After a three-week break to get over the frantic races in Malaysia and China, Formula 1 begins the European leg of its 2011 season with the Turkish Grand Prix this weekend.
And this, the seventh running of the race in Istanbul, could well be the last. The Turkish government say that they are unwilling to pay Bernie Ecclestone and company the ever-increasing fees to hold an event that has failed to capture the imagination of the locals – a charge evident from the empty grandstands seen on the television pictures every year.
For F1 fans, this would be a shame. The circuit at Istanbul is generally regarded as the best of the recent efforts by architect Herman Tilke – who is also responsible for the Sepang circuit in Malaysia, China's track, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Korea. David Coulthard has described it as a 'modern day classic' and it is a favourite amongst many of the current drivers.
Felipe Massa, in particular, will be sorry to see this track side-lined. He recorded a hat-trick of victories in 2006-2008, comprehensively outracing team-mates Michael Schumacher (2006) and Kimi Raikkonen ('07 and '08) in the process.
Of course, Turn Eight, the long, quadruple-apex high-speed corner, is inherently associated with this track. In fact, it is obligatory for any discussion about the track to be dominated by this corner. It has quickly become one of the most notorious corners on the F1 calendar and, if one was to compile their ideal track, selecting famous corners from circuits around the world, Turn 8 from Turkey would be sure to feature somewhere.
So what is so great about this corner? What puts it in the same league as Eau Rouge (Spa), 130R (Suzuka) and others?
According to Mercedes, Turn Eight in Turkey is 640m long – 12% of the lap distance – and lasts for 8.5 seconds. The average speed through it is 270kph (nearly 170mph). That makes it comparable in terms of speed with the famous 130R and Copse (at Silverstone). In terms of distance, the season's next longest corner is Parabolica at Monza, which is a mere 470m.
The combination of high-speed and sustained load makes it particularly challenging, as does the number of apexes. The line drivers choose generally splits the turn into three apexes, and if the driver gets it wrong on entry their lap time is compromised.
With Turn Eight being the most demanding corner on the calendar in terms of tyre wear – particularly for the right-front – teams will need to take particular care of the Pirelli rubber this weekend, and multiple pit stops for each driver are very likely.
It is not just Turn 8 that makes the Istanbul circuit a good one. Turns 1 to 11 are mostly medium- and high-speed corners but the lap finishes with three slower corners, providing good overtaking opportunities.
Turkey also provided one of the most important races in last seasons' narrative. For those with short memories, it was the race when the battle of the team-mates reached a climax for both Red Bull and McLaren. Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber gave an important demonstration of how team-mates should not race one another by colliding on track. As Vettel tried to squeeze past Webber for the lead of the race the pair touched, Vettel crashed-out, and Webber recovered to finish third. There followed a few days in which blame flew between various sections of Red Bull before both drivers were summoned to Milton Keynes for clear-the-air talks and a photo opportunity, followed by a press release from Team Principal Christian Horner, explaining how the accident happened, and to reassure everybody that the team were not favouring any one driver.
Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button did their on-track squabbling better, but not before giving the McLaren pit wall a quick scare. Running one and two after the Red Bull contretemps, Hamilton was told to hold position in the lead, and begin to conserve fuel. Button did not get the same message and, noticing that his team-mate was slowing, decided to make a move on him. Hamilton was not too happy with this, and promptly took the position back on the opening corner of the next lap. Button defended reasonably fiercely, and the two touched briefly. However, disaster was averted, and the two held position until the end.
Incidentally, that was the last F1 race which had an on-track overtaking manoeuvre for the lead – that is, until China last month, where varying tyre strategies led to a brilliant race and, ultimately, Hamilton passing Vettel to end the world champion's early-season dominance.
In Turkey, most teams will be bringing their first rounds of major updates, although others may be waiting until Barcelona – another fortnight away – before they make significant changes to the cars. All will be sporting some new parts though, which may upset the tentative order that has been established in the first three races of the season.
Ferrari, who expected to be the major challenger to Red Bull this season, have had a disastrous start by their standards, and President Luca di Montezemolo has demanded improvement. Pleasingly, Massa seems to have regained some of the confidence that seemed to desert him after the team orders fiasco last season, outracing team-mate Fernando Alonso in both Malaysia and China.
McLaren are optimistic that they can build on their successes in China, and Mercedes, who definitely showed some signs of improvement in Shanghai, also think that they will be closer to the front as the European races get underway. Red Bull still picked up second and third place in China, and clearly remain the team to beat, even if Lewis Hamilton proved that the RB7 in the hands of Vettel is not completed unbeatable. Of course, there is also Renault: they have had two podiums this season and also collected a couple of points in China. They must be regarded as a dark horse on any race weekend.
Further down the grid, the power struggle in the mid-field is continuing. Williams, the team with a successful history in the sport, are floundering. They are yet to score a point this season, and Pastor Maldonado was beaten by the Team Lotus car of Heikki Kovalainen in Shanghai. Meanwhile, Sauber, Force India and, to a lesser extent, Toro Rosso, are all fighting for the points not taken by the top five teams. The development race in this part of the field is just as closely fought, and Williams, who still claim that they have a fundamentally good car, will need effective updates if they are to challenge this trio of rival teams.
Meanwhile, Team Lotus is evidently the best of the rest again, and will be hoping to catch Williams and others as the season progresses. Virgin Racing are looking solid but unspectacular and, whilst Hispania have brushed off the clown-team tag that they were in danger of receiving after their poor efforts in Australia, it is hard to see Narain Karthikeyan and Tonio Liuzzi finishing anything other than last in Turkey. On the plus side, they should beat the 107% rule.
If this is the last Turkish Grand Prix, then it is one to be savoured. The race could be as manic as the Chinese Grand Prix, and it will be just as unpredictable with the pack once again shuffled by the off-track development race.
- Qualifying in Turkey begins at 12:00 BST this Saturday, with the race beginning 13:00 BST on Sunday. Coverage in the UK is available on BBC One and BBC Radio 5 Live.
- Reports and reaction can be found throughout the weekend on TheCheckeredFlag