Dan’s the man in Montreal

Mercedes dominated qualifying yet again, with Nico Rosberg surprisingly beating Lewis Hamilton to pole position. With the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve seemingly designed to suit the strengths of the Mercedes W05, it looked like the Canadian grand prix would be another straight fight between the two Mercedes team-mates.

The Mercedes cars battle into turn one

The Mercedes cars battle into turn one

And so it proved, but only for the first 37 laps or so of the race. Rosberg was actually beaten off the line by Hamilton, but managed to squeeze the Briton into turn one and maintain the lead. As it turned out Sebastian Vettel managed to manoeuvre his Red Bull ahead of Hamilton, too, as the Mercedes driver was forced onto the grass by his team-mate as he took action to avoid a collision.

Bianchi's wrecked Marussia following his 1st lap crash with Chilton

Bianchi’s wrecked Marussia
following his 1st lap crash with Chilton

Hamilton had to wait a while to re-pass Vettel, until lap 10 in fact.  The reason for that was a lengthy safety car period caused after the Marussias of Jules Bianchi and Max Chilton collided on the opening lap, putting both out of the race. It was a swift return to earth for the team after they’d been on a high after scoring their first formula 1 points with Bianchi’s ninth place finish in Monaco.

It proved to be a return to earth for Mercedes, too. With Hamilton trailing Rosberg we suddenly heard reports of a loss of power on Hamilton’s car, swiftly followed with team radio indicating an identical issue on Rosberg’s car. The rest of the field were suddenly catching both Mercedes cars hand over fist.

Even before we got to that point there was controversy as Rosberg escaped a penalty, despite gaining an advantage, by cutting the final chicane when under pressure from a charging Hamilton. It proved to be immaterial however. While the Mercedes toiled the rest of the pack continued to close in. It was time for the second stops for Mercedes, and a slow stop for Rosberg allowed Hamilton to overtake him, although both were now behind the Williams of Felipe Massa.

Hamilton pulls into the pits to retire

Hamilton pulls into the pits to retire

Hamilton, finally had the advantage over his team-mate, but it wasn’t to last. The Englishman emerged from the pits on lap 46 just ahead of his German team-mate, but later the same lap he ran wide at the hairpin allowing Rosberg through. Hamilton then himself cut the final chicane as we saw his right rear wheel smoking. It turned out that in addition to the loss of power his brakes had failed, forcing him into his second retirement of the reason.

It soon emerged that Rosberg had trouble with his brakes, too. As Massa made his second pit stop on lap 49 the remaining Mercedes retook the lead of the race, but was being chased down by a pack of three cars led by the Force India of Sergio Perez, with the two Red Bulls of Daniel Ricciardo and Vettel close behind. Amazingly, though, Rosberg was able to hold on with Perez closing rapidly down the straights, but unable to make his move as Rosberg kept pulling out enough of a gap through the corners.

The Force India just wasn’t going to get the job done, but as it turned out a Red Bull could. Perez started suffering from brake issues himself allowing Ricciardo to pass on lap 66, just five laps from home. Even though the Red Bull isn’t as quick in a straight line as the Mercedes powered Force India, it was quicker through the corners, meaning that Rosberg was unable to pull away from Ricciardo through the first and second sectors.

Ricciardo takes the chequered flag to win his first Formula 1 race

Ricciardo takes the chequered
flag to win his first Formula 1 race

On the penultimate lap of the race Ricciardo made his move and took the lead. There was no opportunity for Rosberg to fight back as Massa and Perez crashed very heavily at the start of the final lap, bringing out the second safety car of the race. The race finished under the safety car, with victory for Ricciardo – his first in Formula 1 – with his team-mate Vettel in third and Rosberg in second.

It’s a massive achievement for Ricciardo and thoroughly deserved after a stellar start to his career at Red Bull Racing. You can’t help but feel, though, that despite not taking the race win, the biggest winner was Rosberg. A retirement for Hamilton and a second place finish means that the German’s world drivers’ championship lead has ballooned to a daunting 22 points over his team-mate.

Hamilton will be hoping for a change in fortunes next time out in Austria. It’s Red Bull’s home race, though, and they’ll certainly be heading there in high spirits.

Vettel canters to victory in Canada

Having pulled cleanly away from pole position, led into turn 1 and built up his customary lead of a couple of seconds over the course of the first lap, victory for Sebastian Vettel in Canada was never really in doubt. If you hadn’t known, you never would have guessed that Vettel and his Red Bull Racing team had never won at Montreal. It was a dominant victory. Vettel was never really challenged for the lead and the race might have been a bit of a procession had it not been for the abundance of action behind the leader.

Qualifying only sixth may have cost Alonso the chance to challenge Vettel

Qualifying only sixth may have cost
Alonso the chance to challenge Vettel

Having made little progress early on in the race Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, who started in sixth place, really came alive towards the end of the race. Alonso had his customary good first lap, making progress and passing Valtteri Bottas, who had qualified an impressive third in changeable conditions, to be in fifth place by the time he crossed the line to start lap two. However, the Spaniard was unable to make any further progress until lap 30 of the race, which almost certainly cost him any chance to mount a credible challenge for the race win.

Despite his relatively poor showing in qualifying, Alonso had confidently stated before the race that he thought that victory was possible, saying “We start in a position that gives us all the chances to win the race if we are quick enough”. Judging by his pace later in the race, the Ferrari may well have been quick enough, but being trapped, along with Vettel’s Red Bull team mate Mark Webber, behind the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg really cost Alonso.

Webber, who was running in fourth place, finally made his way ahead of Rosberg through the first of the two DRS zones at the Circuit Gilles Villieneuve on lap 30. Alonso followed him straight through and, having saved KERS, utilised KERS and DRS to pass the Mercedes in the second DRS zone; the start/finish straight. It look Alonso another 12 laps to find his way ahead of Webber, which he did, again down the start/finish straight, on lap 42.

Hamilton attempting to re-pass Alonso in Montreal

Hamilton attempting to re-pass Alonso in Montreal

Alonso really came into his own in the last 20 laps or so, hunting down the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton who had been running strongly in second position throughout the race. Hamilton had a lead of around 10 seconds at one point, but Alonso rapidly closed him down, aided by traffic, in particular Adrian Sutil, who received a drive through penalty for ignoring blue flags. Alonso eventually found his way through on lap 63 at his favourite place; the start/finish straight. Hamilton, despite his best efforts was unable to pass Alonso back, but with only seven laps go Alonso did not have time to mount a challenge to Vettel, who had a lead of around 15 seconds.

The aspect of the race that stood out the most for me, though, was the tyres, or more accurately, the lack of extreme degradation. The fact that Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes – the car that has suffered most with tyre degradation this season – was able to run a much longer first stint than many of his rivals, was telling. The Englishman stopped from the lead on lap 19; three laps later than Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso. This might have been partly down to the nature of the track in Montreal; lacking in high speed corners and a relatively smooth surface. This meant that the tyres weren’t stressed quite as hard as they were at Barcelona. I also doubt very much that we’ll see Paul di Resta manage to do a one stop race in round 8 at Silverstone. A 57 lap first stint on the medium compound tyre in Canada was hugely impressive by the Force India driver.

The key point is, though, that we had an exciting race without having tyres that fell apart after a few laps. That surely makes a mockery of the argument we need high degradation tyres in Formula 1. Unfortunately, unless Pirelli’s new tyres, which we expect to be raced at Silverstone, have dramatically different characteristics to the current tyres, we’re likely to see a return to endurance racing at the British grand prix. That’ll be music to the ears of Lotus and Kimi Raikkonen who really struggled at Montreal.

Kimi Raikkonen struggled both in qualifying and the race

Kimi Raikkonen struggled both
in qualifying and the race

Lotus have a car that is probably the kindest on its tyres of all the 2013 generation of Formula 1 machines. That really cost them at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Raikkonen had only managed to qualify in ninth place, but started one place further back after a pit lane infraction in Q2 resulted in a grid penalty for the Finn. Things didn’t improve much for Raikkonen and Lotus in the race, with the 2007 world drivers’ champion only managing a ninth place – one lap down.

This meant that Raikkonen scored a paltry two world championship points, which was particularly damaging to his championship hopes given that championship leader Alonso scored the maximum 25 for his race win and Alonso took 18 for his second place, moving him into second place in the championship, leapfrogging Raikkonen. Indeed, Lewis Hamilton, having taken 15 points for his third place, is now only 11 points adrift of the Finn in the standings.

Lotus have slipped back in the world constructors' championship

Lotus have slipped back in the
world constructors’ championship

The constructors’ championship position won’t make pleasant reading for Raikkonen and Lotus, either. A fifth place finish, and 10 points, for Nico Rosberg added to his team-mate Lewis Hamilton’s 15 points gave Mercedes a 25 point haul from the race in Canada, enabling them to leapfrog Lotus into third in the constructors championship. Indeed, Mercedes obliterated Lotus’s slender three point lead to move 20 points ahead of their rivals, aided by a non-point scoring race from Raikkonen’s team mate Romain Grosjean who finished 13th, having started last following an exceptionally poor showing in qualifying, made worse by a 10 place grid penalty for a crash with Daniel Ricciardo in Monaco.

As I’ve mentioned, though, the tables may well turn again at Silverstone. Lotus are likely to be stronger at a circuit where tyre wear is likely to be an issue again, while Mercedes are likely to suffer. What’s clear, though, is despite Red Bull Racing’s justified complaints about the Pirelli tyres, they’re still the team to beat. Vettel now takes a commanding 36 point lead in the world drivers’ championship, while his team have an even greater 56 point margin in the constructors’ championship.

Unless another team and driver puts a great run of results together and bad luck befalls Vettel and Red Bull Racing it’s hard to see anyone else winning the championships come the end of the season. Still, we’re not even at the halfway point of the season yet. As Murray Walker said, “Anything can happen in Formula 1, and it usually does”…

A tale of two McLarens

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.