Red Bull Motorsports
The only thing predictable about this Formula One season of ebbs and flows is that there will be ebbs and flows. Everything else? Take a plausible script and throw it in the bin.
That was the takeaway from Sunday's Turkish Grand Prix, where a second place for Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing Honda saw the Dutchman reclaim the championship lead. With Sergio Pérez right behind him, the team scored its second double-podium of the year and the first since the French Grand Prix nine races ago.
It was an unexpected result at a circuit where – until race day at least – Red Bull looked to be on the back foot. But Sunday's weather threw a curveball into the mix and Verstappen took full advantage.
Incessant drizzle kept the circuit damp from the first lap to the 58th and the chequered flag, so much so that only one lap for the entire race – by Aston Martin's Sebastian Vettel – was completed on a dry-weather tyre. For every other driver, the race became one of nursing intermediate tyres on a circuit that wasn't wet enough for full wet Pirelli rubber but not dry enough for slicks. It was akin to walking a tightrope at speeds nudging 300kph in the spray, a task that made for a race that was more mentally draining than physically exhausting.
Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas managed that task better than everyone. The Finn took his first victory of the season with a dominant display, winning by 14 seconds from pole position and taking the fastest lap of the race to boot. But second for Verstappen – keeping ahead of Bottas' team-mate Lewis Hamilton (fifth) – saw Verstappen reclaim the championship lead by six points with six races to go. This marks the sixth time in 2021 that the series lead has changed hands.
It was a result where Red Bull shone through the Turkish gloom and not only because of the striking one-off white paint scheme the team employed for the weekend.
The special livery was to celebrate the team's alliance with engine partner Honda on what would have been the weekend of the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka before its cancellation for 2021. The design mirrored that of the Honda driven by American Richie Ginther to win the 1965 Mexican Grand Prix, the company's maiden F1 victory in the iconic RA 272 machine.
Here's how a strange race unfolded on Sunday in Turkey.
Max relishes a routine run
Second for Verstappen was his 12th podium finish of what has already been his most successful F1 season, a theme he's hoping to continue as the series hurtles towards its mid-December finish in Abu Dhabi. The Dutchman started second after Hamilton was demoted 10 places on the grid for an engine change ahead of the weekend. Verstappen retained that position behind Bottas as the field thundered into a damp first corner and stayed there for the bulk of the race.
Bottas was out of reach and was never challenged by Verstappen, but the Red Bull star's fight was very much with Bottas' team-mate Hamilton and Verstappen had his measure.
Afterwards, Verstappen intimated it wasn't his most exciting afternoon – asked by David Coulthard in the post-race interviews about the most difficult part of his race, Verstappen laughed and replied: "staying awake!" – but he understood the significance of the result.
"It was not easy today," he said.
"The track was very greasy and we just had to manage the tyres the whole race, so we couldn't really push. It seemed like Valtteri had a bit more pace and could maybe look after the tyres a bit better as well, but of course, I'm still happy to finish second because, in these conditions, it's also easy to get it wrong.
"So overall, very pleased. It was pretty straightforward. It was all about managing your pace to make the tyre last until the end. To come away with second here is a great result. Six points is nothing, but so far, I can't complain about the season."
Like every F1 fan this season, team principal Christian Horner is relishing the rollercoaster fight between the sport's two top teams.
"To be at this stage of the championship, leading the drivers' and still being in touch in the constructors', that's phenomenal," Horner said. "For us, we're loving this fight and enjoying this scrap."
Checo's happy hunting ground
If Verstappen's race was low on drama but big on points, team-mate Pérez took a much tougher road to the rostrum – but given the Mexican's previous results in Turkey, some more silverware was no surprise.
After finishing second for Racing Point in 2020 in similarly slippery conditions, Pérez qualified seventh on Saturday. An inherited grid spot because of Hamilton's penalty, and a first corner move passing Pierre Gasly of Scuderia AlphaTauri and Alpine's Fernando Alonso after the Frenchman and Spaniard banged wheels, moved Pérez up to fourth on just the first lap of Sunday's race.
Pérez remained in fourth place for the opening stint of the race, with Hamilton closing in. The pair had a brilliant fight on lap 35, neither driver giving an inch without clattering into one another as they slithered side by side for five consecutive corners, the Mexican driver eventually holding sway.
When Ferrari's Charles Leclerc became the last of the front-runners to belatedly pit on Lap 47, Pérez was elevated to the podium places and stayed there despite the Monégasque driver coming at him on newer tyres in the closing laps.
After a barren run of late, 15 points saw Pérez retain fifth in the drivers' standings.
"It was quite an intense race," Pérez said. "The start was pretty good. It was just one of those races of having to be patient, push at the right times, manage the tyres well because you didn't really know what was going on with the tyres. It was pretty hard to manage the tyres out there today."
Horner was understandably thrilled to see his second driver in top form but felt Red Bull still had work to do at a circuit where Mercedes – particularly in the drier conditions of Friday's free practice sessions – looked to have an edge on pace.
"Checo did an amazing job today. He raced Lewis just as well as Max does and he just stuck with it," Horner said.
"Mercedes has been very quick. You look at the straight-line speed this weekend – Lewis was 15-20kph up on the kink on the back straight – and it's phenomenal. We've got some tracks coming up that hopefully suit us, but we're going to have to be on our A-game."
Gasly's haul, Tsunoda's cameo
After a couple of so-so weekends in Italy and Russia, Gasly reprised his typical giant-killing form in qualifying with fifth, which became fourth on the grid with Hamilton's penalty.
The Frenchman had to serve a five-second penalty for his part in sending Alonso spinning at the start. He recovered so well that he was closing down Hamilton and Leclerc rapidly in the final laps, crossing the line sixth to consolidate ninth place in the drivers' standings.
On the other side of the garage, team-mate Yuki Tsunoda was a Saturday standout at a circuit he'd never even seen before the weekend, qualifying 10th and making Q3 for the first time in seven races.
The Japanese rookie kept a faster Hamilton behind him with some impressive defending in the early laps on Sunday. Still, his race unravelled when he spun at Turn 9 on Lap 22 and fell outside the top 10 points-paying positions, eventually finishing 14th.
Ups and downs for Spanish duo
The only man happier than Bottas (and perhaps Verstappen) in Turkey was Ferrari's Carlos Sainz. His weekend looked to have already been written before he even turned a wheel after an engine penalty condemned him to a rear-of-grid start for Sunday's race.
Coming off a podium last time out in Russia, the Spaniard was undeterred, storming through the field in the early going and passing car after car at the end of the back straight at Turn 12, eventually finishing an impressive eighth on a day where all 20 drivers saw the chequered flag.
Sainz's fortunes contrasted sharply with compatriot Alonso; the Alpine veteran had his best qualifying for seven years with seventh on Saturday and started sixth with Hamilton's penalty, but was right at the back after one corner following the incident with Gasly and finished a frustrated 16th.
The rodeo rolls on to Texas
Circumstances have conspired to keep F1 largely in Europe for the bulk of the past two seasons, which is why the teams and drivers alike will relish the chance to spread their wings to the Americas for the next trio of races, starting with a return to Texas for the United States Grand Prix on October 24.
F1 hasn't visited the Circuit of the Americas since November 2019 and Austin, Texas, has been a happy hunting ground for Verstappen in particular. The Dutchman has finished no worse than fourth in his four finishes there, snaring third place on his most recent visit two years ago.
Pérez has a five-race run of points finishes going in the US, while Red Bull's lone win in the Lonestar State came in 2013 courtesy of that year's world champion, Sebastian Vettel.