F1: Round 8 – Montreal, Canada – June 13

If the 2010 Canadian Grand Prix had a strapline, it would probably be: the one where nothing happened as expected. And as such, it was great fun to see race engineers cycle from plan A to B to C in an effort to cope with increasingly unforeseen situations.

It all came down to the tyres. So far this season, tyre (and pit stop) strategy has been fixed and utterly predictable: the leading teams all use the soft option tyre for the final Q3 qualifying session, which then has to be used at the start of the race itself; its short life sees the teams pit around lap 20 and then stretch the harder tyre for the remaining laps to the end. “Simples”, as a leading meerkat celebrity in the UK would put it.

That went out of the window here. On Friday and Saturday it was clear that tyre wear at Montreal was on a scale they hadn’t seen before. On practice days, the rubber was barely lasting half a dozen laps before collapsing; hard tyres were also struggling, and there was bizarrely little difference in speed between them either. So this time out, the teams felt the only way forward was to use the harder tyres in qualifying and at the start of the race, and see how long they could stretch them in the race once the track started to rubber in.

Sensing an opportunity, McLaren had bucked the trend and opted to stick with the soft tyres. That had given Lewis Hamilton the edge to claim pole and break the 2010 run of pole positions for Red Bull. It didn’t work quite so well for Jenson Button, who qualified 5th, but he was buoyed by news that Mark Webber had been bumped from his front row start alongside Lewis by a penalty for changing his gearbox overnight and would start behind him in 7th after all.

Still, McLaren’s soft tyre option was a big gamble. To work, it really needed an early safety car to enable them to pit in a hurry and change to the harder compound. So McLaren (and Fernando Alonso too, starting from third also on soft tyres) would have been thrilled when all sorts of mayhem broke out on the first lap.

First we had Vitaly Petrov lose control into the first turn, and snap across the track collecting Pedro de la Rosa on the way, sending them both spinning onto the grass. Further ahead, we were seeing Jenson Button, Felipe Massa and Tonio Liuzzi all trying to go round a sharp corner three-wide, which was never going to be successful: on the outside line Button got away with just a bump, but Massa and Liuzzi went through a chain reaction of multiple contacts that left debris on track and both cars in urgent needs of help back in the pits. And just to cap off the first lap, Kamui Kobayashi ended up misjudging the final turn while battling with Nico Hulkenberg, launching himself into the air which was enough to cause him to lose control and end up crunching into the infamous wall of champions. Surely that was more than enough to bring out the safety car?

Actually – no, it wasn’t. To McLaren’s dismay, the earlier accidents were all cleared up (and the cars involved continued in the race), while even Kobayashi managed to limp the Sauber 300m on to park out of the way. There was nothing requiring a safety car here after all, and the race continued under green – just what McLaren didn’t want.

How long would the soft tyres last? About five laps. Even worse than anyone had feared, thanks to the track’s condition (there had been no race here for two years; coupled with some hostile Montreal weather and overnight rain both nights that kept washing the rubber off the track laid down in earlier sessions, which resulted in the worst possible combination for the tyres.) Pretty soon Vettel was all over the back of Hamilton for first, and Webber was climbing all over Button for fourth. Alonso was doing better on the soft tyres, able to stay out of trouble in the middle of all this, but it made for a multi-way battle for the lead that seemed to be going entirely Red Bull’s way.

By lap 7, with no safety car in the offing, McLaren had to abandon the soft tyres and brought Button in. Next lap around it was the leader’s turn; and Ferrari felt the same, bringing in Alonso at the same time. Alonso got the better stop and was out of his box quicker; McLaren released Hamilton just microseconds later, and the two ran dangerously wheel-to-wheel down the pit lane until finally Lewis had to concede – Fernando had pulled off the overtake.

That left Sebastian Vettel leading from Mark Webber, Robert Kubica, Michael Schumacher and Sebastien Buemi. But any smugness the leading group might have felt was rapidly diminishing as their own tyre performance started to fall off a cliff, while those of Hamilton and Alonso in clean air further back and on fresh rubber was giving them a huge advantage. Suddenly, just four laps later, the pack began to break up and started to come in for tyre changes: Red Bull held out longest, leaving it till lap 14 to call in Webber and then Vettel the next lap through, and when Vettel gambled with soft tyres – which didn’t stand a chance of making it 55 laps from here – it was clear that for the first time we were going to see a two-stop strategy if not a three-stop. We were in uncharted territory in the 2010 season rules and regulations, and at this point no one knew how it was going to pan out.

That briefly left Buemi out in the lead ahead of his own stop, but the delay had allowed the early stoppers enough time to overhaul any advantage Red Bull had established, and so Vettel found himself fourth ahead of Webber in fifth. Meanwhile Hamilton was not taking kindly to losing the pit lane duel with his old enemy Alonso; as they came up on still-to-pit Buemi, however, Alonso found his path momentarily blocked and he had to lift off a fraction. It was all the invitation that Hamilton needed, and he pounced into the final chicane on lap 16 to grab back the lead.

Alonso wasn’t letting Hamilton get away, though, and it was clear that Hamilton’s driving style was wearing this new set of hard tyres faster than Alonso’s, which meant that the Ferrari became an increasing threat as time went on. Alonso was just setting up a move on lap 27 when Hamilton abruptly called it quits and headed into the pit lane for a fresh set of rubber. That fired the starting gun for a new round of stops, with Button, Vettel and Nico Rosberg piling into the pits next time around, while Alonso stayed out a lap longer and set a fastest lap time in the process as he tried to eke out enough of a gap to retain the lead. It didn’t work: he came back out behind Lewis, and both of them were behind Mark Webber who had decided to tough it out a while longer.

There was still no safety car, not even when Adrian Sutil punctured a tyre and ran off the road at turn 1, leaving rubber debris on track. How could there not be a safety car? There’s always a full course caution in Montreal – it’s a North American tradition! The lack of a safety car for the entire afternoon will have foiled many a race strategy this weekend.

At this point of the race, Red Bull’s strategy with Webber looked like a race-winning one. He pulled out a 10s lead over Hamilton and Alonso, with Button and Vettel still in position further back. But things started going pear-shaped for the Aussie and by lap 40 the tyres were going off sharply, just at the same time he was coming up against traffic that was too busy having its own battles to make way for the leader. Webber started losing chunks of time, and yet still Red Bull oddly failed to bring him in; by lap 49 Hamilton was just a second back and clearly much faster than the ailing Webber. The next lap through, Hamilton sealed the deal with a a great move through turn 1 to take the lead once more; Webber pitted next time by, but by this point it seemed the failed strategy had consigned him to an unavoidable fifth place.

Surprisingly, Hamilton’s pace seemed better than Alonso’s at this point and he started to pull away in the lead. Nor was the advantage just for Lewis – Jenson Button also had a similar edge on Alonso, and was soon right up on the back of the Ferrari and threatening to make a move. Once again it was a delay in traffic for Alonso that allowed Button to apply the superior straight-line speed advantage of the controversial F-duct system to sail past and make it a McLaren 1-2 for the second race weekend in succession.

Any chance of a late charge by Red Bull evaporated with an increasingly concerned series of calls from the pit wall by team boss Christian Horner, making it clear that Vettel’s car was suffering a serious issue. Vettel sounded sceptical but complied, backing off so much that he ended up only a short distance ahead of Webber, but the concern seemed to be proved beyond doubt when the car stopped out on track without making it back to parc fermé.

It was a bad day for Michael Schumacher, who emerged from his own first pit stop on lap 14 right in front of Robert Kubica, but couldn’t hold him off without taking them both over the grass of the turn 3 chicane. This clearly affected the Mercedes and Schumacher had to pit again very shortly afterwards, an emergency that had far reaching consequences as it left the team trying to stretch their rubber far, far too long to avoid yet another pit stop – leaving Schumacher trying to manage a 30-lap stint on the soft tyres at the end. It was never going to work, and Michael was a sitting duck for car after car. He pulled out every possible trick in his world champion’s handbook, with some of the most ruthless moves we’ve seen from him in a long career: this included weaving and nudging his old friend and mentee Felipe Massa onto the grass verge coming down into the final chicane that damaged Massa’s front wing and caused the Brazilian to make a stop for a new nose next time around. Schumacher’s pace faded even further after this and he got shuffled back and out of the points.

It was also a pretty disastrous day for Vitaly Petrov, who after suffering the first turn collision with de la Rosa was then penalised with a drive-thru penalty for a jump start, and then a second time for causing the collision. His team mate Kubica had a sub-standard day after his clash with Schumacher on lap 14 left his own Renault with damaged aerodynamics; and he nearly had a nasty clash with Adrian Sutil as the two tangled for position down the long run to the final chicane: Kubica then decided to straight-line into the pit lane, right across Sutil’s line into the chicane. Sutil managed to see the danger and hold off on the turn, but it would have been a dangerous incident if the two had collided at right angles at such high speed. Unsurprisingly, the stewards reprimanded Kubica after the race.

It was an unfortunate day for Felipe Massa, who suffered from the errors of others to end up 15th despite an at-times inspired drive. He did at least get some small revenge on Force India, if not Liuzzi himself, for the first corner accident that ruined his day when – on lap 54 – he took advantage of Adrian Sutil battling with Heikki Kovalainen to slice down the side of the pair of them into turn 6, arguably the overtaking move of the race. He did however get a post-race 20s penalty for speeding in the pit lane after his collision with Schumacher, but it didn’t affect his race position.

But it was the very best of days for McLaren. Turkey had seen a 1-2 finish as well, but the atmosphere on the podium and in the paddock had been ominous: no such problems in Montreal, with Hamilton jubilant and completely transformed from his sulky post-Turkey demeanour and the body language between Hamilton and Button looking completely open, friendly and warm – especially in contrast to Alonso, in the final podium position, who said and did all the right things but whose body language suggested that old scars with Hamilton were very fresh in his mind to this day and who would prefer to be anywhere else than stuck on a podium with a load of McLaren people.

Hamilton has cause to be jubilant: with this win, he’s on top of the drivers’ championship, even as McLaren stretch their lead in the constructors. A couple of races ago we were thinking that all Red Bull had to do was avoid slip-ups, feuds and technical problems to claim the titles; but here they were out-thought and out-raced, beaten fair and square not only by the McLarens but even by Alonso in the Ferrari; and Massa (if he hadn’t been beaten up by Liuzzi at the start) might have been right in there, too.

Too early to tell whether this is a turning point in the 2010 season; but how brilliant that there are five top drivers so closely packed together in the battle. And how wonderful was this race, where the best laid plans of drivers and engineers were all sent into disarray, making for a good, old-fashioned, sometimes painful bare-knuckle fight rather than smoothly executed machine-tooled Plan As working their way to fulfilment.

Race result

Pos  Driver       Team                  Time
 1.  Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes      1h33:53.456
 2.  Button       McLaren-Mercedes      +     2.254
 3.  Alonso       Ferrari               +     9.214
 4.  Vettel       Red Bull-Renault      +    37.817
 5.  Webber       Red Bull-Renault      +    39.291
 6.  Rosberg      Mercedes              +    56.084
 7.  Kubica       Renault               +    57.300
 8.  Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari    +     1 lap
 9.  Liuzzi       Force India-Mercedes  +     1 lap
10.  Sutil        Force India-Mercedes  +     1 lap
11.  Schumacher   Mercedes              +     1 lap
12.  Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari    +     1 lap
13.  Hulkenberg   Williams-Cosworth     +     1 lap
14.  Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth     +     1 lap
15.  Massa        Ferrari               +     1 lap
16.  Kovalainen   Lotus-Cosworth        +    2 laps
17.  Petrov       Renault               +    2 laps
18.  Chandhok     HRT-Cosworth          +    4 laps
19.  Di Grassi    Virgin-Cosworth       +    5 laps

Fastest lap: Kubica, 1:16.972

Not classified/retirements:

     Driver       Team                  On lap
     Glock        Virgin-Cosworth       50
     Trulli       Lotus-Cosworth        43
     De la Rosa   Sauber-Ferrari        31
     Senna        HRT-Cosworth          14
     Kobayashi    Sauber-Ferrari        2

World Championship standings after round 8

Drivers:                Constructors:             
 1.  Hamilton    109    1.  McLaren-Mercedes     215
 2.  Button      106    2.  Red Bull-Renault     193
 3.  Webber      103    3.  Ferrari              161
 4.  Alonso       94    4.  Mercedes             108
 5.  Vettel       90    5.  Renault               79
 6.  Rosberg      74    6.  Force India-Mercedes  35
 7.  Kubica       73    7.  Williams-Cosworth      8
 8.  Massa        67    8.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari     8
 9.  Schumacher   34    9.  Sauber-Ferrari         1
10.  Sutil        23   
11.  Liuzzi       12   
12.  Barrichello   7   
13.  Petrov        6   
14.  Buemi         5   
15.  Alguersuari   3   
16.  Hulkenberg    1   
17.  Kobayashi     1   

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