Formula One // Canadian GP Preview

The F1 carnival travels over the Atlantic this coming weekend for the traditional and brief respite from the European leg of the season in what is the Canadian Grand Prix. The 4.4KM Circuit de Giles Villeneuve perched on top of the man made Ile Notre-Dame is a high speed street course that poses a very different challenge to the confines of Monte Carlo.

This track is classed as a street circuit but you won’t see any clubs or bars track side here. Access to this tiny, man made island on the St Lawrence river near Montreal is difficult and poses a huge challenge to all of the F1 teams. This circuit is always very much anticipated and is always very well attended. It’s unique location is only part of it’s charm, the other and more significant is it’s layout. This circuit is short, high speed and it’s kinks and twists coupled with two significant hairpins encourage overtaking opportunities. Overtaking can be difficult at times due to narrow areas of the circuit but generally, this circuit offers many thrills and spills.

Most notable of these is the “wall of champions” at the final chicane before the home straight (Turns 13/14). Drivers decelerate from near 190mph to make the tight chicane (right then left) before accelerating off down the straight to the start/finish line. Slowing the car down enough to make the chicane and to carry enough speed to get momentum out of it requires intense control, coordination and self discipline. Even world champions get it wrong sometimes which is why the wall on the inside of Turn 14 is called the wall of champions…it bears the scars from many number 1’s who have crashed into it including Jacques Villeneuve, Michael Schumacher, Jenson Button and Damon Hill to name just a few.

Because this race is situated out on a river, the wind can play havoc here and this poses a serious threat to car setup. Depending on which way the wind is blowing depends on how the engineers will set up the car. Driving into a headwind down the huge straights will require shorter gear ratios in order for the cars to reach maximum speed. Driving away from the wind will require the opposite but we all know…the wind can change. This is just a tiny example of how F1 teams must adapt to each environment that they race in.

Canadian Grand Prix 2015 statistics

Track: Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Street circuit.

McLaren continue to improve, all be it slowly but Jenson Button’s point scoring position last time out in Monaco was a great achievement. There is a feeling that the high speed circuit at Ile Notre-Dame will send McLaren right to the back of the field again but the team have decided to use up engine tokens in a bid to improve their reliability and speed. It’s becoming a predictable sight to watch Fernando Alonso jumping out of a broken down car every other weekend and so far this year, only once have both cars finished a race and Ron Dennis is growing impatient.
Ferrari have also decided to use engine tokens in preparation for this weekends race. Since Malaysia the prancing horse has been left trailing the Mercedes cars and questions have started to emerge as to whether they are genuine contenders to Mercedes recent dominance or merely just best of the rest. It’s currently uncertain whether Ferrari will use an upgraded engine this weekend or an improved power unit but it’s likely that they would have changed something to eek more power out of their cars.
Last years race was an epic. The two Mercedes cars both suffered brake issues, Hamilton drove an heroic race, Rosberg ducked and dived to keep the lead, Ricciardo drove the wheels off his Red Bull to claim his first victory and the race finished in a cloud of Force India and Williams debris left behind after a late first corner accident. This race will have a lot to live up to but it generally gives us the action we need…particularly after a some what subdued affair in Monaco.
Brakes will once again be an issue for many, particularly for the Mclaren, Lotus and Toro Rosso cars who seem to have suffered in that area this year. This track combines it’s high speed areas with tight hairpins and these ingredients combine to put an enormous stress on F1 cars.

Can the rookies continue to impress?

Felipe Nasr, Max Verstappen, Will Stevens and Carlos Sainz jnr have all been impressive this season. Will Stevens has beaten his team mate in nearly every session of any race this season except the actual race in Monaco and even though every race he’s finished he’s been lapped, he has comprehensively beaten his team mate.

Nasr and Sainz Jnr finished 9th and 10th respectively in Monaco which considering that this Monaco GP was fairly straight forward with little incident but also their first in F1 they did brilliantly well to score points. The fact that Sainz Jnr started from the pit lane (20th) makes his 10th place even more heroic and what a great job it was.

Max Verstappen fell victim to the “rookie error”. His huge crash towards the end of the race which literally decided the outcome of who would eventually win the race showed that this boy is an out an out racer with huge determination but one that needs refining. He or Roman Grosjean; the driver that he rear ended at 150mph into turn 1 wouldn’t have wanted their epic battle to have ended the way it did and despite Verstappen accusing Grosjean of attempting to play chicken by deliberately break testing him (warning off the threat of an over take by braking sharply) I believe that Vertappens inexperience is the reason why he ended up in the barrier with a smashed Toro Rosso and a headache. Despite Vertappens crash he was brilliant to watch. He was brave, a little crazy you might say to try the over takes that he did but this is racing, this is what the fans want and we should expect more.

If anything, 2015 has certainly got the rookie drivers it needs. None of them are prepared to roll over for anybody and they are there, racing AND entertaining the fans. The last rookie to leave the world aghast at his brilliance was Lewis Hamilton but I think Max Verstappen is definitely causing jaws to drop with Sainz Jnr and Nasr not too far behind him.

Will Mercedes make more mistakes?/The conspiracy theorists speak en-mass.

Lets be honest. Mercedes made one of the biggest errors in the history of the sport last weekend in Monaco when they called Lewis Hamilton in for a pit stop that he didn’t need to make. It was so significant that it immediately got the conspiracy theorists interested and media tongues wagging. For me it was interesting because it always appears that if it’s going to happen to anybody then it’s going to happen to Hamilton right?

Lets go back in time briefly. Hamilton won three of the opening four races losing one to Vettel. Nothing could stop him. The Ferrari was exceptional on it’s tyre degredation in Malaysia but significantly you have to question the decision of the Mercedes team to use up their best wearing tyres during the previous days qualifying session? This decision meant that by the end of the race Hamilton was on softer, more badly worn tyres than Vettel and Vettel cruised to an easy win. Taking nothing away from Ferrari, this win now seems that it occurred because Mercedes were at fault rather than Ferrari closing the gap to them because ever since then they’ve remained firmly behind Mercedes despite various upgrades they’ve made.

In Spain, Rosberg was rampant but significantly here, the slow pit stop that cost Hamilton firmly confirmed his second place to Rosberg. Some times pit stops go wrong (remember Hamilton suffering several bad stops in a row during his last season as a McLaren driver in 2012?) but had it worked out then he could have had a real chance of getting close up to Rosberg; indeed he asked the pit wall whether he could still close the gap after he came out of the pits.

Then we come to Monaco. Lewis Hamilton is pulling away a second or even seconds a lap over the rest of the field and claiming that he is cruising. By the time the Verstappen/Grosjean accident occurs on lap 64 and the virtual safety car is deployed, he’s 25 seconds ahead of the field. It’s important to understand that for a car to enter the pits, to stop, then to drive out of the pits will take about 20 seconds. This being the case and with 25 seconds to play with Hamilton could have pitted and got out 5 seconds ahead of Rosberg.

What went wrong was that on track, Hamilton picked up the safety car at Tabac corner. He was so far ahead that he travelled for the longest time behind the safety car on the lap on which it was deployed meaning that from his 25 second lead, he lost 10-15 seconds as the rest of the field caught him up at high speed. When he actually pitted he was only 10 seconds or so ahead of his team mate…not 25 seconds ahead as he had been moments ago. The trouble was that his track position meant that he didn’t have much time to react to the safety car and neither did the team. His thinking was reasonable in that his tyre warming issues would have been cured had he put new tyres on. He believed in the confusion that Rosberg and even Ferrari had put new tyres on and worried about the threat of being overtaken he pitted. Rosberg and Vettel didn’t pit and thus Hamilton finished a disappointing third position.

In a conversation with his race engineer Peter Bonnington during the race, Bonnigton told Hamilton that he should stay out. Hamilton queried that and said “my tyres are losing temperature and everyone else will be on options now” wrongly assuming that everyone else had actually stopped for fresh tyres. The absolute fundamental point about this whole scenario is that when Hamilton was chatting to his team during those vital moments NOBODY told him that Rosberg wasn’t stopping and neither was any of the front runners. Why not?

Hamilton has shouldered some of the blame for the decision but you have to say that it’s a massive error to make for a world champion team. We know from listening to team radio week in, week out that the race can be confusing for the driver because they don’t have the tools at their disposal that the pit wall and garage has. Mercedes SHOULD have calculated what was happening and they DID know that Rosberg wasn’t going to pit. I believe Toto Wolff when he says that the team mis-calculated and I certainly don’t think it was intentional.

What I do think is interesting is that Rosberg won his third Monaco GP in a Mercedes in a row. He now goes down in history as being one of only a handful of others who have achieved this honour. Some conspiracy theorists suggest that Mercedes wanted this outcome for many reasons, for instance the very fact that Rosberg won three Monaco GP’s in a row in a Mercedes car is an impressive accolade that won’t go un-noticed. After this result Rosberg is now only 10 points behind Hamilton in the title chase…this battle was almost over in Hamilton’s favour before the season had properly begun but now Rosberg is right back in it…. another inter-team mate battle will do wonders in advertising the brand of Mercedes to the world.

Will Hamilton recover his composure?

Hamilton didn’t show up for the post race photo and who can blame him. He’s been negotiating a new contract with a top team whom he’s won races, a drivers championship and a constructors championship for and two days after he signs it this happens. Rosberg and Vettel lucked in. They know it and Vettel immediately told Hamilton that at the end of the race on live TV.

 A year ago Hamilton’s season went to pieces after the Monaco GP. He, perhaps didn’t react the right way but it was considered to be a more personal affair after his team mate “cheated”  the day before in qualifying. This year was different. A ridiculous error cost him the win and it was going to be a win of significant margin as well from looking at the delta times after the race.  Hamilton will absolutely regain his composure, there is no doubt about it. He has done it before under hugely difficult circumstances and he will do it again.

Hamilton would have left Monaco feeling disappointed, angry and upset but on a positive note he absolutely blew away his opponents all weekend. He knows that he’s the fastest man out there by some margin and Canada is one of his preferred hunting grounds. He has won there three times already. He will be out for the win this weekend and will want to put the recent past behind him and build that title lead up once more.

This weekend will not only be about Lewis Hamilton as I can presume that is where the media focus will be but the spotlight will need to be on Mercedes. They need to regain their composure in a serious way. Sometimes they come across to me as amateur champions. By this I mean that they  have designed a great car, have great drivers yet are somehow not able to cope with their success or become the fully refined package. In years gone by we’ve seen Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren become SO good at winning that they rarely made mistakes but I feel Mercedes are some way off from that at the moment.
2015 was billed as a foregone conclusion in F1, an expensive, jolly jaunt across the globe to an inevitable second championship for Mercedes and one of their drivers but after accident, disaster and lady lucks intervention for some, it’s shaping up to be one of the best yet. Stay tuned….Canada should not be missed