Following their wreck of a weekend in Monaco, Mercedes arrived in Montreal for the 50th anniversary of the first Canadian Grand Prix, and the 38th Grands Prix held on the man-made island of Notre Dame at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. They also held firm to the fact that the circuit is one of the strongest tracks for both their Mercedes drivers; Lewis Hamilton took his first pole there as well as his first GP win. He has gone on to win four more. Teammate Valtteri Bottas notched an unexpected third on the grid for Williams in 2013 and has been on the podium twice in a row.
As they experienced in Monaco, Ferrari felt their advantage in getting the front, and rear tyre temperatures matched quickly coupled with Montreal’s low degradation surface, and increased high energy corners would give them an initial advantage. It would be perhaps the beginning of the Scuderia’s undoing.
There were other factors as well. The circuit has very high-speed straights lined with walls and nowhere to go if something suddenly “goes south” so Montreal also serves as having one of the highest expected (80%) deployments of a Safety Car during the season.
The circuit’s non-abrasive track surface demands the softest tyre compounds available. While Ferrari seems able to get up to speed everywhere this season quickly, Mercedes has faced trouble coupling their front and rear tyres’ heat ranges, and therefore achieving chassis balance. Monaco qualifying had been a nightmare and many late night hours were spent since looking for a fix. Montreal’s war on brakes was also central to Mercedes’ simulations with seven extreme high-speed applications from over 300km/h into chicanes and hairpins. Ferrari had come prepared with front brake drums sporting three new chevron-shaped vents per corner.
Holding third place in the constructors’ championship, Red Bull arrived knowing that their Renault engine’s power shortfall was not a match for the circuit’s high-speed straights, stating that Montreal, followed by Baku and Austria would plant them firmly on their back foot.
Practice and the first two rounds of qualifying then played to form: Vettel or Raikkonen fastest. It was then that Lewis Hamilton decided to turn up the screw and apply speed as needed. At the beginning of Q3, Hamilton surprised Ferrari and Vettel by producing previously-unseen pace to break the outright lap record. Vettel responded brilliantly, coming within 4/1000ths of a second of Hamilton’s time. Hamilton was relentless, however, pulling a further 0.3s out on his final run to lay down a 1:11.4. Vettel had to settle for second, falling short by three-tenths. With the pole, Hamilton tied Ayrton Senna for Grands Prix pole positions with 65. He had reached that milestone two years earlier than Senna and five years earlier that Michael Schumacher.
Unbeknownst to Hamilton, Senna’s family had travelled to Montreal expecting Hamilton to reach that iconic figure and had brought along Senna’s helmet (a replica…the real helmet is to be transferred privately) as a commemorative gift for the Brit ace, who was overwhelmed by the gesture. It was to be an auspicious omen for the Grand Prix to come.
The run-up to Montreal’s Turn 1 is the second shortest (260m) of the season, emphasising the importance of starting on pole. Despite this, only six of the last 15 Canadian Grands Prix have gone to the pole winner.
When the starting lights went out, Lewis Hamilton made that number seven, leading the Canadian Grand Prix from start-to-finish to capture his sixth career Formula 1 Canadian Grand Prix title and his 56th career victory. He now trails Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel by just 13 points in this season’s driver’s championship.
Hamilton won the short sprint into Turn 1, as second starter Vettel and fourth man and teammate Kimi Raikkonen produced too much wheel spin and were immediately overrun by RedBull teammates Max Verstappen (5th) and Daniel Ricciardo (6th). Hamilton firmly shut the door on Verstappen who had vaulted into second and gave him even less room on the run toward Turn 2.
Verstappen’s move caught Vettel by surprise as the German had his hands full holding off Bottas on the inside, when the Dutchman sliced across the Ferrari’s nose on the outside, with his left rear taking off Vettel’s front wing’s endplate and critical aero vanes. Third starter Valtteri Bottas then completed his pass on Vettel, taking third place during the scrum, although his veracity cost him a flat-spotted front tyre.
A few spots back, Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz Jr moved into Haas’ Romain Grosjean sending the Spaniard’s out of control Toro Rosso slamming the completely innocent Felipe Massa into the barriers in Turn 4. Sainz Jr had scored points in five races this year, more than both Red Bull drivers. Perhaps he saw the desperate situation ahead as a chance to find even more points for a team despite a down-on-power engine.
Both he and team-mate Danny Kyvat had just missed qualifying in the top-10 for Canada, and the 100th top-10 start in Toro Rosso’s history as a constructor. It was not to be this weekend.
Both Sainz and Massa retired on the spot. Kvyat stalled on the grid before the formation lap and incorrectly rejoined. He would drop out near race end with mechanical failures after he was brought in for a late pit stop, but his team brought out the wrong tyres, leaving his engine to fry as he sat waiting.
Raikkonen’s slow start had ceded his position to Force India’s Sergio Perez. Vettel circulated waiting to pit and hoping to go all the way to the end once he stopped. That proved to be lap six when a large section of the wing finally gave way. He returned in 18th place.
Verstappen looked ferocious, his down-on-top-speed Red Bull seemingly matching the Mercedes duo’s pace until he lost power on the 11th lap as he exited Turn 2. His Red Bull had lost its battery feed with no runoff space, triggering a Virtual Safety Car. It was his third unforced retirement in the last three races.
With his flat-spotted front tyre ruining his Mercedes’ balance, Bottas was consigned to second place as Hamilton quickly checked out. Both would run unopposed using a single tyre-stop plan for the remainder of the Grand Prix.
Daniel Ricciardo, now in third, pitted on lap 19 for soft tyres, one lap after Ferrari brought in Raikkonen to undercut his third place, competitors.
The Australian came out ahead of both but behind Force India’s first full season rookie Esteban Ocon, who was second at the time. The 20-year old rookie Ocon had used the Safety Car periods and a very long first tire stint to rise as high as second place before pitting on Lap 32. He rejoined behind team-mate Perez. Halfway through the Canadian Grand Prix Hamilton was comfortably holding ten seconds over team-mate Bottas while title leader Vettel was locked up back in seventh.
And then Ferrari abruptly changed strategies, bringing in Raikkonen on lap 41. They waited until lap 50 to call in Vettel to change to Ultrasofts. He immediately responded with fastest laps as he sliced through the field looking to salvage third place.
In the end, Vettel could do no better than fourth place, surging past Raikkonen who developed brake system problems and then overtaking both Ocon and Perez who were backed up behind Riccardo’s Red Bull. Raikkonen recovered enough speed to grab seventh just ahead of Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg.
Force India had given Perez a three-lap deadline to overtake Ricciardo on lap 60 or give Ocon a chance with his fresher tyres. Perez’ had no intention of letting teammate through. His intentional blocking of Ocon allowed Vettel first to track down the young Frenchman and pass him with an on-the-limit-lunge into Turn 2 on lap 66, and then have Perez face the inevitable pass on lap 67. Vettel would fall short of catching Ricciardo by .70-seconds at the flag.
Following Perez (5th) and Ocon just 0.060s behind (6th), was Raikkonen, recovering enough speed to grab seventh just ahead of Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg.
Williams’ homecoming Canadian rookie Lance Stroll had his kismet moment, picking up his first career points for ninth in front of his countrymen.
Fernando Alonso was on his way to securing McLaren’s first points of the 2017 season when his Honda suffered another power unit failure with two laps remaining. He promptly climbed from his car and kept climbing into the stands, ending in the middle of hundreds of surprised fans. It was fantastic scene as the helmeted Alonso threw his gloves into the throng and the fans returned the gesture in spirit by rushing to give him several hundred pats on the back. His tenth place finish went to Romain Grosjean.
“I only had fun when I saw the chequered flag. It was tough. I was defending the whole race and we weren’t that quick to be honest. We had pressure, pressure, I couldn’t afford to do any mistakes and it was getting quite hot.
My concentration was being tested but I enjoyed it, and it’s amazing to be on the podium.”
Perez’s defence against Ocon was the stuff of an in-house battle for the title, not when you’re fighting over 4th with a Ferrari right behind waiting to pick up the pieces (which Vettel promptly did). Perez raced for himself instead of the team, costing Ocon a high probability for a podium and the team much-needed winnings. Today, Perez lost much more than he thought he won.
“That’s how it is, that’s racing sometimes… my time will come.”
“(My front endplate) didn’t just fall off. Three cars into turn one just doesn’t work. (Max) saw his gap, fair enough, and he ran into my front wing.
You don’t do that on purpose because the risk of a puncture is high.”
Interviewer Sir Patrick Stewart said he braved Ricciardo’s boot-full of champagne because he was so happy to be on the F1 podium for the first time, he’d drink out of anybody’s shoe.
Before Canada, Sebastian Vettel had finished every race so far in either first or second place, emphasising both Ferrari’s ability to perform on a variety of track and temperature scenarios and Vettel’s single-minded consistency. It had led Niki Lauda to tell the press: “Vettel needs to retire at least once, otherwise it’s all over.” Mercedes is now facing Baku and Austria, two power tracks in their cars’ wheelhouse that perhaps might offer two more venues where they can “turn up the screw” again?
Now its on to the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku.