2011 Canadian Grand Prix report

Jenson Button raises his hand in victory after winning the 2011 canadian grand prix

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So he is human, after all. As on so many other occasions this year, Sebastian Vettel dominated the Canadian Grand Prix – but only for 69 and a half of the 70 laps. Under pressure from Jenson Button on the last lap, Vettel got momentarily off the dry line, flicked sideways – and that was all Button needed. “In lots of ways I was lucky today,” Jenson said, “but still it was a very sweet win – maybe my best ever…”

The unforgiving Circuit Gilles Villeneuve invariably throws up an eventful Grand Prix, but this one was something else again. On a day of appalling weather, the race started behind the safety car, and Bernd Maylander would take to the track on four further occasions before the afternoon was done. So overwhelming was the rain that, 45 minutes into the race, after 15 laps behind the safety car, it was decided to bring out the red flag.

Unquestionably it was the right thing to do, and the right time to do it. Soon the rain was ferocious, and it went on and on. By the time it eased, then finally stopped, the track was pretty well waterlogged. When the safety car led them away once more, for the restart, a little over two hours had elapsed since the halt.

As usual Vettel started from pole position, but on this occasion his margin of superiority was rather less than usual – less than a couple of tenths – and Fernando Alonso, on the front row of the grid for the first time this year, quite fancied his chances. “This was always going to be one of Ferrari’s best circuits,” he said, “because it doesn’t have any really fast corners, so our lack of downforce is less of a problem than usual…”

By the same token, Red Bull – whose cars are unapproachable in quick corners – expected Montreal to be one of their weaker tracks. “Of course I’m pleased to be on pole,” said Vettel, “but actually I’m a little surprised…”

Perhaps Seb was being a touch disingenuous. The Red Bull may excel on circuits where aerodynamic grip is all, but it’s not less than outstanding anywhere. Mark Webber qualified fourth – behind the two Ferraris – but when you factored in that he had missed Saturday morning practice because of KERS problems on his car, and then qualified without KERS, his time said everything about Adrian Newey’s latest sublime design.

The team which disappointed most in qualifying was undoubtedly McLaren, with Lewis Hamilton fifth fastest, and Button seventh. Hamilton won here last year, and hopes were high of a repeat, but on Saturday evening he glumly said that the car was ‘simply too slow’. Martin Whitmarsh conceded that probably McLaren had run too much wing, and consequently suffered on straight line speed; on the other hand, he pointed out, if it were – as forecast – to rain on race day, Lewis and Jenson might find themselves in the pound seats.

2011 Canadian grand prix start

A wall of spray as the race starts

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It didn’t quite start out that way, however. After four laps behind the safety car, the field was flagged away on a wet track – and at the very first corner Hamilton tagged the back of Webber, putting the Red Bull into a spin. “I think,” Mark drily observed, “that Lewis saw the chequered flag at turn three…”

They raced for only three laps before the safety car was out again – this time because the McLarens had contrived to run into each other on the pit straight, Hamilton trying to pass on the left, and getting squeezed into the wall. “I’ve apologised to Lewis,” Jenson said. “I honestly couldn’t see a thing behind me…” Hamilton’s brief, but eventful, Canadian Grand Prix was over.

Lewis Hamilton collides with mark webber during the 2011 canadian grand prix

Hamilton first collided with Webber...

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Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton collide in the 2011 canadian grand prix

... followed by Button, ending his race

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The safety car was out for five laps on this occasion, and when they restarted, at the end of lap 12, Vettel immediately disappeared into his own race again, pulling out 2.5 seconds on Alonso in the course of a single lap. Webber, meantime, was working his way back through the field following the first lap altercation with Hamilton. It was announced around this time, too, that Button had been given a ‘drive through’ penalty for a safety car infringement.

On lap 17 Ferrari brought Alonso in for a change from wets to intermediates, and the team’s timing could not have been worse. Within a couple of minutes the rain began to come down hard again, and, as Fernando stopped once more, to take on more wets, out came the safety car again, this time simply because the conditions were adjudged too dangerous to allow racing to continue. After 15 laps of tooling round, the decision was taken to halt proceedings until the rain began to ease off.

Water being cleared from the track while the 2011 canadian grand prix is stopped

The wait was longer than anyone might have anticipated – it began at 1.45, and it was not until 3.50 that the race was restarted, again behind the safety car, of course, for it appears that the days of conventional starts on wet days are now consigned to history.

When the race did get away again – on lap 26 – it was brief indeed, for Alonso and Button touched as Jenson tried to pass on the inside of a right-hander, and the Ferrari spun over the kerb, and was instantly beached. Safety car once more – and for Alonso no points from a race of which he had had such high expectations. As Button made his way to the pits to replace a punctured tyre, it was announced that the incident – like countless others on this day – was ‘under investigation by the stewards’.

Conditions remained extremely treacherous, and clearly they brought out the best in Schumacher, who was turning in the best performance of his unhappy ‘second career’. On lap 42 Michael passed Webber, and proceeded to close up on Kobayashi and Massa, who were scrapping over second place.

Unlike most drivers Kamui, at the time the race was red-flagged, had not yet made a tyre stop, which meant that he (and both the Renault drivers) effectively got the stop free, the tyre changing being done during the enforced break. He drove a typically spirited race in Montreal, but when at one point he moved to cover a move by Massa the effect was to slow both of them – and Schumacher, close at hand, took the opportunity to snick by into second place! Michael perhaps on the podium again…in the Mercedes pit they could barely contain their excitement.

By lap 56, with 14 to the flag, Vettel led comfortably from Schumacher, who was fending off Webber, then Button, Kobayashi, Heidfeld and Massa. Out of the second turn Heidfeld ran into the back of Kobayashi’s Sauber, and damaged his front wing – which then broke violently enough to lift the front wheels from the ground: the Renault pitched into a wall, and out came the safety car again

It was this incident which was to change the outcome of the race – and there was something else, too. The rules prohibit the use of DRS (the opening rear wing) in the wet, but now the track – or at least a ‘line’ round the track – was swiftly drying out, and everyone was on slicks. One wondered if and when Charlie Whiting would use his discretion to enable DRS again. It would not be long.

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As before, Vettel charged away again on the restart, and looked firmly set on another 25 points. Within a couple of laps he was three seconds clear, but then, as he admitted later, he took it perhaps a little too conservatively – and perhaps reckoned without the effect of DRS on some of those behind him.

By lap 63 it was operational, and its dramatic effect – whether you like it or not – was clearly seen, for Webber, having been unable to pass Schumacher without it, now went past as if the Mercedes were parked. Immediately, though, Mark went over the final chicane, and although he had already cleared Schumacher he was concerned that he might be penalised – considered to have gained by cutting the chicane – and therefore he handed the place back to Michael. On the following lap he might have hoped to take the position for good, but instead was passed by Button, who was clearly on a charge.

“I love conditions like we had towards the end of the race,” Jenson said, “and the car was working beautifully…” On lap 65 he was 3.1 seconds behind Vettel; on lap 66 the gap was down to 1.6.

At this point we expected Sebastian simply to respond, to draw away again in the manner we have so often seen. He didn’t, though – indeed Button continued, little by little, to close.

On lap 67, with three to go, Webber got past Schumacher again, and this time made it stick, putting and end to Michael’s hopes of at last making a podium. No matter: this was consummately the best performance we have seen from him since his return, and fourth place was a good result.

Lap 68, and Vettel set the fastest lap of the race – which was instantly beaten by Button. Now the gap was an even second, so Jenson was bringing himself into DRS range of the World Championship leader. Next time round he was fractionally closer still, but not able to take a run at Seb: it would all come down to the last lap.

We expected that Button’s move would come – DRS-assisted – on the long straight at the end of the lap, but in the event he had no need of any such thing, for Vettel, responding to the pressure, got slightly off the dry line, and although he held the consequent slide it was too late to prevent the McLaren from going by. Half a lap from the end of the Canadian Grand Prix Jenson was into the lead, and there he stayed.

Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel shake hands on the podium after the 2011 F1 canadian grand prix

A tumultuous race, you might say, in every conceivable respect. How often does a driver come through five safety car periods, six pit stops, including a ‘drive through’ penalty, a puncture, contact with (at least) two other cars – and win a Grand Prix? I can remember nothing comparable. Button admitted that luck had been with him – “I couldn’t have done it without DRS and all the safety car periods” – but perhaps the biggest slice of it came from Emerson Fittipaldi, this weekend the driver advising the stewards.

On these occasions Fittipaldi has always shown himself to be fundamentally ‘on the side of the drivers’, and not given to dishing out penalties in an era when every little incident is scrutinised. It would have been criminal to have robbed Jenson of what he referred to as ‘his sweetest victory’. This was a wonderful drive.

Vettel, it must be said, was entirely magnanimous in defeat. After the last safety car period, he said, he probably should have gone harder, built up more of a lead, but who could blame him – in this season of endless victories – for being perhaps a touch complacent? No one’s saying it, of course, but the 2011 World Championship is already effectively won.

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