Lance Stroll ensured Formula One’s pecking order was turned upside down when he mastered the elements to take pole for the Turkish Grand Prix. Derided by many, Stroll proved once again he can on occasion pull out an exceptional performance and at Istanbul Park did so to leave the sport’s elder statesmen in his wake.
Lewis Hamilton, attempting to secure his seventh title, qualified in sixth, crucially in front of his Mercedes teammate, Valtteri Bottas, who was in ninth. His championship efforts remain on course but the Briton decried the track surface as a nightmare and the session as one of the least enjoyable of his career.
With qualifying plagued by rain under grey, glowering clouds hanging low over the circuit, an upset of sorts had always looked on the cards and Mercedes’s unbeaten record in the single-lap discipline was under real threat for the first time this season. The honour had appeared to belong to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, having been on top of intensely tricky conditions at the circuit all weekend. The track was wet and was resurfaced two weeks ago, so it was sorely lacking in grip.
As the clock ticked down in Q3 and the lap times dropped, Stroll and Racing Point had their measure. The team, for whom this is their first pole, had taken a gamble to send their drivers out on intermediate tyres on their final runs. It looked risky at first, but soon paid off as their rivals had opened on the full wet tyres.
His teammate, Sergio Pérez, who was third, swiftly proved they were right by topping the time sheets and a tense final shootout occurred as the other teams also switched to inters. But the Racing Point drivers already had more heat in their tyres and a slight edge. Stroll made it count, beating Verstappen into second by almost three-tenths, the Dutchman perturbed that he could not switch on the intermediate tyres in the final laps.
Stroll had to survive an investigation, but the stewards judged he had correctly lifted off under the yellow flags. He thereby became the first Canadian to take a pole since Jacques Villeneuve, in 1997, and he felt there was sense of redemption in his efforts. He has not scored a point for five races and was heavily criticised when he did not take a coronavirus test after feeling ill at the Eifel Grand Prix, after which he was diagnosed with Covid-19.
“It was such a crazy session, the wet conditions, it was so slippery right through qualifying,” he said “It was about being on the right tyre at the right time at the end, we decided to go on to the intermediate in Q3 and I had one lap to deliver at the end of qualifying. I had the confidence in the car and the consistency in my driving to do it. I really pieced my lap together nicely, didn’t make any mistakes.
“It’s a special moment for me especially after the last couple of months, it’s been a rough ride.”
Mercedes could not master the lack of grip but Hamilton is still in every position to match Michael Schumacher’s record. Having already surpassed Schumacher’s totals of poles and wins, it will ensure he is the most successful driver in the sport’s history.
Hamilton leads Bottas by 85 points and if he is 78 ahead after this round the title will be his. A win would seal it as would any finishing position in front of the Finn. Bottas must finish eight points clear of Hamilton to extend the title fight.
This has not been an easy weekend for the teams, however. The great anticipation at returning to Istanbul Park, which has not hosted a race since 2011, turned to disappointment when the track suffered from a lack of grip. The new surface is very slippery, having yet to dissipate the oils used in the process. The tyres are not coming up to their operating temperature window and many drivers have noted how treacherous the subsequent lack of grip is proving.
“The track feels terrible,” said Hamilton. “Just like driving on ice. For whatever reason some can get their tyres working better than us. This track, they ruined it with the resurfacing of circuit, made it tricky for everyone.
“This whole weekend has been nightmare to be honest, the track surface grip is the worst I’ve experienced in years of racing. Definitely one of least enjoyable, if not the least enjoyable [qualifying] I have had.”
The day, however, belonged to Stroll, who has proved before in qualifying at Monza in 2017 that he has a fine touch in the wet but remains the subject of intense scrutiny and often criticism because he has been bankrolled into the sport by his billionaire father, who owns the team.
Perhaps he will silence his critics on Sunday when the real test begins. Verstappen will be confident he will be quicker than the Canadian in a dry race, while behind them Hamilton will have eyes on only one prize: beating Bottas and taking the title.
The Red Bull of Alexander Albon was in fourth and the Renault of Daniel Ricciardo in fifth. Esteban Ocon was in seventh and Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Räikkönen and Antonio Giovinazzi in eighth and 10th.
Lando Norris was in 11th for McLaren and his teammate Carlos Sainz was in 13th but will take a three-place grid penalty for impeding Pérez. Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc were 12th and 14th for Ferrari, with Pierre Gasly in 15th for AlphaTauri.
The Haas of Kevin Magnussen went out in 16th and his teammate Romain Grosjean in 19th. Daniil Kvyat was in 17th for AlphaTauri, with George Russell and Nicholas Latifi in 18th and 20th for Williams, but Russell will start at the back of the grid after taking engine parts beyond the allocated number.