Monday 5 June 2017

Montreal Preview - In the spirit of Gilles

You've probably noticed by now that the folks in and around F1 don't always agree on everything. Or on much at all.

The Montreal weekend has an inimitable quality
Photo: Octane Photography
And that applies absolutely to its venues. Yet there are a few on which there is nevertheless close to unanimity. One is that the annual visit to the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal for the Canadian Grand Prix, the latest of which is this weekend, is one to relish.

There are many reasons for this. Gripping drama and madcap action are positive expectations at this race. The layout ensures plenty of overtaking opportunities. The nearby walls at the parkland track can and frequently have punished even small errors. It even has its own 'Wall of Champions' which as its name suggests has ensnared a few of the best.

It is a place that rewards the brave. The track with the nearby walls cited is made up essentially of straights separately by chicanes and a hairpin. Pivoting and hustling the car through the chicanes, being bold on the brakes and shaving the forbidding concrete at great speed are what's needed.

Safety cars and carbon shards are a common feature in races here, and these also have turned many-a Montreal race onto its head. As a result, outcomes here are not so easy to predict. Since the turn of the millennium only a little over one Montreal race in three has been won from pole.

But even so we haven't got to the crux of the matter. A central tenet of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve's appeal is that it is different. Very much so.

The track embodies the spirit of Gilles Villeneuve
Photo: Octane Photography
The track is squeezed onto a man-made island barely 150 yards across in the Saint Lawrence river and is surrounded immediately by lush parkland dusted with quirky architecture. It also has an exciting, vibrant, international city just a short metro ride away and is one of those places that fully embraces its race. The fans are knowledgeable and plentiful, and always provide a great atmosphere.

No doubt also the passing of time and the parallel shifts of the F1 itinerary to new, cavernous and rather clinical venues has added to Montreal's status; one with a refreshing sense of the distinct.

Unconventional, unpredictable, always entertaining and with an unmistakable sense of soul. The grandest attribute of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is that it's a lot like Gilles Villeneuve.

Perhaps further in keeping with the spirit of Gilles is that Ferrari enters this Montreal stop-off in a position of strength. This season has indicated that the red car is strong on all types of circuit, including 'low-energy' tracks such as this one (see also Sochi and Monaco).

Sebastian Vettel appears currently at his relentless best right from his championship-winning seasons, and while he's only won here once he also performed well in his last two Canada visits. Kimi Raikkonen though hasn't had much fun here lately, and indeed hasn't finished in the top three here since 2006. His fingertip style has seemed in recent times ill-suited to the layout.

Appropriately, Ferrari comes to the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve
 in a position of strength
Photo: Octane Photography
While by contrast to Ferrari, Mercedes comes here with trepidation. Its big problem this campaign is getting its tyres working - namely getting its fronts 'switched on' while not overheating the rears - particularly on low-grip tracks with slow corners, and particularly again when on the softest compounds. And all this is exactly what it'll face here. Adding to this the relatively low downforce settings required at this track may make it even harder to get the tyres working.

"We are struggling to get the car nicely balanced, especially in the very slow-speed corners," explained Merc pilot Valtteri Bottas in recent days.

"We are struggling with the rear stability. When the rear's stable, [the car is] understeering slightly and that puts more temperature in the fronts.

"Ferrari seems to have both of their axles always working but for us they're not really coming together at the same time. Not all the time."

Mercedes does have the consolation of Lewis Hamilton though, who is considered a local specialist. He's won here five times, including the last two, as the local requirements suit him just fine. Though he's had the odd bump here too and indeed up until 2013 he'd either won or crashed in every Montreal race.

Bottas also has a good record at this track, and indeed finished on the podium in his last two visits. While this year he's tended to go better than Lewis when Merc does struggle with these sorts of surfaces and tyre compounds.

Lewis Hamilton has a strong record at this circuit
Photo: Octane Photography
Red Bull has gone a bit better lately though may struggle down Montreal's long straights. Its fine low speed grip and traction has mitigated this somewhat at Montreal historically though. 

As for the rest, Williams has a good record here as it does on many 'point and squirt'-type tracks. As noted Bottas bagged a couple of recent podium finishes here for the Grove team while Felipe Massa might have won in Canada in 2014. Certainly Williams could do with some good results, though then again its chief rival Force India also tends to go well at this circuit.

McLaren also has shown up a little better lately on pace at least, and this time will benefit from Fernando Alonso's triumphant return from Indy. As with Red Bull it may struggle on the straights (Nando's been known to complain about the extreme fuel saving required here too) though Honda may have an upgrade this time. Honda chief Yusuke Hasegawa has said it's "very tight" to get it ready to run this time however and the decision will be made on the Thursday before the race.

Strategy considerations for the Montreal track have appropriately a corkscrew quality. The track's short pit lane (the loss time of 18 seconds being about the lowest of the year) and the relative ease of overtaking would ordinarily mean a multi-stop approach. Yet the frequency of safety cars at this circuit (at around a 60% chance) means decisions to stop are often rather on the hoof.

Valtteri Bottas, and the Williams team,
have a good record here
Photo: Octane Photography
Then again, Vettel and Ferrari could tell you based on last year's visit that reacting too eagerly to a Virtual Safety Car can rather backfire. Track position isn't to be disregarded either, as Seb getting stuck in traffic after an early stop last year rather took the race away from him, while in 2015 there hardly seemed an overtake in the entire race.

Like Monaco tyre wear is low here due to a smooth surface and a complete absence of quick corners, while the Pirellis this year - even the softest compounds - appear durable. Perhaps notoriously so. As in Monaco most have piled high on the ultrasoft compound for this one, presumably hoping to do a ultrasoft then supersoft one-stopper like in the Principality. Victor Hamilton and third-placed man Bottas both managed one-stoppers here last year.

Further varying matters is that this track has long had a reputation as a car breaker - tough on brakes, gearboxes and these days energy recovery systems - and is especially prone to this if the temperature gets up. While on the subject of the weather that also, appropriately, varies more than at just about any other modern day venue and the full range - from hot and sunny through to cool and wet - can even be witnessed within the same race weekend (long range forecasts suggest it'll be dry but fairly cool this time). Temperature also impacts tyre life and therefore strategy. If rain does arrive then all bets are off - the 2011 race provides a guide for this.

Add to this that Montreal is not a permanent circuit, meaning the tarmac rubbers in rapidly as the weekend goes on, and it can conspire to give participants a bum steer early in the weekend on tyres and setup. Losing track time to rain can therefore be particularly regrettable for the competing teams.

But for the rest of us, there tends to be very little that is regrettable about our annual gathering in Montreal.

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