Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Montreal Preview: A heady mix of variables

F1 is at Montreal. And no matter what for one weekend at least all seems right with the sport.

There are lots of reasons for this (and I tried to outline a few of them in my recent article about the track), but a major one is that races around the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve island venue tend to have a diverting, and often a rather madcap, quality; thus predicting what is likely to happen in them is a hazard-strewn task.

Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal - a popular venue
that provides entertaining races
Credit: magicfab / CC
Many variables go into this. It is a circuit that gives more scope than most to hustle a sub-standard car around (being as it is made up essentially straights, chicanes and hairpins) and thus run closer to the cars that are more benign. Walls are close at Montreal, meaning that mistakes are punished much more readily than elsewhere, while safety cars in races are also common, and these frequently bunch and sometimes jumble the pack. And adding to these variables is that the track's configuration is overtaking-friendly; it was considered this way even before F1's lively modern era of DRS and Pirellis. As if to underline all of this, it is one of the very few venues on the contemporary calendar that the haughty Red Bull team has never won at.

So despite this what can we discern for this weekend's visit? Barring unusual occurrences there is every reason to believe that a Mercedes will be on pole position again. One has been in each of the last four rounds after all, and on a Saturday the car's looked good on short tight corners of which there are plenty at Montreal.

A key theme of the weekend though is whether Monaco's race - wherein a Merc for the first time in 2013 retained its preponderance on race day too - was indeed a one-off for the Silver Arrows related to Monaco's many peculiarities or whether the team has found something. There was indeed, among all of the chatter about 'clandestine' tyre tests, talk that the team had prior to Monaco revised its suspension among other things in its latest attempt to scratch its long-term itch of poor tyre durability. Around the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve however the tyres will get much more of a work out than around the principality. While like at Monaco the surface is non-abrasive and there is not a quick corner worthy of the name, unlike at Monaco the cars will be running with a low downforce setup which means the tyres are leaned on a lot more. At Montreal traction zones are vital for laptime but equally it is important not to break traction and spin the wheels, as that eats up the rear tyres. That a lot of the traction zones are bumpy makes achieving this especially challenging, and it's rear tyre thermal degradation that's been the Mercs' particular bugbear. And unlike at Monaco there is no way the Mercs will be able to control the pace out front with cars bottled up behind unable to pass.

But if Mercedes did indeed find something regarding tyre life before Monaco, and demonstrates as much in Montreal, then it'll be a vital shift not just for this weekend but for the 2013 season, as well as indeed for Merc's return to F1 as a constructor overall.

Was Monaco a one-off for Merc?
Credit: Facebook / CC
And as a sideshow the Mercedes intra-team battle will continue to intrigue, given Nico Rosberg's recent excellent form which has reversed the expected order of things. Lewis Hamilton couldn't ask though for a better stage on which to enact his bounce back: he always goes well at Montreal, has won there three times indeed, and the need for aggressive bouncing of a car through the many chicanes suits him just fine.

In a Grand Prix weekend in Montreal just about any one of the four seasons can be expected, though the forecasts seem to indicate a cool and rather rainy Friday and Saturday at least (which would add one more to Montreal's many variables), with things fining up for Sunday's race. This may further make tyre life difficult, as the track will be less rubbered in and thus the cars will slide more.

Parallels with Melbourne earlier this year seem obvious. Like then, the tyre compounds are supersoft and medium. Like then the weather looks like it'll be cool with rain around during the weekend. The track is a temporary one, barely used throughout the rest of the year, and is one made up largely of straights separated by tight corners and chicanes with acceleration zones plentiful. And then in Melbourne of course the Mercs and the Red Bulls fell away on race day, in the Bulls' case struggling with tyre graining, while Kimi Raikkonen's Lotus and Fernando Alonso's Ferrari moved to the fore to fill the top two places in that order.

Ferrari, in a mirror image of Mercedes, will be hoping that Monaco is indeed a one-off and the F138's characteristic of going well everywhere is re-established in Canada. Even though the Scuderia's last triumph here was back in 2004 it is nevertheless viewed as a track on which it goes well, and in each of the last three years the Ferrari has looked a bit more competitive in Montreal than in surrounding races (Canada last year was, Monza aside, the only dry qualifying session wherein Alonso looked a pole contender). One drawback is that perhaps the car's weak point is traction, which is vital. The car does seem good over the kerbs however while Alonso, like Lewis, can be counted upon to impel his machine through the track's many chicanes at haste.

Can Kimi Raikkonen repeat his Melbourne win?
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
As mentioned, there are lots of reasons to think that the Lotus will be a strong contender for victory this weekend. Indeed the car, in Romain Grosjean's hands, very nearly won at Canada last year and likely would have done had Grosjean known there was more life left in his tyres than he thought there was. And if anyone in Montreal to use the football parlance 'needs a result' this Sunday then it's the embattled RoGro.

Of course, Red Bull can never be counted out, and for all of its lack of wins here, and relative struggle at tracks which require good top end speed, Sebastian Vettel has started on pole in the last two Canadian visits. And all year Seb has been there or thereabouts, and just about always maximising his results.

McLaren's recent record at Montreal is a strong one however, having triumphed here in five of F1's last seven visits. But even with the car's incremental improvement you still feel that it'll take a rather crazy Sunday for a McLaren to come out on top this time. But the Woking team can cling to the knowledge that it'll be in a good place for one.

Another variable in Montreal's heady mix is the lack of consensus on strategy. Ordinarily the ease of overtaking at Montreal (and this year there will be two DRS zones compared with last year's one) and the short pitlane (only around 15 seconds are lost) would guide teams towards attacking strategies of going as fast as you can with more pit stops as necessary. However, in Montreal the threat of safety cars stalks races like Banquo's ghost, meaning those on the pit wall will be fighting against this potential threat as well as against their rivals. It will therefore nudge strategists back towards fewer stops, meaning many may again try to cruise through the race with the aim of stopping just once (which will no doubt result in the latest round of Pirelli seethe). Last year there was a perfect split of the top ten finishers between stopping once and stopping twice, with five of the top ten adopting either. The race went to Lewis on a two-stopper, helped by the lack of a safety car although Grosjean and Sergio Perez weren't far behind having stopped once. However both Alonso and Vettel's one-stoppers exploded in their faces late in the race (and it tilted the drivers' title away from Alonso as things transpired) after their Pirellis 'hit the cliff'. And if the rain is indeed around on Friday this time it'll make gauging tyre life and therefore strategies even harder.

Thus we stand poised before a Canadian Grand Prix weekend with plenty of credible contenders as well as a lot of unknowns and variables that each could well at a stroke give the outcome on Sunday a very different look. Which are a lot of the reasons why we love F1 being at Montreal.

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