The Canadian Grand Prix was a frantic affair in every respect, and not surprisingly so. It’s difficult to categorise the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve – in essence it’s a normal road circuit, but it was built before huge run-offs were the norm, and the proximity of the guardrails and walls serves to convey the impression of a street track. By current standards, it is therefore extremely unforgiving – make a mistake, and the chances are that you will hit something.
That’s on a typically dry day. Safety cars tend to feature abnormally in the Canadian Grand Prix, and when you threw in the element of rain – such as we had for this year’s race – there was the potential for chaos. Before the start everyone was speculating about the number of safety car periods there might be, and it was sure that Bernd Maylander was in for a busy afternoon, but no one expected the sort of rain that eventually came down after 20 laps or so – the forecast had originally been for ‘showers’…
What we got, though, was effectively a monsoon, and after the pack had trailed around behind the safety car for half a dozen laps Charlie Whiting decided enough was enough and brought the race to a halt. There was a lot of noisy protest from sections of the crowd, but unquestionably it was the right call – within minutes the whole place was awash, and one thought back to Adelaide in 1991 when the race was red-flagged after only 14 laps, and never restarted. By calling a halt to things when he did, Whiting allowed for the possibility of further racing taking place later – more than two hours later, as it turned out.
They are fanatical about Formula 1 in Montréal, and few – if any – spectators drifted away during the enforced stop, even though it felt as though the rain would never stop. When it did, finally, they had every reason to rejoice that they had stayed. After nine more laps behind the safety car – in total, Maylander paced the field for 31 of the 70 laps – they were away again, and Jenson Button, after experiencing every racing incident known to man, wasn’t in the top 15.
As we know, a combination of two further safety car periods, clever tyre choice – and inspired driving – led to a situation where Button scythed up the order and took the lead on the very last lap, when Sebastian Vettel, who had comfortably led throughout, allowed himself to be pressured into a rare mistake. It was a scintillating drive by Jenson, perhaps the best we have ever seen from him: how often he excels in mixed conditions, such as at Melbourne last year, when again he was the winner.
Through the ‘second’ segment of the race someone else excelled, too. Even more than Button, Michael Schumacher long enjoyed a reputation for supremacy in uncertain conditions, but since his comeback at the beginning of last season, there have been very few occasions when Schumacher reminded one of the driver he had been.
In dry qualifying at Montréal, Michael had – as usual – been outqualified by Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg, and he followed him, too, in the first segment of the race. When the deluge had abated, however, and the race restarted behind the safety car (with everyone on full wets), Schumacher dived into the pits as soon as Maylander pulled off and took on intermediates. Back in 12th place, in truth there was little to be lost, but his willingness to chance intermediates – and it was his decision to switch to them – was not only brave, but also inspired.
Over the next couple of laps the world and his wife came in for inters, but by then Michael was already enjoying the superiority of them. As others fell foul of the conditions, he began to move up, and his one-fell-swoop pass of the squabbling Massa and Kobayashi duo was pure Schumacher opportunism at its best.
By lap 51, with 19 to the flag, he was up into second place, and it began to look as though he would make the podium for the first time since his return. On lap 58, though, there was yet another three-lap safety car period (after Heidfeld had clattered into a wall) which closed up the pack once more, and on top of that Charlie Whiting decided by lap 63 that conditions – there was a dry ‘line’ all round the track by now – were such that DRS (the ‘moveable’ rear wing) could be enabled for the first time in the race.
Although he fought hard, Schumacher in this situation was unable to resist both Button and Webber, so in the end he finished fourth, and just missed that podium. I don’t suggest that Michael will ever again be the driver he was – in the dry he simply isn’t quick enough any more – but on a day of tricky and uncertain conditions, when experience and guile had a major role to play, he gave us the first real reminder of the greatness that once was. Afterwards he chose to shrug it off, but I’ll warrant that inwardly Schumacher got more satisfaction from this day in Montréal than any other since the comeback.
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