Lewis Hamilton tried a sneaky three-stop strategy, Kimi Raikkonen fuelled up and ran a long first stint, but neither of them could find an answer to Felipe Massa who won the Turkish Grand Prix by the simple tactic of driving very fast from the front.
Behind Massa an intriguing battle of stategies saw Hamilton just pip Raikkonen for second place, while Heikki Kovalainen suffered a frustrating afternoon charging repeatedly through the field between pitstops after an early puncture dropped him to last place.
As usual at Istanbul Park, the clean side of the track proved the best place to be at the start as Massa, Hamilton and Robert Kubica blasted off from pole, third and fifth at the expense of Kovalainen and Raikkonen, who had qualified second and fourth on the less-used dirty side.
As the leaders gained ground on the two Finns in the early seconds of the race Kovalainen forced Raikkonen wide, delaying him for what turned out to be, by the end of the race, just enough to secure Hamilton’s second place – but in doing so he suffered a puncture and had to pit.
By then, the field was already lapping under the safety car as Giancarlo Fisichella’s run of miserable Turkish Grand Prix continued with an aerial excursion over the top of Kazuki Nakajima’s Williams.
The Force India driver started from the back of the grid and pushed too hard to make up ground, ramming Nakajima from behind and inflicting race-ending damage to both cars.
Once the safety car was in, the race settled down into a battle of strategies, which ranged from Hamilton’s three-stopper to the single stops of the Honda pair of Jenson Button and Ruebens Barrichello.
Raikkonen’s long first stint paid dividends as he was able to use it to regain third from Kubica, while Hamilton’s unusual strategy saw him run light enough after the first stops to pull a thrilling overtaking manoeuvre on Massa and build up a lead.
The question was always going to be how many Ferraris would he be ahead of – if any – once he’d made two more stops to their one.
In the end he emerged in sight of Massa but too far back to have any hope of catching him – and only just enough ahead of Raikkonen to hold him off as the soft tyres on the McLaren handed the advantage to the Finn.
Further back in the field Kubica was unchallenged in fourth and his team-mate Nick Heidfeld recovered from a disappointing qualifying position to take fifth. Fernando Alonso won out from Mark Webber in the battle for sixth and seventh, with Nico Rosberg taking the final point ahead of David Coulthard in ninth.
Kovalainen spent most of the afternoon sticking bold overtaking moves on drivers that he would later have to re-take following his out-of-sequence pit stops. He reached as high as eighth but finished 12th, a place behind Button.
Afterwards, Hamilton described it as his best race ever because of the effort he put in: “I am so thrilled with today’s result, and I think this is the best race ever for me. It’s not about winning, it’s about feeling that you extract 100% from yourself and the car and I did that today.
“Before the race our prediction was that all being well I would finish fifth, so second is such a bonus. I was not happy with my performance yesterday and perhaps if I had managed to get the car on pole I could have won.
“However, we knew that we would have to use a three stop strategy as a precaution as we had some issues with our tyres. The team did a fantastic job, the pitstops were great, and the balance of the car was superb, and we all kept our spirit up. There were no problems with the tyres in the race.
“I managed to overtake Felipe at one point, and I really think we have closed the gap to Ferrari. I am so excited about the next race in Monaco and just can’t wait.”
Coulthard was pleased to have broken his recent run of bad form – and to not have broken anything else. He said: “I just missed out on points today, which is frustrating, but I’ve looked around my car and there’s no damage, so at least we finished a race without colliding with anyone.
“I raced as hard as I could. I dropped half a second just before my second pit stop and came out just behind Nico, which was probably the deciding factor.
“I think the strategy guys did a good job today, I just wasn’t able to eke the last little bit of pace out of the car. I had a little bit of understeer and difficult drivability getting the throttle open, which cost a tenth of a second per lap.”
Button struggled for most of the race with his tyres, overheating brakes disrupting his first stint on the harder prime tyres, while the difficulties he encountered on the softer option tyres in qualifying returned to haunt his second stint.
He said: “Although I managed to improve slightly on my start position, it was a disappointing race for us.
“The start was clean and I had a pretty good first lap, however our pace wasn’t as good as we expected it to be during the race. I had a problem on my first stint with the front tyres, caused by the brakes overheating, which cost me a bit of time. We then changed our strategy to a one-stop which worked pretty well.
“Unfortunately the difference in fuel loads really tells here so it was difficult to hold back the quicker cars behind me who were two-stopping. We need to make some further improvements to the car before we are able to challenge for the points again.”