On Monday morning I spent some time chatting with my coworker Carol, the office secretary and Ferrari fan who shares my passion for Formula 1. “I was happy with the result,” she said as I frowned at the still-scalding beverage I had just poured myself, “but it was a rather dull race to watch. Felipe Massa won from pole position, just like he did he last year and the year before. Kimi and Lewis joined him at the podium, no surprises there.” In no hurry to get to the pile of documents awaiting me at my cubicle, I engaged her.
“Yes, but Mr. Hamilton did make things exciting for a while there, didn't he? His overtaking move on Felipe for the short-lived lead was fantastic.”
“I guess it was, but we all knew he was light on fuel. There was no way his lead was going to last.”
Watching the race from home the previous morning, I was certain of the former claim, but I wasn't convinced of the latter until the checkered flag had flown. While there doesn't seem to be much beyond the surface story of a Massa win from pole, a closer look reveals a more complicated scenario behind the race between Massa and Hamilton on that surprisingly cool Sunday in Istanbul.
While most teams, including McLaren, chose the harder compound of Bridgestone tire, Ferrari was conspicuous in their selection of the softer tire compound for the majority of the Grand Prix. Throughout the weekend, all teams save Ferrari were setting their best laps around the circuit using the hard compound. Aside Ferrari's choice of rubber, two things were notable from practice on Friday until the completion of the race on Sunday: The Maranello based team's impressive top speed and their dominance of the third sector. It is here where we shall find the secret to Massa's success.
While most of the Istanbul Autodrome is comprised of sweeping high speed turns, the third sector is home to the relatively slow complex of turns 12, 13 and 14. The importance of this technical section is increased by the exit of turn 14, which leads to the long start/finish straight. A proper exit from 14 is critical to setting the remainder of the lap, and both Ferrari's had clearly mastered it from Friday through Sunday. Their competitors, however, all seemed to struggle with grip in that critical complex. It would seem then, that the rear of the Ferrari suspension had the proper amount (or, more precisely, lack) of stiffness to it. While the other cars struggled with wheel-spin and poor grip, Massa and Räikkönen were more able to gently apply the proper amount of power to get through the tricky series of bends, an advantage amplified by 2008's ban on traction control. Additionally, a softer rear-suspension on the Ferrari likely led to less graining and degradation problems with the soft tires, allowing the team to enjoy the superior grip provided by those tires for the balance of the race. It was in that section that Massa was able to hold off the impressive challenge offered by Hamilton.
Hamilton's race displayed an excellent use of strategy by the McLaren team. Knowing that it would be difficult to match the Ferrari's outright pace given the tire situation, the decision to run a three-stop race was a necessary gamble. Hamilton's ability to maintain his blistering pace throughout the race is a testament to his fitness and ability behind the wheel. He did everything he could do to make a race of it, and it was impressive to watch. However, Massa was the favorite coming into the weekend for a reason. His wins at this track, beloved by drivers and fans alike, have been impressive, especially given the intense pressure he was under. He seemed more relieved than elated in victory, but I'm sure he's just as glad for the 10 points either way.
The question now, of course, is who will be able to bring this pace to the principality for the grandest Grand Prix of them all?