A huge lack of grip proved to be an issue when F1 returned to Turkey for the first time since 2011 last season, with drivers complaining that conditions were akin to “driving on ice” after a recent resurfacing had left it slick with oils.
The Istanbul Park circuit was water-blasted ahead of this year’s event and F1’s tyre supplier Pirelli has gone a step softer with its compound choices – switching from the C1, C2 and C3 combination to the C2, C3, and C4 – as part of a bid to increase grip levels.
It has resulted in a drastic difference for the drivers, who reported after Friday’s on-track running that they could instantly feel the additional grip that had been generated.
“It is quite different to what we had last season,” said McLaren’s Lando Norris. “I feel like it is five or six seconds faster than what we did last year.
“It feels like a completely different circuit. It is cool one and a good challenge.”
Championship leader Lewis Hamilton twice broke Istanbul’s lap record with his fastest lap – a 1m23.804s in FP2 – being over four seconds faster than the quickest time set during last year’s rain-affected weekend.
Hamilton described the grip levels as “intense” and says it has made the track “much more enjoyable to drive”.
“It’s much, much different,” the seven-time world champion explained. “I think last year was a brand-new surface, and I think oil came up, and they cleaned it off before.
“So I didn’t really know what to expect when I went out there today. But jeez, so much more grip than we’ve ever had before!
“It’s intense how much grip there is out there, which is awesome. It’s made it a much, much more enjoyable track to drive, much more like it was before.”
Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas said the changes were so dramatic that it required him to spend much of the opening session simply readjusting to the circuit.
“It’s like a proper grip and actually I think one of the grippiest tracks we have on the calendar, so obviously makes the track more fun,” the Finn added.
“It’s a pretty different approach with the car setup compared to last year because of that, and we had to readjust quite a bit during the day.
“That was the main thing today you know: trying to adapt and trying to do the balance. I think the starting point was a bit far off, but I’m sure it was the same for everyone.
“But in practice two, actually the feeling is already pretty good and no big issues with the car. I feel like it can be a strong weekend.”
Daniel Ricciardo believes the enhanced grip levels have made the circuit more fun to drive but admitted the conditions initially took him by surprise.
“I mean, we were prepared to have grip like this but I would say it’s still a bit of a surprise to have that much,” the McLaren driver said.
“So a little bit of a surprise, but the tyres – they brought different compounds here this year – they were a step softer and there wasn’t a whole lot of difference between the three today.
“That was maybe a bit of a surprise; I thought the soft would have been miles quicker – I don’t think that was necessarily the case – maybe that. What that means for tomorrow? I’m not sure, so we’ll do our homework tonight.”
Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, who is set to start from the back of the grid for Sunday’s race after taking a new engine, found the improved surface “crazy” to drive on in F1 machinery.
“The first few laps of FP1 were like learning a new track, basically, getting your new references points and feeling the car,” he explained.
“The grip level is probably one of the highest of the season now, so compared with the lowest ever, we’ve now gone to one of the highest ever, so good job from the people that were involved in the work done on the track.
“It has definitively been a good step in the right direction and, actually, driving a Formula 1 car around here, with this level of grip, is crazy. The speeds that were we doing today, they just show this is a great racing track.”
Williams driver George Russell explained he had to be “very adaptable” in order to become accustomed to the “pretty drastic” difference.
“It was quite strange because we came into today having no idea where the track would be,” he said.
“Following last year, we didn’t know if the track would be as fast as it was today, or 10 second slower, as it was last year – which is a pretty drastic difference.
“And we were just getting used to that really and had to be very adaptable.”
Meanwhile, Sergio Perez concluded: “It did surprise us, the amount of grip. It’s obviously more like a standard track out there.
“It’s still very challenging because it’s not consistent, the grip. Sometimes on the entry to the corner you have less grip than on the exit so it’s pretty difficult as a driver to adjust in that regard.”