “It was actually quite far away initially from the normal driving standards we’re used to in F1. I had fun playing around, it was really enjoyable. 

“It’s really crucial in these conditions that you can get enough temperature quickly, and then you can have the upper hand on other drivers. For sure we learned a lot from winter testing and even this year in cold conditions. But it was pretty extreme today from the way the tarmac is and how smooth it is.

“There’s lots to learn today, and it’s really tricky now to make the right decisions on strategy for the race, there are many question marks.” 

Charles Leclerc also excelled in the conditions as he finished second overall and less than half a second adrift of Verstappen on an unexpected and encouragingly-competitive showing from Ferrari.

The Monegasque hopes the Italian outfit can build on its positive display throughout Friday practice and take advantage of the conditions. 

“At first I was really not convinced by the grip of the track and I thought it was going to be a very bad day,” he said. 

“But after a few laps I actually really, really enjoyed it. It was actually a lot of fun to have such low grip. It’s probably not great to have a Friday like this, we don’t learn much but it has been fun and we were very competitive too. 

“I don’t think it will improve much over the weekend so it’s good that we have done quite a lot of mileage today to understand the conditions and hopefully we can maximise the result.” 

And Leclerc is not the only driver looking to capitalise on the unprecedented circumstances, with Williams’ George Russell eyeing “a massive window of opportunity if you get it right” amid a combination of conditions he’d never experienced before in any race car. 

AlphaTauri driver Pierre Gasly believes the nature of the track could lead to a “spicy” qualifying and race with teams varying massively in how successful they have been at warming up their tyres, yielding dramatic results. 

“This morning it was quite shocking,” he added. “I enjoyed it, it was really fun but it felt more like Rallycross than F1 but it does feel different to what we used to feel in general.

“I can tell you it’s going to be spicy, that’s for sure, we just need to make sure we do our thing properly. The tyre is playing a big factor, we can see it with the gaps a lot bigger than usual. 

“If you get the tyres in the right window you can really extract the performance and I think there are quite a lot more things we need to understand but hopefully we can make another step forward tomorrow.” 

With plenty of uncertainty heading into qualifying on Saturday, there are some encouraging early signs that F1’s first trip to Turkey in nine years could serve up a thriller.

 

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