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.

Advertisements

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.