After a closely fought battle for victory between the three drivers that occupied the first three grid slots in Canada, Lewis Hamilton came out on top, becoming the seventh different winner in the opening seven rounds of the record breaking start to the 2012 Formula 1 season. While the winner of the race wasn’t a huge surprise given Hamilton’s form so far this season and, particularly, over the course of the three days of the Montreal event, what was surprising was that the drivers that he had been battling with throughout the race – Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso – did not join Hamilton on the podium, and that Hamilton’s team mate, Jenson Button, could only manage a distant 16th place, a lap down. It’s this contrast in the fortunes of the McLaren team mates that I’m going to focus on, in particular.
Button started the season so well, winning the first race of the season in Australia. Having become the first team-mate to beat Hamilton over the course of a full season in 2011, the result in Australia might have signalled that Button was set to continue this trend. However, as McLaren have struggled with a car that looked to be losing ground to its rivals Button has suffered in particular in comparison to Hamilton, scoring just two points in the last four rounds of the championship in comparison to the 43 scored by his team-mate. There’s no better example of the contrasting fortunes of the McLaren team mates than the race in Canada. Button struggled all weekend in Montreal. Admittedly his weekend was compromised by a lack of running in Friday free practice (due to oil leaks that took the team four hours to repair), but even with these problems Button would have expected to have qualified better than 10th, especially given that his team-mate managed to qualify on the front row. Indeed, Button was lucky to make it in to Q3 at all, having also failed to do so in the previous two races in Monaco and Barcelona, with Pastor Maldonado looking set to beat Button’s 10th place Q2 time until he was over aggressive in the final chicane and crashed his Williams into the famous ‘wall of champions’.
If qualifying was bad for Button, things got even worse for him during the race in Canada. He struggled with the car and had to pit three times for fresh rubber. Button struggled so badly with tyre wear, in fact, that he needed to make his first pit stop before the cars that had started on the super soft option tyres, despite having started on the more durable soft prime tyres. Button was never in contention to score points in Canada, let alone challenge for a podium or the race win, while his team-mate was on top of the car, able to push when he needed to and, crucially, able to extract the maximum from his tyres.
Hamilton could have been forgiven for being distracted by some of the pre-race speculation about his plans for 2013 and beyond. The 2008 world champion’s contract with McLaren is up at the end of the season and, given that McLaren had failed to make the most of a quick car through a combination of strategy, pit stop and other errors, media and fans have suggested that his future might lie away from the Woking based team. Hamilton’s failure to win in the opening six rounds of the 2012 championship – the only one of the likely championship contenders not to have done so before Canada – added further fuel to the fire, as did the possible availability of seats in all three of the other ‘big four’ top teams in 2013. However, if this was on Hamilton’s mind it didn’t show, as he drove an outstanding race and took a brilliant 18th career victory.
There were two crucial stages of the race for Hamilton, the first of which was leading up to the first round of pit stops. Importantly, as the lead three cars got ready to make their first pit stops Hamilton picked up his pace, closing in on race leader Sebastian Vettel, who had opened up his customary gap at the start of the race and who was the first of the top three to pit. Hamilton stayed out for a further two laps, putting in some great times enabling him to leapfrog ahead of Vettel through the pit stops. Vettel, who had now been on his new tyres for two laps and had brought them up to temperature, attempted to pass Hamilton through the DRS zone, but Hamilton’s ability to switch his own tyres on more quickly, coupled with Red Bull’s slow straight line speed, enabled Hamilton to retain the lead. The battle had only just begun for Hamilton, though. Alonso had closed up on Hamilton by the time that the McLaren driver pitted and, by staying out a lap longer than the Englishman, he managed to emerge from the pits just ahead of Hamilton in the lead of the race. Again, though, Hamilton’s ability to turn on his tyres quickly proved to be crucial as he closed in on the Ferrari driver and successfully passed him in the DRS zone. Remember, Vettel had failed to complete the same manoeuvre, in similar circumstances, on Hamilton a lap earlier.
Hamilton’s ability to switch on his tyres quickly was again crucial later on in the race. Hamilton made his second pit stop of the race on lap 50, having been assured by his engineer that both Alonso and Vettel would also be on the same two stop strategy. As it turned out this proved not to be the case as both the Red Bull and the Ferrari teams attempted to make their tyres last until the end of the race (although Vettel later decided to pit for fresh tyres). Hamilton now found himself around 15 seconds behind race leader Alonso with 20 laps remaining, with Sebastian Vettel also some 12 seconds ahead of him. Hamilton, lit up the timing screens with purple sector after purple sector, leading to fastest lap after fastest lap, doing times a second a lap quicker than the cars ahead of him. He finally passed an ailing Sebastian Vettel with eight laps to go, and set about Fernando Alonso lapping two seconds a lap quicker than the Ferrari and passing him down the back straight two laps after his almost identical pass on Vettel. Hamilton finished over 13 seconds ahead of Alonso who eventually finished fifth behind Lotus’s Romain Grosjean, Sauber’s Sergio Perez – who had both made one stop strategies work – and Vettel, who had pitted for fresh tyres after being passed by Hamilton.
So , Hamilton was resurgent in Canada while Button toiled again. Clearly that McLaren is still a very fast car, but something has changed since the first race of the season in Australia and Button now struggles to extract the same pace from the machinery as his team-mate. This is a real problem for McLaren, who will need Button – who declared himself “confused and very lost” after the race – to get on top of his issues quickly if they are to stand a chance of ending their world constructors’ championship drought (their last win came in 1998). Although the strategy calls for Hamilton were exactly right in Canada, the team still have further work to do in other areas. McLaren’s pit stops were again an issue in Canada – the anti-stall system engaged as Hamilton tried to pull away after both of his pit stops and the second stop was slow after a small problem at the right rear. The pit stop issues, coupled with Button’s troubles could still cost the team dear come the end of the season if they’re not resolved soon.
McLaren shouldn’t dwell on the negatives, however. They should enjoy their second win of the 2012 season; Lewis Hamilton certainly did. After a third Canadian grand prix victory, five years to the day since the first win of his Formula 1 career at the same circuit, Hamilton now retakes the lead for the world drivers’ championship. There’s still a long way to go, of course, and the top three in the championship are separated by a mere three points, but Hamilton’s rivals will surely be hoping that the Englishman’s win at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is not a sign of things to come. Hamilton has scored points in every race this season, and if he’s now able to start stringing wins together a second world drivers’ championship could well be his.