Monday 8 June 2015

Canadian GP Report: Dogs that didn't bark

And so the Montreal dog didn't bark.

It may have threatened to - glared menacing; perhaps growled under its breath. But at no point did it do its notorious worst. As Montreal races go this was rather a calm one.

Lewis Hamilton won in Canada yet again
Photo: Octane Photography
But it did hold true to one habitual local factor, that Lewis Hamilton won. It was his fourth triumph at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve place indeed.

His team mate Nico Rosberg was close for the whole way; even looked threatening at certain stages. But the victor insisted that he had matters well under control. "I didn't feel happy or the most comfortable" said Lewis afterwards, "I generally had a lot of understeer but I never really felt too much under pressure. Nico was quick but I felt like I always had it under control, I had a bit of time in my pocket to be able to pull it out when I needed to, so it was never too serious." It looked that way.

And Lewis was one at least who got something out of it: "It was a great race. I don't know how it was to watch but it felt like it was intense and I really enjoyed it."

It was a couple of less well-documented Montreal factors that ensured the slightly tepid fare - that it's a track tough on fuel and on brakes. Perhaps two factors exacerbated by the current set of regulations. And the first factor at least was sent well into marginal territory by that for the first time in a long time the Canadian race featured no safety car.

And the two Mercs out front had their problems, in Lewis's case in was fuel that had to be eked out; in Nico's case it especially was brakes. Mercedes boss Toto Wolff explained afterwards that despite the outward sedateness of their runs for the two leading silver machines there was rather a lot going on under the bonnet as it were.

"It is a circuit which as you know is very heavy on the brakes" said Wolff, "and it is a balance, a fine line, between us wanting to not interfere in the racing of the two drivers and let them fight it out, and on the other hand making sure the car survives."

Nico Rosberg had to settle for second this time
Photo: Octane Photography
"At a certain stage we had almost 30 second gap to [third-placed Valtteri] Bottas, we had high brake temperatures and we were a bit marginal on fuel. We discussed how to keep all of those key parameters under control. This was a bit of a tense situation but I wouldn't say it was more tense than in other races."

Wolff added that Nico's brakes were the greater problem of the two - "very very high temperatures" after the first third of the race he said.

Nico concurred: "A very challenging race because of fuel saving" he said in the aftermath, "but that wasn't so bad, more the brakes. And to adapt to the front brakes getting too hot. Adapting around that, changing brake balance, things like that. So that was the most challenging part - especially of course because I have Lewis in front, so I don't have any clean air to cool the brakes - so for me it was even more of a challenge behind. But it worked out OK. I was still able to put the pressure on but not quite enough."

Around the time of the two Mercedes's sole pit stops matters over first place threatened to get interesting. The gap between the leading Lewis and chasing Nico peaked at 4.5 seconds on lap 24, but within ten laps was down at 1.1.

Also just after his stop Lewis was seen locking a front tyre up under braking more than once, that led some to suspect that just like in Saturday morning practice he was being impeded by a flat-spotted tyre. He insisted not though.

"Fortunately not" he said when asked if this had been so. "I didn't have really... I think right at the end I might have had one lock-up but it was never enough to be a problem."

Instead Lewis said at that stage when the gap narrowed he was in a fuel-save mode: "I think because Nico was in my tow he was able to save more fuel. Naturally when you're behind someone you use less fuel. And for me, I thought I had saved enough but I needed to save some more, so through that period I was just fuel-saving. Managing the gap within a second but I was saving a lot of fuel, and then once I'd saved enough, I was able to get on it a little bit more. But I only really needed to answer to the lap times Nico would do. If I could do a tenth or two faster, that would be fine. So that's what I tried to do - just tried to manage it and bring the car home safely."

Hamilton was a worthy winner
Photo: Octane Photography
All of this 'management' of course got some of the sport's it seems these days instinctive self-flagellation started, but Wolff insisted lifting and coasting and the like to save fuel here is "a matter of strategy. If you decide to go on a one stop you need to manage your fuel." As mentioned it's hardly a new thing at this circuit either.

It transpired too that both Mercs, especially Nico, were being asked to manage their brakes for a final ten-lap shootout for the win. The gap hovered around just over a second for a long while. But come those final ten tours not a great deal changed. Lewis indeed appeared able to respond to whatever Nico could offer while Nico himself didn't really help his cause by losing chunks of time periodically, possibly with driving errors.

All in Lewis probably was right. The race did have a tension about it, though at the same time it wasn't overloaded with fireworks, not over the win at any stretch. But its winner was a worthy one. And the Englishman's championship lead thus is extended to 17.

Wolff admitted too that following Monaco and all that this one was particularly satisfying: "After Monaco it was difficult for the team, we were exposed to massive criticism,...[which made it sound like] suddenly a bunch of idiots were managing the team". Even Lewis who'd spent the weekend batting away regular suggestions of Monaco hangovers, conceded on the podium that he needed this one.

Another dog that didn't bark was Ferrari. Arriving at a power track having used some power unit development tokens much was expected of the Scuderia, In the end though fourth and fifth was all it could manage (Kimi Raikkonen ahead) and even worse they were 45 and 49 seconds adrift respectively of the victor.

Sebastian Vettel's drive through the pack was a fine one
Photo: Octane Photography
Merc and Ferrari alike however were mindful of the mitigating circumstances behind this result, not least that Sebastian Vettel started in eighteenth place owing to various goings-on on Saturday as well as that Raikkonen had a curious spin exiting the hairpin (much as he did last year indeed) just after his stop - the Finn talking of an unusual power spike and an 'on the edge' engine map - and then had an extra wheel change in an effort to clear Valtteri Bottas who'd got by as a result, which didn't work.

Ferrari boss Maurizio Arrivabene afterwards said in this vein: "If you look at the pace of Seb it's quite clear that in terms of timings we were there; there were a number of terms of performance it's fine."

"The engine upgrade was giving us the positive answer we are looking for."

Wolff from the outside agreed too: "We must not underestimate the upgrade they [Ferrari] have brought, we have seen very strong pace on the Friday. My assumption without really knowing it is that we haven't seen the best of Ferrari today. I think they will bounce back stronger in Austria".

Still, that an unimpeded Kimi was 11 seconds adrift of Hamilton at the time of his first stop suggests Ferrari's result wasn't all about the peculiar way that the race panned out. The Scuderia's drivers indeed seemed to accept as much that Merc remains a long way ahead.

"You cannot expect miracles" warned Vettel, "look at the gap...they are no idiots, they obviously are trying to make as much progress as possible...but things [for Ferrari] are going in the right way." Raikkonen added that the Ferrari needs to improve "in all areas" to close the gap. Arrivabene too conceded that "it's a long way to go [to Mercedes's pace] we need to have a bit of humility to recognise that at the moment they are stronger than us without thinking we close the gap so we can beat them every race. This is not realistic, honestly."

Seb's attacking drive through the pack on an aggressive two-stop strategy, the first halt after just seven laps, was a fine one though, and one he said he enjoyed. It had a couple of adventures on the way too. His fight with Fernando Alonso (twice) was a spirited one for both sides (no love lost there) while he had a close shave with Nico Hulkenberg when Nico spun and Vettel skipped the final chicane as they nearly came together as Seb came through. It was hard to apportion blame though, and the stewards agreed.

Valtteri Bottas was well content with his third place
Photo: Octane Photograph
As was clear from the first turn of a wheel on Friday the other Merc-powered cars were set for a happy time here and in large part that's what we got. Chief among these was Williams - always swift in low downforce spec - and Valtteri Bottas maximised the car in qualifying and the race to come home third, thus ending the Grove team's 2015 podium drought. Rob Smedley rightly described the Finn as "flawless". Bottas was hopeful too that with an upgrade to come in Austria Williams can just like last year step up to greater competitiveness at around this time of the campaign.

Felipe Massa also had a strong combative drive after starting fifteenth after engine problems in qualifying. His move to pass Marcus Ericsson was particularly thrilling, and after pulling off a one-stopper with a lengthy second stint on supersofts he was able to finish sixth

Romain Grosjean meanwhile spoiled his own day by veering into Will Stevens under braking for the final chicane, as if he expected the Manor to disappear into thin air. It necessitated an immediate pit stop for Grosjean and the stewards added a five second penalty to his time also, though that in itself didn't alter his tenth place finish. Romain perhaps was lucky not to get more of a punishment. Stevens rightly admonished the Frenchman afterwards as well as explained that such driving is not at all confined to Grosjean, and that a more general discussion needs to be had.

It was left to Pastor Maldonado, free from ill luck for once, to bag most of the Lotus points with seventh. Still, given the Enstone team had spent much of the weekend saying that its cars were close to the Williams on pace the overall outcome might be seen as underwhelming.

Hulkenberg meanwhile recovered from his Seb contretemps to claim eighth place at the end.

Red Bull is having a trying time
Photo: Octane Photography
Then we had Red Bull, Daniil Kvyat like in Monaco being the first of them, this time in ninth; Daniel Ricciardo finished in a subdued thirteenth. As Ricciardo noted after qualifying his is a team rather lost right now - its upgrades not working and the squad having little grasp of how to fix things. You had to remind yourself that just 12 months ago almost to the day Ricciardo won this race, as well as that a mere eighteen months ago the Milton Keynes lot was in a run of dominance that at times seemed like it would never end. Failed upgrades appeared not in its vocabulary. It's a reminder too that despite appearances in F1 things can change very quickly.

And how Honda must be clinging to that hope. Rather a few more wolves now encircle the Japanese door after a trying Montreal weekend, which started with its motorsport chief Yasuhisa Arai talking with optimism about its upgraded unit but then degenerated with both cars having engine changes on Saturday. It degenerated further in the race as Fernando Alonso was mugged repeatedly on the straights, and what had always been rumoured about the Honda unit that it is extremely fuel-thristy apparently was confirmed here, much to Alonso's chagrin. Both cars dropped out eventually with problems related to overheating exhausts. Arai meanwhile continues to talk about competitiveness in the second part of the year, but given that by now that second part isn't far off and that four of the next five rounds are power circuits (taking us right into September) it's all beginning to sound rather fanciful.

But there's nothing fanciful about Hamilton's or Mercedes's performances right now of course. Things can and do change quickly in this game as mentioned. There will come a day when either or both have to step down. But don't count on that particular dog barking soon.

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