Feature: Canadian Grand Prix conclusions
Sebastian Vettel wrestled back control of the Formula 1 championship by becoming the first driver to rack up three wins this season with an emphatic display at the Canadian Grand Prix. Motorsport Week reflects on the event and the primary discussion points.
Children of the Red-volution
The last time Ferrari triumphed at the Canadian Grand Prix Sebastian Vettel was a 16-year-old dreaming of following in the footsteps of Michael Schumacher, and 14 years later such aspirations came true, ending the Scuderia’s wait for a win on Canadian soil (or rather, man-made parkland). With Formula 1’s leading three teams barely separable, any marginal gain is crucial, and Vettel and Ferrari – aided by reserve Antonio Giovinazzi at Maranello’s simulator and an engine update, bounced back from a “disaster” on Friday to hit form at exactly the right moment, finding the sweet spot with the SF71-H during an ultra-close qualifying session that effectively decided the race order too. Vettel’s drive was a throwback to his Red Bull days of controlling the start, pulling clear of DRS range and then simply scampering off into the sunset, never to be seen again.
“I think I dedicate [the win] to the team, to the guys in Maranello and to the Canadian fans, the Canadian tifosi, I think they have been waiting long enough for Ferrari to do well here,” said a sentimental Vettel. “I think, yeah, 40 years after Gilles Villeneuve won his grand prix here, I think it’s great to show that Ferrari is still alive, that Ferrari is still there, winning races. I’m just extremely proud to become part of that story, step by step, hopefully a bit more in the future, but I think I remember the race in 2004, I think I was watching on TV, so it’s crazy to realise. Therefore, I think rather than dedicating to one person, I think it’s better to dedicate to, as I said, to our team in general and to the people here.” The victory was also Vettel’s 50th in Formula 1, ensuring he joined Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost and Lewis Hamilton as a member of the half-century club.
Quick to Critique
Many expected the Monaco Grand Prix to be processional, but there was a level of disappointment at the racing served up in Canada, an event frequently labelled as unpredictable and entertaining – erroneously, perhaps, for the circuit’s last thrill-a-minute race was in 2014. It is fair to suggest that the 70-lap (or, rather, 68-lap) race was one of F1’s more subdued encounters, but the level of criticism from some quarters was misleadingly deafening, and quite eloquently summarised by Vettel. “Life’s like this, or racing,” he said. “Racing’s probably like this. I don’t think it’s justified to criticise the racing, or criticise this race. I don't know if it was boring. From my point of view, obviously, it’s still busy inside the car no matter where you are but I don’t like… I don’t know why people today are so short-sighted. We had seven races this year, I think some were phenomenal, some were boring – but next week the World Cup is starting and I promise you that a lot of the games will not be exciting – but still people will watch it – but some games will be incredible. That’s what we always look forward to – but it can’t just always continue to go up and get better. So, I don’t know, there’s no reason, don’t even look for an answer, don’t write anything. Write about something else.”
Not every race is exciting and dramatic but the raised levels of hyperbole creates false expectations. Liberty is at least attempting to rectify the (perceived) current problems for future generations, though there is never going to be an ideal product. By virtue of the format, Formula 1 is supposed to be dull (for a fuller explanation click here) – and any regulation changes can have unintended consequences. Harder tyres? Softer tyres? Refuelling? Track changes? Format changes? Car changes? At what level does competition become artificial in pursuit of entertainment? This is a pivotal time in the future direction of Formula 1. “I think we do our job inside the car and if we can race, we race but obviously, we also do our job inside the car and try to avoid racing,” said Vettel. “Disappear, stay in front, or not get overtaken. And then some races are just exciting and others are not.” He is quite right. His job is not to provide dramatic moments or high-brow entertainment, but to claim victories for Ferrari in the most clinical and straightforward fashion.
Missing the Mark
The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve was supposed to be Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes territory, the bursts of power and heavy braking zones playing to the characteristics of both driver and car. Only it didn’t quite work out that way, and Hamilton departed a lowly fifth – having never previously finished off the podium at the event – but relieved to have done so. Hamilton’s practice pace over one-lap and across a race distance marked him out as the favourite, running his quick lap in FP2 on the Ultrasofts as opposed to the faster Hypersofts. But he and Mercedes were already on the back foot. A ‘quality’ issue with Mercedes’ PU2 upgrade meant that the scheduled engine improvements would have to be benched until France, with Hamilton and the other five Mercedes-powered drivers forced to use the older-spec engine – not only older spec, but also towards the end of its life cycle. Hamilton pointed out such an aberration on Thursday, explaining that “naturally it degrades: you lose horsepower over races. If we’re 7000km or 8000km or whatever [into the engine’s life] it definitely will [have] lost performance and at a power circuit [that] will probably be magnified.”
It is impossible to put an exact number on the lap time deficit but considering the tightly-contested nature of the top three fight, any missing piece is currently proving crucial. And if the engine wasn’t to blame, the tyres were also problematic. Mercedes has never favoured Pirelli’s softest compound and reached such a conclusion during post-season testing in Abu Dhabi 2017, opting thereafter not to run the Hypersoft at all during pre-season testing in Spain this year. It meant it limited its supply for Canada – and neither Hamilton nor Valtteri Bottas ran the compound in FP2, waiting instead until FP3; Bottas put in a strong Q3 lap to take a front-row spot but successive lock-ups into L’Epingle left Hamilton fourth on the grid. Any hopes of a surge in race trim were thwarted from the outset when Hamilton’s car suffered a chassis component issue that compromised the cooling on the W09 – it meant his car ran hot, temperatures had to be managed, with the subsequent performance loss hurting his prospects. Mercedes called an early stop in order to open up the bodywork (much to Hamilton’s bemusement, as he was initially in the dark as to his earlier-than-planned service) but the move enabled Daniel Ricciardo to use the overcut, after which Hamilton was unable to respond.
Hamilton was nonetheless “very grateful” to reach the finish and bag 10 points, explaining: “I just thought it was going to fail. Every single lap I was waiting for the power to just drop away and disappear - but it kept going. I could have lost a lot more points; fifth is not the strongest result, but it could have been a lot worse.” Hamilton’s season has been a little indifferent, but as the mantra goes – titles are won by the results earned on difficult days. Team boss Toto Wolff was understandably downbeat about the outcome, commenting that it was a “wake-up call”, especially in light of Mercedes’ previous form in Canada.
Rise of the Valtteri
It would be churlish to reflect on Hamilton’s sub-par weekend without peering into the other side of the garage, where the result was far more favourable. Valtteri Bottas’ season began badly with his Q3 crash in Australia and he received criticism for his cautious approach in Bahrain, but since then he has had a very strong run of performances, and the points tally does not fully reflect his ability this season. Much of Bottas’ 2017 season was peaky, marrying some determined drives with weekends where he was disappointingly off the pace, and the latter area is where he has concentrated this year.
Understandably, a year’s worth of experience of the pressures and demands of a top Formula 1 team has aided his progress, and in Canada he was exceptional, qualifying just 0.093s behind Vettel – despite the alleged engine deficit – and in holding his line through Turn 1 demonstrated strong (and pivotal) racecraft against Max Verstappen that has previously been absent at his race starts. Bottas has yet to win a race this season, but he has finished runner-up at four of the seven Grands Prix, and was deserving of victory in China and Azerbaijan before fate intervened. He is 35 points off the title lead but without external setbacks would comfortably be on par with his team-mate and Vettel. He is, so far, doing everything to fully warrant another year in silver.
For the second time in five years the chequered flag at a Formula 1 race was erroneously shown one lap early, as race leader Vettel reached the end of the 69th lap of 70. A miscommunication between local officials was to blame for the premature flag waving, which was carried out by model Winnie Harlow, present as a guest and friend of Hamilton. She rather unfairly received the immediate criticism but it was not her fault – and under Formula 1 regulations such an incident means the results are backdated to the previous completed lap – the end of lap 68. Laps 69 and 70, therefore, were effectively ghost laps.
The gross error of judgment caused confusion and worries for some drivers, with Vettel fearing an early track invasion by fans, while marshals (who with no reason to doubt otherwise) began waving all the flags in the customary end-of-race salute. Fortunately the processional nature of the race meant that no positions inside of the top 10 were altered, ensuring that the incident can go down as a gaffe rather than a farce. Though it did rob Daniel Ricciardo of the race’s fastest lap, which instead went to Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen, prompting a stunned mouth-agape reaction from the Australian upon receiving the information live on Sky Sports.
From Ren-oh to Ren-yes
Renault had a dismal time in Canada during its return season in 2016, its weaknesses fully accentuated, highlighting the mountain it still had to climb. It remains a fair distance from its intended summit, but the team was ‘best of the rest’ in 2018, as Nico Hulkenberg led home Carlos Sainz Jr. in seventh and eighth respectively, effectively a 1-2 result in Class B, a lap down on the leaders. It means Renault is now just one point shy of its 2017 tally already, and has further strengthened its grip on the fourth place in the Constructors’ Championship that it craves. Renault has so far more-or-less met the goals of the plan it implemented upon its return at the end of 2015, and is gradually becoming a sharper race team, able to marry reliability with performance.
Formula 1 is a cyclical game – which is good news for anyone tired of the current pace advantage enjoyed by the top three. It won’t last forever. Whether through external factors, financial decisions, sporting decisions, or otherwise, success is finite. McLaren and Williams have both had dynasties in Formula 1, periods where they appeared unbeatable, their trophy cabinets testament to former brilliance. But both are at a low ebb, and whenever it seems bleakest, the situation somehow deteriorates. McLaren had Romain Grosjean’s engine failure and, ironically, Pierre Gasly’s post-FP3 engine issue to thank for avoiding a double Q1 elimination, while Fernando Alonso was the only driver to suffer a terminal mechanical fault in race trim, as Stoffel Vandoorne finished a twice-lapped 15th, his slim points prospects undone by a first-lap puncture that wrecked his strategy.
McLaren salvaged strong results from difficult situations across the first four events but rather than kicking on it has now stagnated, substantially behind Renault, let alone the Red Bull team that it earmarked as its post-Honda benchmark. It was only the ninth-quickest team in Canada. And that means someone was slower – that someone being Williams. McLaren, at least, was at the tail end of a tightly-congested midfield gathering in Q1, seventh to 16th split by a mere half a second. There was then the same gap back to Williams, which continues to aim listlessly through the 2018 campaign. Lance Stroll’s attempt at making up ground on the first lap was valiant until his snap oversteer through Turn 5 ploughed his Williams into the wall and Brendon Hartley onto it, while Sergey Sirotkin’s attempt at the alternative strategy backfired as the use of the hardest compound left him unable to stick with the rear of the train, leaving him enjoying an afternoon of blue flag watching. And to think, two years ago Williams finished on the podium at the event.