Strictly speaking, the Turkish Grand Prix does not kick off the European season since the undulating 5.338-kilometre Istanbul Park Circuit lies on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, but the fourth round of the FIA Formula One World Championship signals the return from the ‘flyaway’ races and is the prelude to the European leg.
Last year’s race saw the controversial clash between Red Bull racers Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel launch the balloon of tension within the camp, and Lewis Hamilton win for the first time in 2010 after an equally intense fight with twice-winning team mate Jenson Button.
After China, the Red Bulls and the McLarens start as favourites once more, the former confident their KERS issues have now been solved and the latter sure that the system could play a critical role in Istanbul.
"Turkey is a hard track on tyres and it's usually quite hot there,” Vettel says, “but I especially like the place as it's where I had my first F1 test drive. Our car should be strong there, but of course we have to respect our competitors and can never take anything for granted. People are pushing hard, but we are pushing very hard too to maintain our strengths."
McLaren are focusing on small upgrades this weekend. "Winning in China was a fantastic reward for all the hard effort that's been undertaken both at the racetrack and the McLaren Technology Centre to turn MP4-26 into a race winner," says team principal Martin Whitmarsh. "For this race, we'll be evaluating a number of small modifications - which include some aerodynamic refinements to the bodywork - during Friday practice. Our pace of development is what can win us this championship.”
Shanghai winner Hamilton adds: “I won this race last year and Istanbul Park is a circuit I really enjoy. It’s a great modern track, with a real variety of corners, plenty of high-speed stuff and a place where you really feel the benefit of having the car properly hooked up beneath you. Of course, everyone talks about Turn Eight, which is a fantastic corner, but I also love late braking into Turns Nine and 12, because you can get the car into the corner while still carrying quite a bit of speed; and getting it right is really satisfying.
“I think we’ll be seeing drivers working quite hard to look after their tyres throughout the race, particularly in Turn Eight, which is fast and bumpy; it’s one of the most demanding corners for tyres anywhere on the calendar.
“This is also a circuit where KERS will be a major benefit - most of the straights come after low-speed corners, so there’s plenty of scope for using it - most notably out of Turn 10, but also out of the final corner. There’s always quite a big chance for passing into Turn 12, because it’s quite easy to stay with a leading car out of Turn 10 and duck into the tow.”
Ferrari have an upgrade here, and chief designer Nikolas Tombazis says: “We'll have new front and rear wings and modifications in the brakes. But our car has a lot to recover: we've had wind tunnel problems and other problems in our methodology. We are improving on both fronts, but there is still some way to go. I think we'll be closer in Turkey, but I doubt we'll be where we need to be."
Nevertheless, on-form Felipe Massa will be hell-bent on restoring his reputation as a winner at one of his favourite tracks after seeing off Fernando Alonso in the last two races.
While Mercedes are adamant that they will be able to repeat their impressive Chinese Grand Prix form, Renault plan to introduce a new rear wing, originally pencilled in for Malaysia, as well as other updates, and are looking for a ‘perfect’ weekend with strong qualifying performance.
"It's the famous rear wing," says team principal Eric Boullier. "We should have a good upgrade on the car. But everyone will be the same. We definitely would like to keep our position and fighting for fifth or sixth place. That would be a good step."
Further down the grid, Virgin have a major aerodynamic upgrade on their MVR-02 (though only Timo Glock’s car will get the full package) which signals a fresh direction, while HRT are hoping to use another upgrade to add to the one they had in China to catch their British rivals.
The Hermann Tilke-designed track is unusual in that it is one of only four that run anti-clockwise (the others being Singapore, Interlagos and Abu Dhabi), and its highlight is Turn Eight, the very fast left-hander which has three apexes and seems to go on forever. It’s taken at 250 km/h at arguably the highest G-forces the drivers experience during the season. Elsewhere, speeds reach 320 km/h on a circuit where aerodynamic efficiency is at a premium.
The FIA has positioned the DRS wing zone between Turns 10 and 12 so that it will operate through the very quick Turn 11 right-hander close to where Webber and Vettel crashed last year.
Meanwhile, Pirelli will be bringing their hard and soft compounds here. More than ever, making the tyres last through the rigours of Turn Eight will be one of the keys to success.
"It's an awesome corner, that we try to take flat year by year," Vettel says. "It's fast and extremely bumpy, so you can hardly see where you're going - you turn in and hope for the best."
The weather in Turkey is likely to be cooler than it was last time out in China, with showers a possibility on Friday with an ambient temperature high of 12 degrees Celsius, rising to 14 and 17 on Saturday and Sunday respectively when there will be partial cloud.
The race will run over 58 laps of the unchanged circuit, or 309.396 kilometres (192.250 miles). It starts at 1500 hours local time, which is three hours ahead of GMT.