Whatever chance Lewis Hamilton had of victory here in Turkey yesterday afternoon – and it seemed a slim one, given the strong pace of the Ferraris right from the start – disappeared in a dramatic moment when the right front Bridgestone tyre on his McLaren-Mercedes failed just as he had moved into the lead on the 43rd lap.
"It happened with no warning," he said. "I'd just gone through the really quick corner, Turn Eight, and literally as I braked for Turn Nine, I saw bits of tyre flying off and then it exploded..."
Some days you eat the bear, some days the bear eats you. On balance, as Hamilton salvaged fifth place and four crucial championship points of the possible eight he might have garnered, man and bear probably came away even yesterday.
At the start, both Ferraris got away strongly. Each started on the cleaner side of the grid and in a highly successful calculated gamble, both ran the softer tyre option. The McLarens, by contrast, were slow away on their hard compound tyres and on the dirtier side. Raikkonen easily beat Hamilton to Turn One, and the BMW Saubers of Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld similarly got the drop on Fernando Alonso.
Through the first round of pits stops the status quo remained, with Brazil's Felipe Massa leading from pole position for the second year in succession, Raikkonen riding shotgun and Hamilton pacing himself, waiting for his chance.
They stopped on laps 19, 18 and 20 respectively, all three opting to repeat their initial tyre choice. By that point Alonso seemed doomed, as he struggled along in sixth place.
During the second stint, Raikkonen launched a strong challenge to his team-mate, closing what was once a 2.5-second gap to as little as four-tenths of a second by the time the second stops fell due.
But the flow remained with Massa. Raikkonen refuelled and had the harder tyres fitted (the regulations demand that teams use both options during the race) on lap 41. Massa did the same a lap later. That left Hamilton in the lead on the 43rd lap, when his race – and his tyre – literally came apart.
"As soon as it happened I hit the brakes and locked up the front right trying to make Turn Nine," he said. "I was very lucky to get the car stopped as I ran right into the run-off area. The tyre was flapping around but I thought I could get back to the pits. The whole wheel and tyre stopped going round by Turn 12, and then I nearly hit the wall when I got to the pits."
McLaren were able to fit a new set of tyres – in this case the softer rubber – and Hamilton resumed the race. But, crucially, his misfortune had handed a lifeline to Alonso. The Spaniard moved ahead of both BMW Saubers during the first pit stops, but was still 14 seconds adrift of Hamilton until the drama. Now he swept up to third, with Heidfeld also moving ahead of the stricken McLaren. The latter's front wing was damaged and Hamilton was forced to drive for a finish while trying to hustle a less than perfect machine sufficiently hard to keep ahead of a hungry Heikki Kovalainen in the Renault.
"Without the front wing problem I could have challenged Heidfeld," Hamilton said.
In the final laps none of the leaders was pushing. Indeed, Raikkonen let himself fall as much as 7.4sec behind Massa by the 56th of the 58 laps, before slashing the fastest lap to 1min 27.295sec on the penultimate tour. By the finish he was only 2.2sec adrift, but everyone knew it was window dressing and that the Finn was simply bored.
"I pushed hard to the second stops," he said, "but unfortunately these days in Formula One it's pretty difficult to get past. The race was already decided yesterday, really," – when he made a mistake in qualifying – "and when two team-mates are fighting it's usually whoever gets the lead first who stays there."
Alonso counted it as a gift when his 100th race yielded a third place. "Nick was very consistent and driving very well and I was lucky to overtake him in the first stop," he said, "and my race started then. I just tried to be consistent and not make mistakes and wait for a miracle. That only happened with Hamilton, for me to take the place on the podium."
Massa was delighted with his second consecutive Turkish victory, especially as his mother and father were at the track. Raikkonen apart, his sole problem was the need to tear off a helmet cooling duct which had worked loose and was disturbing his concentration because of the turbulence it was creating.
"I love the track, this place, it's fantastic for me," he said. "Here is where my career made a switch, where I started winning races and fighting the front runners."
His success means that the four men fighting for the title have now each won three races. Hamilton still leads with 84 points, but Alonso has 79, Massa 69 and Raikkonen 68.
Remarkably calm for someone who had just seen his team-mate close to within five points in an acrimonious title fight, Hamilton reflected on his misfortune.
"I certainly don't count myself lucky," he said. "I was the only one that had a de-laminated tyre. I knew when the Ferraris stopped that I had five or six laps of fuel left, so I hoped I would have the opportunity to use them to close the gap to the Ferraris and jump at least one of them.
"But that's racing. It was quite a different moment to the accident I had at Nürburgring. I'm not worried about the championship. We were strong testing in Belgium and I am confident for the next race, in Italy. It would be nice to think I might come out of that with five points more than the others."Reuse content