LEWIS HAMMERS HOME HIS POINT
British hero slashes Nico Rosberg’s title advantage
Lewis Hamilton has punched a hole in Nico Rosberg’s world championship lead with a comfortable victory at the Canadian Grand Prix last Sunday afternoon.
Just two races ago the gap to his Mercedes team-mate was 43 points, but as the pair prepare to jet across the Atlantic and continue their duel in the uncharted territory of Azerbaijan, the difference between the top two is a mere nine points. Following his brilliant win in Monaco a fortnight ago, Hamilton’s second victory this year has closed the gap on Rosberg, primarily because his team-mate could only manage fifth at an unusually cold and subdued Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. It’s a sucker punch that Hamilton’s hero Muhammad Ali would have been proud of.
The German was playing catch-up after he lost time cutting through the grass infield at Turn 2 following contact with his team-mate around the first part of the left-hander at Turn 1. The slightest kiss of front wheels – with Nico on the outside – was enough for the number six Mercedes to turn away from the corner and veer into the Tarmac run-off, before cutting across the grass and pulling back onto the track at the exit of Turn 2.
The contact left Rosberg fuming and he fell to 10tb place at the end of the first lap. From there on, it was damage limitation.
Rosberg was alongside Hamilton as he had made another poor start and had already been passed by the quicker Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel off the startline. The German’s scarlet machine scampered off into the distance, but was the first of the leaders to pit for tyres. As the race panned out it was clear the Mercedes was able to look after its rubber much better than Ferrari were anticipating and in strategic terms Hamilton’s one stop was superior than Vettel’s two. As a result the British driver was unchallenged in the closing stages. He took the chequered flag five seconds ahead of Vettel and was joined on the podium by the Williams of Valtteri Bottas.
In the days leading up to the annual trip to Montreal’s islands in the St Lawrence seaway, the climate was unusually Arctic. Temperatures on Thursday were as low as anyone of the regular travelling press corps could remember at a grand prix for at least a decade. A low, heavy cloudbase prevented any warmth from penetrating through to the Ile Notre Dame, so track temperatures were unseasonably low. This had an impact on tyres, and in particular with regards to warm-up. But one team had been working on a solution to getting its tyres to switch on – and it seemed to work.
But before the sharp end of the grid was decided, the qualifying hour started with just 21 cars circulating. The absentee was Renault’s Kevin Magnussen who had damaged his machine after an altercation with the concrete wall at the outside of Turn 7 in the dying minutes of FP3 on Saturday morning.
“It was a pretty significant side impact which took out the wings, suspension and floor as well as damaging the gearbox and chassis,” said Alan Permane, Renault’s trackside operations director. It meant K-mag would start in a spare chassis, from the back of the grid.
His team-mate Jolyon Palmer was also proving what a handful the RS16 is, as he came oh-so-close to hitting the same piece of concrete in the first part of Q1. In fact he did kiss the so-called ‘Wall of Champions’ in his bid to get into Q2. Sadly for Palmer, he was close, but missed out by just 0.015 seconds.
Less lucky was Rio Haryanto. He did clout the wall – at Turn 4 – and pirouetted his Manor onto the grass. The Indonesian was going no further after it became apparent he broke his right-rear suspension with the knock. He was joined in the drop zone by his team-mate Pascal Wehrlein and the Saubers of Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr (this was Sauber’s sixth double failure to get into Q2 in seven races). Although Ericsson already knew he would be struck with a three-place grid penalty for this race following his misdemeanour in Monaco.
When Q2 got underway, most of the teams were out quickly as there continued to be the threat the leaden skies would give way to rain. But no sooner had the session gone green then it was halted by a red-flag. Carlos Sainz had become the Wall of Champions’s latest victim. His right-rear suspension broke as he tapped the concrete and his wrecked Toro Rosso came to a halt along the start/finish straight – his Saturday running over. His car required a replacement gearbox so he wound up 20th on the starting grid.
At the restart the Williams were the first to set times and it was close
between the pair of them. Felipe Massa set a 1m 14.130s, fractionally quicker than Bottas’s 14.156s. But then we saw exactly what the Mercedes were capable of. Hamilton flew by the pits with a 1m 13.076s, narrowly chased by Rosberg on a 1m 13.094s.
Further down the order, the battle for who would start the top 10 qualifying shoot-out was heating up. On their final run, the Mclarens were eying a Q3 spot. Heading into the hairpin, Jenson Button locked up and that scuppered his chance. Fernando Alonso made it, as did the Force India of Nico Hülkenberg – while his team-mate Sergio Perez bailed out and pitted before the end of the session. Accompanying Sainz, Button and Perez at this stage was Daniil Kvyat (Toro Rosso – again the recipient of a three-place grid penalty carried over from Monaco) and the two Haas cars of Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez.
At the commencement of Q3, the Mercedes were again the class of the field. Hamilton’s first lap was a 1m12.812s, with his team-mate fractionally slower – by just 0.062s. Behind them the Red Bulls and Ferraris were snapping at their heels, but not close enough to challenge – although Sebastian Vettel came very close.
With these inherently low track temperatures, Ferrari had found a way to generate heat into their front tyres ahead of their runs by getting both drivers to follow a detailed procedural instruction. It looked as though Vettel could almost challenge for pole, but he too made an error at Turn 14. “I think I’ve brushed the Wall of Champions enough to take the lacquer off the rims,” he said over the team radio. It was close, but he was just 0.178s off Lewis Hamilton’s pole position time in third place. Rosberg was second with the two Red Bulls of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen in fourth and fifth. Rounding out the top 10 was Raikkonen, the Williams of Bottas and Massa, Hulkenberg and Alonso.
But that Q3 time from Vettel gave the Scuderia cause for optimism in the race…
Once again, the heavens were gloomy and overcast on raceday. And despite the odd spot of drizzle, the rains never came. If they had then we might have experienced a more chaotic race than the one that panned out.
As had been proved in qualifying, the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel was the biggest threat to the Mercedes this weekend and what the German needed was a good start. That’s exactly what he got, easily passing a slow-off-the-line Lewis well ahead of the braking zone for Turn 1. Rosberg also capitalised, but found himself on the outside of the corner as he ran wheel-to-wheel with his team-mate.
“Sebastian had a great start and I had a decent one, and Lewis had a really bad one and my position was on the outside,” said Rosberg. “In Barcelona, I gave it a go around the outside of Lewis and it worked out really well. I went for the same today and he did a really hard racing manoeuvre and we touched and I was off. I was very pissed off in that moment, but that’s racing and it’s my job to make sure I’m in front after a battle like that next time.”
Hamilton blamed a lack of front-end grip in the left-hander for the incident. “I got to Turn 1 and had understeer. It was very close with me and Nico but it was not intentional,” he said.
As Rosberg gathered himself back onto the track he held up Ricciardo’s Red Bull and that allowed Verstappen to pass his team-mate. After such a promising run in the last two races, it was the start of what turned out to be a disappointing afternoon for Ricciardo. The outcome of the race was determined by which cars were able to preserve their Pirellis the best and unfortunately for the Australian, the Red Bulls were prone to degradation. To compound the problem, he badly locked up and flat-spotted a set of his tyres that forced an unnecessary stop and he fell down the order, ultimately finishing seventh at the flag.
Up front, Vettel sprinted into an early lead despite a couple of significant moments where he locked up his fronts too. At the end of the first lap, he braked late and cut across the final chicane. And a few laps later locked up again at Turn 1 when he saw two seagulls sitting on the Tarmac.
“I got a bit caught out by the wind to be honest, it was very gusty,” said Vettel. “Then I think there were a couple of gulls that wanted to commit suicide. They were at the apex at Turn 1 and Lewis obviously didn’t care as he made up a bit of time – about half a second. I brake for animals but Lewis doesn’t… then the Virtual Safety Car came out.”
The VSC had been initiated after Jenson Button came out of the hairpin on lap 11 and radioed to his team that he was down on power. Before he had time to finish his transmission, flames emerged from the exhausts of his Honda power unit and his race was over.
With Ferrari planning a two-stop strategy, the arrival of the VSC led to the team making the first stop for race leader Vettel. He peeled into the pits on lap 11 and switched from his ultrasoft to the supersoft. Lewis stayed out as Mercedes had switched to “plan B”. He made his one and only stop on lap 24 and went onto the soft tyre. Once Vettel had made his second stop, he had a six second deficit to try and make up to Hamilton in 33 laps, using soft tyres that were 13 laps younger than those on the Mercedes. But it was to no avail. The Mercedes was kind to its rubber, and despite Vettel’s best efforts, he couldn’t get close enough.
Eight laps from the finish Hamilton nailed a 1m 16.145s lap to underline his superiority and Vettel once again made a hash of the final chicane – for the second time in five laps. But despite finishing second to Lewis, Vettel’s cheery demeanour after the race was reflective of the gains Ferrari has made to close the gap to the Mercedes.
Behind the top two, Bottas took Williams’s first podium of the season using a similar strategy to Hamilton, while the remainder of the top 10 stopped twice. Verstappen was fourth in his Red Bull impressively repelling a late-charge from Rosberg (who had made his last stop on lap 51 due to a slow puncture). On the penultimate lap it looked as if Rosberg had made it past the Red Bull on the run down to the final chicane until he locked up and spun. Thankfully he was able to keep the engine running and came home a dispirited fifth, a fraction ahead of the second Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen.
Behind Ricciardo, Hulkenberg was eighth and – most impressively – Carlos Sainz finished ninth after starting 20th on the grid. Perez ensured it was a double points finish for Force India.
When Lewis Hamilton stepped out of his Mercedes, he boxed his fists towards the cameraman and wanted to dedicate his victory to his hero, the great Muhammad Ali who was buried on Friday. You can be sure of one thing this season. Lewis looked down and out after the early rounds of this year’s title fight – but he’s back on his feet now. And round eight is just seven days away… ■