At the start of the week when the Canadian Grand Prix should have taken place MotorsportWeek.com reflects on one of its thrillers, which happened six years ago today (Monday), and resulted in a popular maiden win for Daniel Ricciardo.
The opening third of the 2014 Formula 1 season had been revolutionary, controversial, and opinion-splitting. The overhaul to the regulations, most notably the introduction of 1.6 litre V6 power units, had shaken up the competitive order. There were regular complaints over the noise in comparison to the V8s that had been replaced. The appendages on the front of some cars were an eyesore, while the issue of weight – given the heavy nature of the new engines – had led to safety fears for some of the taller racers, who had admitted to extreme diets in a bid to reduce mass.
Mercedes, following its full-time comeback in 2010, had diverted substantial resources to the new era and was profiting handsomely, with its W05 Hybrid by far the class of the field. Between them Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton had won all six races and there was an increasing suggestion that a clean sweep of all 19 grands prix was plausible. The fading relationship between the childhood friends had become a prominent talking point as Mercedes’ dominance meant it was clear one would be World Champion. In Bahrain Rosberg had used certain engine settings in a bid to gain an advantage and Hamilton repaid that favour in Spain. In Monaco provisional polesitter Rosberg went wide on his final Q3 run, causing Hamilton to abort his lap, preserving the front-row line-up in that order. Many in the paddock doubted Rosberg’s innocence in going wide while Hamilton seethed with rage but largely kept a lid on his emotions in public.
The pair arrived in Canada split by just four points – Rosberg on 122, Hamilton 118 – with the remainder of the grid substantially behind. The heavy-power nature of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve did not augur well for anyone’s hopes of dethroning Mercedes.
Ferrari had built a dire car lumbered with an uncompetitive engine, prompting Team Principal Stefano Domenicali to resign, but Fernando Alonso held a miraculous third in the standings, on 61, ahead of Red Bull newbie Daniel Ricciardo, on 54, arriving in Canada off the back of successive third-placed finishes in Spain and Monaco. The Mercedes-powered Force India team had thrived early doors, with Nico Hulkenberg on 47 points, in front of reigning champion Sebastian Vettel, on 45, who was still getting to grips with the Red Bull RB10 and the new era. Williams had a rapid package but had yet to profit, with Valtteri Bottas on 34 points, and still awaiting a maiden podium, while Felipe Massa – on 18 – had squandered a litany of points. Ditto the second Force India of Sergio Perez, still in the process of rebuilding a reputation burnt by a troublesome year at McLaren. Perez’s podium in Bahrain had bolstered respect but that accounted for 15 of his 20 points, leaving him some way down on Hulkenberg.
The battle for pole position was, predictably, between the Mercedes drivers. Three-time Canada victor Hamilton comfortably led Q1 and Q2 but a mistake through Turn 7/8 in Q3 compromised his prospects. Rosberg seized the initiative and clocked a time of 1:14.874, 0.079s ahead of Hamilton, six-tenths clear of third-placed Vettel. The champion, Williams duo Bottas and Massa, along with Ricciardo in sixth, were covered by just 0.041s. Force India missed out on Q3 but Hulkenberg, in 11th, and Perez, in 13th, would have free tyre choice for the start – with Pirelli having brought the Super Soft and Soft compounds. Ricciardo was in little mood to look at the positives. “Shithouse – but if you want something you can print, say ‘scrappy’,” he said of his lap. “I’m trying to cheer myself up, I was a bit frustrated. Being less than half a tenth from three more positions up the grid, that’s frustrating. I made a few mistakes and paid the price. It sucks for me today, but that is how it should be.”
It was a warm early summer’s day at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and that solidified the expectations that the majority of teams would run a two-stop strategy, with the top 10 starting on the Super Soft compound on which they qualified. Crucially Hulkenberg, in 11th, started on Softs – though his hopes were compromised when, boxed in at Turn 1, he dropped behind team-mate Perez.
Rosberg retained his pole advantage though only after aggressively defending the inside from the fast-starting Hamilton into Turn 1, who dropped behind Vettel, with Bottas keeping Massa at bay, and Ricciardo preserving sixth. Further back Marussia team-mates Max Chilton and Jules Bianchi tripped over each other through Turn 4, sending both into retirement, and causing the deployment of the Safety Car. Crucially, the neutralisation period lasted for seven laps – 10 per cent of the entire race distance – which helped those leaning towards a one-stop, and also assisted with fuel consumption.
Mercedes fights – then flounders
Hamilton slipstreamed Vettel at the back straight on the third post-restart lap, profiting from the DRS activation, ostensibly setting up a direct fight between the Mercedes drivers. A two-second gap was maintained through the opening round of stops, with Rosberg pitting on lap 18 and Hamilton on 19, the German surviving a huge slide through Turn 4 on his out-lap. Hamilton reeled in his team-mate but Rosberg re-established a buffer by controversially cutting the chicane on lap 25, gunning the car through the run-off as soon as he realised he was set to run wide. The game of cat-and-mouse continued until lap 36, when Hamilton suddenly lost a second alone in the final sector. When his sector one time on lap 37 matched Rosberg it appeared to be merely a mistake. But when third-placed Hulkenberg came through it was apparent that both W05s were haemorrhaging time, particularly through the final sector. The Force India driver, on substantially older tyres, was running two seconds faster per lap. Radio messages played to the world confirmed there was a problem. Mercedes had lost ERS, robbing the W05s of 160hp, and thus leaving them hobbled along the straights. It was also playing havoc with their respective brake systems, as temperatures skyrocketed.
“What happened was that I lost the ERS and when you lose ERS then it doesn’t harvest anymore and then all the braking on the rear is being done by the brakes and then the rear brakes overheated,” said Rosberg. “So it was one problem and then the next problem happened. That just made it massively difficult. I needed to cool the brakes a lot, I lost a lot of power on the straights. At the same time, taking those things into consideration, I was just pushing flat out, qualifying laps.”
Mercedes, for the first time in 2014, was under pressure, and a win was there for the taking.
One of many?
At this stage it was still not a slam dunk that Ricciardo would claim his first grand prix win but the pack of cards was increasingly falling in his favour.
During the first stint the ‘best of the rest’ order was Vettel, who ran several seconds in front of Bottas, then Massa, and then Ricciardo. The Australian was clearly quicker than the Williams driver but could not find a way past the FW36, which had Mercedes’ supreme grunt powering it along the straights. Red Bull acted decisively and brought in Ricciardo, Williams responded with Bottas a lap later – ensuring the pair maintained position – while Vettel and Massa came in next time around, with all four switching to Softs. Vettel stayed ahead but Massa plunged behind Ricciardo, as well as Fernando Alonso and Toro Rosso’ Jean-Eric Vergne, after a troublesome front-left tyre change.
The non-Mercedes advantage still stood with Vettel but he encountered a problem in the form of the yet-to-stop Hulkenberg, now up in fourth. The Force India was rapid along the straights and while Vettel quickly cruised up to his compatriot’s rear wing he could not remove the obstacle. A lunge into the hairpin on lap 23 failed and Hulkenberg remained ahead, with his pace in turn assisting team-mate Perez, a few seconds up the road. Perez had also yet to stop and was still on Super Softs, underlining his reputation as a tyre whisperer. Such was Hulkenberg’s pace that Vettel was soon under pressure from Bottas, who in turn had Ricciardo a couple of seconds in his mirrors, while Massa dispatched with Vergne and Alonso to remain in contention. Perez finally relented mid-distance and came out from his sole stop at the foot of the top 10, promoting Hulkenberg to third, and after a frustrating 15 laps Vettel boxed for a second time – just as Mercedes’ problems developed.
“From lap 20 onwards probably, I don’t know, after the first stop, a couple of laps to go until I caught Nico, the first Force India, basically my race was over,” rued Vettel.
Vettel came out from the pits in traffic, narrowly behind Perez, while his stop put Ricciardo into a couple of seconds of free air. A stellar in-lap from the Australian, combined with traffic for Vettel, enabled the Toro Rosso graduate to emerge fractionally in front of his team-mate. He also jumped Bottas, who stopped a couple of laps beforehand and filtered in behind Perez and interlopers Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen. Bottas’ day began to unravel as the time spent in traffic sent his engine and brake temperatures spiralling, while a hefty lock-up early into his stint didn’t help his tyres.
Hulkenberg finally pitted on lap 41, discarding his Softs for Super Softs, emerging behind Bottas, as he tried nursing his Super Softs to the end, drifting away from podium contention. But his presence was damage done for Vettel while conveniently assisting Perez, who was now being hounded by the Red Bulls. Further up the road Massa was due to pit but as the Mercedes drivers continued to lose several seconds per lap Williams opted to extend his stint. Was this now Massa’s race to lose?
Rosberg came in for a second stop on lap 44 but a slow service meant he relinquished track position to Massa, and a lap later the Brazilian claimed the lead when Hamilton boxed. A quicker tyre change by Mercedes allowed Hamilton to jump Rosberg but his advantage lasted only a few corners. Hamilton’s limping Mercedes cried its last as the rear brakes finally failed, sending him wide on successive turns, and leaving him cruising back to the pits and into retirement. Rosberg also struggled, drifting across the Turn 6 grass, as Massa retained a slender lead.
Could Massa end a six-year win drought? Williams assessed the situation and doubted his tyres would last another 22 laps, given the train that was reeling him in. Massa pitted, handing the lead to Rosberg, who was frantically communicating with the Mercedes pit wall in an attempt to mitigate his time loss as much as possible. Teams were still learning about the brake-by-wire system, with Montreal the first 2014 circuit that truly tested braking ability, while the problems afflicting the W05 prompted Rosberg to shift the brake bias forward as much as possible. It eased the pressure on the rear brakes but needed some in-race adaptability from Rosberg, who was performing miracles in not only keeping the W05 Hybrid running, but doing so at the head of the pack.
As the tension mounted Rosberg led Perez by 1.5 seconds, who in turn had the two Red Bulls for company, with Hulkenberg and Bottas a few seconds back, as the other Williams of Massa homed into view in seventh. Talk about drama. Any one of five drivers were still contenders.
Rosberg was losing in excess of 20km/h along the back straight but his pace was still quick through the first two sectors, ensuring he kept a gap of over a second to Perez. This was crucial, not only to keep a buffer to the Force India driver, but also to ensure Perez never received the benefit of DRS. Perez was pushing but, alongside being in the cockpit of a slower overall package, was nursing his tyres as much as possible to make the one-stop strategy work, while trying to keep the charging Bulls behind. Like an accordion the gap between Rosberg and Perez reduced to half a second at Turn 1, and extended to almost two prior to the hairpin. Behind, Bottas tried passing Hulkenberg but succeeded only in running wide, allowing Massa through, who then slipstreamed Hulkenberg into the chicane. Massa was now up to fifth, on a mission, and with fresher tyres.
Red Bull acts
Red Bull won four titles on the bounce in the V8 era but in 2014 had slipped behind Mercedes and in Canada was battling a gaggle of cars that all had superior straight-line speed. With one Force India having compromised one Red Bull earlier in the race, the other Force India was now a roadblock for the other Red Bull. The team also had the added complication of another Mercedes-powered driver, in the form of Massa, hurtling into contention like a rocket. By lap 62 Massa had joined the pack, extending it to a five-car lead train, and Red Bull implored Ricciardo to find a way through Perez where possible. The Mexican’s car developed a brake problem and his fundamental pace was such that Rosberg – still performing brilliantly up front – was not being seriously troubled. On lap 64 Vettel checked up at the hairpin after almost rear-ending the increasingly frustrated Ricciardo and that handed a golden opportunity to Massa. The duo ran side-by-side along the back straight but Vettel held firm, assisted by Massa forgetting to open his DRS. That effectively ended Massa’s hopes given the ticking lap counter.
With Perez and Force India communicating over his worsening problem he went slightly too deep into the chicane on lap 65 and that gave Ricciardo his chance. Ricciardo carried his greater apex speed from the final chicane onto the pits straight and overtook his rival around the outside of Turn 1, braking absurdly deep to just about make Turn 2, via a little bit of grass-cutting. He was finally through, after over 25 laps of staring at the Kingfisher logo on Perez’s rear wing. Ricciardo reeled in the ailing Rosberg and on lap 68 he breezed past the Mercedes along the back straight.
“We had a good fight with Perez and we were really struggling to pass them,” said Ricciardo. “They had a really strong car down the straight and it was doing a good job through the corners as well to keep me behind. But then out of the last chicane I got a really good run on him and made the move stick in Turns 1 and 2. I was close to overshooting it, dropped a couple of wheels in the grass but it was fine and then I got Nico in the closing stages.”
The win was his.
One last scare
There was a sting in the tail for two erstwhile victory contenders. As Perez grappled with worsening rear brakes Vettel pounced and overhauled him for third into the chicane on the penultimate lap. Massa got a run as they began the final lap but the pair clashed under braking for Turn 1, sending both spinning at high speed. Massa’s Williams skated across the inside of Turn 1, narrowly avoiding a catastrophic side-impact with Vettel, before careering into the barriers, while Perez’s Force India creamed into the wall earlier in the corner. Neither was injured in the respective heavy impacts though terse words were exchanged afterwards on a day in which both missed out on a big reward.
Massa was more vocal, commenting: “I was so disappointed with him. He needs to learn. I wanted him to put himself in my place, because I had a huge crash and honestly I thought it was going to hurt. It’s not the first time that he turned into somebody under braking. He did this many times.” Amid the chaos Button profited to move from eighth to fourth – gaining two spots from the crash and two when Hulkenberg and Alonso almost took each other off at the hairpin, opening the door for the McLaren.
It was a wild finish to a wild race in which any one of seven or eight drivers from four teams could have triumphed had the stars aligned.
But on that day the stars aligned for Ricciardo.