Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari took off from the line way quicker than anyone expected, up from third into the lead within two seconds of the lights going out. But it came in for its first stop sooner than expected too, triggered into it by the temptation of making up time under a Virtual Safety Car when Ferrari was convinced the rest of the field – like them – would be wedded to a two-stop strategy. In that moment Ferrari gave away a likely victory.
Mercedes, which was hoping all along to get through on just one stop, kept Lewis Hamilton out there and so the strategies played out, the Merc having the track position advantage that Ferrari had squandered and the pace to retain it. And for the second time in two weeks Hamilton was helped to victory by the strategic error of a rival team.
Seb, on his fresher tyres, came back at Lewis and for a few glorious laps they were racing flat out, in a different race far clear of anyone else, Vettel applying pressure with relentless qualifying levels of attack, Hamilton responding with new fastest laps to keep himself just out of reach. It was a reminder of how races used to be before the attempt was made to artificially mix things up through heat-degrading tyres. The day was so cold, the track so undemanding in its surface and layout, that the heat degrading mechanism of the Pirellis wasn’t triggered – and we got to see two great drivers slugging it out, even if they never actually quite got wheel-to-wheel.
The unexpectedly low degradation of the tyres, and Ferrari’s usual less-than-great reading of the rubber, ensured it was tripped up by its own tactical ‘cleverness’, for Hamilton’s rubber remained in great enough shape that his pace never dropped.
Just like last year, Valtteri Bottas utilised the Williams-Mercedes package well enough to take a very distant third. On this cool, cloudy, blustery day the high energy this car puts through its tyres – normally a weakness – was a boon and the polar opposite to the Red Bull which just couldn’t get the front tyres into the ideal working temperature range, giving both Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo serious problems with graining front lefts. It lost the RB12 both performance and tyre range, forcing their one stop plan to be aborted. Verstappen finished fourth after a superb late defence from the fresh-tyred Mercedes of Nico Rosberg, who was making a recovery drive from an off-track moment brought about through being squeezed by team-mate Hamilton in the opening seconds of the race. It was a tough, uncompromising move from Hamilton in which sidewall rubber was exchanged in response to Nico trying to go around the outside of the other Mercedes through the left-right of the first two turns. Nico was annoyed by the move, the Mercedes management wasn’t thrilled by it – but in reality it was just hard racing between two men fighting each other for the world title. Rosberg was relying on the mercy of Hamilton to make the move stick, Hamilton was never going to show any. “He said he had an understeer,” said Toto Wolff of Hamilton’s explanation. “That’s what I would have said too.”
Lewis made another claim too: in the last few laps he felt the presence of The Greatest. “Over the last 10-15 laps all I could think of was Muhammad Ali – float like a butterfly, sting like a bee – because it really felt like I was floating. For me, and everyone I’m sure, he was such an inspirational figure… I was thinking of rumble in the jungle. Maybe he was watching the race.”
Hamilton’s Mercedes on pole, a few hundredths faster than Rosberg’s sister car. But it wasn’t the done deal you might have assumed coming into the weekend. Ferrari’s turbo upgrade (taking them to 28 of the available 32 tokens) and accompanying tweaked Shell fuel found the Scuderia a significant power boost on a circuit that heavily rewards it. Vettel was just 0.15s off Hamilton’s pole time.
The Mercedes came here with a new sidepod, monkey seat and forward turning vanes, the Ferrari with a new rear bodywork that tucks under the rear suspension rather than going over it, as before. This led to an initial belief that it was running the new rear suspension that is being developed: not so, it retained the previous suspension, which was simply now more visible.
The two cars each left the Red Bull rather breathless around Circuit Gilles Villeneuve’s succession of slow acceleration zones linked by long straights. The upgraded Renault is a real improvement but still seems to suffer a top end power deficit to the Mercedes and Ferrari, the effect of that on end-of-straights speeds amplified by the Red Bull’s traditional higher drag.
Qualifying was held in unseasonably cool conditions, with smatterings of occasional light drizzle. Getting heat into the ultra-soft tyres was something of a challenge. They needed two laps to properly warm up. It’s called the ultra-soft but it’s really not all that soft. “They are [all] such hard compounds,” observed Hamilton. “In today’s conditions it was tricky getting the temperatures. I didn’t hook any of my laps up today.” That was his explanation for the reduced gap to Rosberg since the practices when it had been in the order of half-a-second. The pole lap was actually his first Q3 run. On the follow-up he got too much oversteer on the exit of turn eight. Rosberg’s second run was trashed the moment he locked up into turn one. The tiny difference between Hamilton’s lap and Rosberg’s came almost entirely through turns four-five.
So did those compromised Mercedes laps flatter the Ferrari? Probably not – for each of Vettel’s two Q3 runs were scrappy too. “I thought pole was possible, actually,” said Seb later. “On my last lap I was a bit greedy out of 10 [the hairpin] and not greedy enough into six. But overall I think we’ve made a great step – and we also made a step with the set up overnight. I brushed the Wall of Champions too, so done that.”
Kimi Räikkönen was 0.6s slower and three places back in the sister car, doing just one run on account of having just one set of ultra-softs left. He was far from satisfied with the car or his own performance: “It was still not easy to put the car where I wanted. It was a hectic qualifying session because of the weather conditions and I was not very happy with the driving. I had some issues here and there, I struggled in turn 10 all the times to make the front turn, and it was hard to put the lap together. It has not been an easy weekend.”
Sandwiched between the Ferraris were the two Red Bulls, Daniel Ricciardo leaving it to his final Q3 run to leapfrog ahead of team-mate Verstappen by a quarter-second to go fourth, giving Champions Wall a flush-fitting hit with his right-rear on the lap in question. Verstappen didn’t improve on his second run and was at pains to point out that he is still learning the limits of this car. Christian Horner put into perspective the performance around this most power-demanding of tracks. “It demonstrates the progress that the engine has made within the last 12 months; we were well over a second away and now we are within 0.35s of the pole position.”
Williams finessed a driveable balance from the FW38 and benefitted from the suitability of the Mercedes motor for this track and both cars were comfortably through to Q3 where Bottas went seventh fastest, around half-a-second off Red Bull but quickest through the speed trap. Felipe Massa shunted heavily on Friday morning when, running the car without the monkey seat in search of straightline speed, the airflow didn’t re-attach quickly enough as the DRS closed when he stood on the brakes for turn one. The car was extensively damaged – destroying what is believed to have been a more flexible rear wing. Without a spare, he had to run for the rest of the weekend in lower spec. This was reckoned to be worth 0.2s of lap time – and he qualified within 0.1s of Bottas, eighth fastest and particularly pleased with his lap.
Nico Hülkenberg edged out Force India team-mate Sergio Perez in getting into Q3, in which he went ninth fastest, around 0.3s adrift of Williams. Jenson Button looked to have the edge on speed over Fernando Alonso at McLaren around here, but Alonso played a blinder by getting out close enough behind Button to benefit from his tow down the back straight. This in addition to a small lock up from Button into the hairpin allowed Alonso to get into Q3 at JB’s expense. Button had towed himself out of Q3! He would line up 12th, behind Perez. The upgraded Honda (with 20 tokens now spent on it) and Mobil fuel had brought a useful performance boost – but Alonso probably wouldn’t have made it into Q3 had not Carlos Sainz crashed his Toro Rosso into Champions Wall at the beginning of Q2 before setting a proper time. This brought out the red flags, leaving Carlos back in 16th and needing a new gearbox, adding a further five grid places.
Running just ahead of him on track when it happened, team-mate Daniil Kvyat had missed having the same accident by around 5mm at most. Finding difficulties in getting the tyres fired up, he was 13th fastest but taking a three-place grid penalty for his Monaco accident with Magnussen. The immediate beneficiaries were Haas pair Esteban Gutiérrez and Romain Grosjean, this the first time the Mexican – who was feeling under the weather – had genuinely out-qualified his qualifying ace team-mate. “The car balance is not miles off,” said Romain, “but we just don’t have any grip from the tyres. We’re not getting them to work properly. For some reason, it was OK at the beginning of the year, but we haven’t managed to bring them back in the window since. That means you can’t really drive the car as you would like.”
Grosjean had only just avoided being eliminated in Q1 by Jolyon Palmer’s Renault. But for red flags brought about by Rio Haryanto hitting the turn five wall, Jolyon might just have made it through. His was the only Renault taking part as Kevin Magnussen had trashed his tub earlier that morning after heavy impact with the turn seven wall on cold tyres. A garage misunderstanding had meant they had not been fully pre-heated.
Impressively, Pascal Wehrlein out-qualfied both Saubers in his Manor, just a couple of tenths down on Palmer. Marcus Ericsson was the faster of the Swiss cars, Felipe Nasr suffering braking problems. But the former was taking a three-place penalty for his part in their Monaco accident. Haryanto lined up at the back, caught out by his run coinciding with a smattering of light rain and smiting the turn four wall.
Button had no warning about the exploding Honda engine. Back in the pack, he was accelerating down the back straight on lap 10 of 70, chasing team-mate Alonso, his super-softs seeming to be working better than the ultra-softs that Alonso – and most of the rest of the field – had chosen. Then the sudden loss of power, a glance in his mirror, the smoke and orange shards of molten metal gushing from the exhausts telling him all he needed to know. He pulled to the side, the marshals readied themselves to move the McLaren to safety. Race director Charlie Whiting put the race into Virtual Safety Car mode. That changed the race from what it was going to be to what it was.
The race it was going to be
Vettel’s start was astonishingly good. The lights went out and he was almost instantly past Hamilton’s pole-sitting Mercedes, squeezing down the inside between the pit wall and into the lead even before the corner, leaving the two Mercs to squabble through the difficult-to-defend left-right of turns one/two. Hamilton: “My practice start before the formation lap was perfect and I thought, ‘this is going to be a breeze, getting off the line’. But when it came around for real it was going nowhere. If it wasn’t such a short run to the first corner I’d have been a sitting duck.”
Rosberg’s start was OK and with more momentum into turn one he was almost sucked into trying for Hamilton’s outside. But the racing line narrows to a point thereafter. Two years ago Hamilton had to take to the grass when he attempted the move Rosberg was now making. In the transposed version of 2016, Rosberg held firm and the two cars banged wheels – forcing Rosberg to take the escape road. “I had to try the move or accept I’d be behind him,” he said. “In Barcelona it worked but this time it didn’t. It was a hard manoeuvre from him but that’s racing and I need to do a better job next time.”
Vettel was squirting the Ferrari out of there and sprinting away, the Ferrari’s instant grip leaving Hamilton bemused and holding on as best he could. The two Red Bulls speared each side around Rosberg’s rejoining car, Verstappen’s outside line better than the inside one Ricciardo was forced to take to avoid contact with the Mercedes – and so Max ran third, Daniel fourth, then Räikkönen, Bottas, Massa, Alonso, Hülkenberg and only then Rosberg, his radiator intakes and brake ducts filled with grass.
Through turn four-five, where the narrow track dives away from the island’s shoreline with the St Lawrence, Vettel was pulling whole chunks of time over Hamilton. Lewis pressed on hard, the Merc’s tyres needing a few more corners than the Ferrari’s to come up to temperature. Could that be because its starting pressures were lower? Vettel’s big lead evaporated however as he braked for the final chicane, locked a rear and twitched over onto the run-off area rather than risk hitting the Wall of Champions. This year a new sausage kerb had been placed part way along the apex kerb. Depending if you hit that or not, you now have to go to the correct side of a keep left arrow as your route back onto the pit straight, the tight route automatically imposing its own penalty. Vettel got back on without quite losing the lead.
But Hamilton could do no more than follow. Even with DRS enabled, the Merc wasn’t fast enough at the end of the straights to put a move on the newly more potent Ferrari. Barring any further Vettel lock-ups, if Hamilton was going to pass it was going to have to be at the stops – if then. After a few laps of sitting as close to the Ferrari as he could, Lewis backed away a little, saved fuel and brakes.
They were in a race of their own. By the fifth lap they were into turn one as the Red Bulls and Räikkönen were only just scrabbling out of the final chicane. Kimi, after a few initial looks at Ricciardo, had settled down behind him. Hulk and Rosberg had quickly picked off Alonso’s slow-on-the-straight McLaren. Rosberg – with warning lights and buzzers in the cockpit telling him of high brake and water temperatures – tried in vain to find a way by Hülkenberg.
In the other Force India, Perez had started on the soft. It didn’t have much grip initially, losing him places at the start. He was trapped in a queue behind the McLarens. Which meant the likes of Mercedes, Red Bull and Williams couldn’t get a read on how quick the tyre might be and therefore whether they could stick with their one-stopping plans. If it was too slow, they would have to two-stop. The ultra-softs were reckoned good for 25 laps, the softs 50. In Red Bull’s case it was further complicated by the front tyre graining on both cars. Verstappen seemed to be suffering more than Ricciardo and received the radio call not to hold him up.
That’s how the land lay just before Button’s engine detonated itself into oblivion. Rosberg had just passed Hülkenberg as the race came under the VSC.
The race Ferrari lost
Under the VSC you must maintain the specified mini-sector times, this effectively freezing the gaps between the cars. But you are not subject to it in the pitlane. You can thus make up time on the field if you can dovetail your pit stop with a VSC. It was just too tempting for Ferrari – even though they were leading the race. Ferrari was two-stopping and lap 11 was just about early enough to get the first stop in, and make up time on the field while so doing. ‘Box Sebastian’. A similar instruction was given to Räikkönen, running back in fifth. That would have all been fine if everyone was having to two-stop, as Ferrari assumed. But they weren’t. At Mercedes, Red Bull and Williams the ambition was always to one-stop. The two-stop was theoretically around five-seconds faster. But of course it initially loses you track position over the one-stoppers. If the tyres were up to it, one-stopping was a more robust strategy. The tyres were up to it.
Mercedes watched as Vettel came in just as the VSC was rescinded. The real significance of the stop was Ferrari’s choice of super-softs – thereby confirming the two-stop because for this race Pirelli’s stipulation was that the soft was the compulsory tyre. Räikkönen was already committed in the braking zone to coming into the pits when the team told him to stay out. It was too late. So he too was fitted with super-softs and sent on his way.
Hamilton now led the race by 7s over Verstappen. Vettel had rejoined behind the Red Bulls, Kimi behind the Toro Rossos many places back. Ricciardo could not regain the tyre temperature lost during the VSC and was no longer a threat to his team-mate. Vettel quickly closed him down, Ricciardo put up a wheel-to-wheel fight but eventually the Ferrari slipped down the inside into the hairpin on lap 17. It then took only a further lap to put a simple DRS pass on Verstappen at the end of the back straight – and Vettel was up to second, 10s adrift of Hamilton but lapping up to a second faster. All Mercedes had to do was not let him get to within undercut range before pitting Hamilton. The longer they could keep him out, the less was going to be asked of the softs that would go on for his long final stint. There was no one else to worry about, the Red Bulls, Räikkönen and the Williams pair over 20s behind, being closed down by the recovering Rosberg.
By this time the Red Bulls were really struggling. The front graining quickly spread to wear, there was very little rubber left and the temperatures were falling. Bottas quickly caught them, with Massa trailing along a few seconds back. The Williams definitely looked a quicker race car than the Red Bull in these super cool conditions.
Before Bottas could quite get to undercut range, Verstappen was brought in on lap 20, Ricciardo a lap later. Max got out just ahead of Räikkönen, Daniel just behind him. Williams brought in Massa and Bottas on laps 22 and 23, Valtteri only just failing to overcut Ricciardo.
With Vettel having reduced Hamilton’s led to under 6s, Mercedes brought Lewis in at the end of the 24th lap, Lewis briefly taking to the hairpin escape road on his in-lap. He rejoined 13s behind Vettel but with no more stops to make. His task was to get his new set of softs to last for 46 laps without being passed by Vettel who would later be chasing him down on fresh tyres.
Vettel continued to push on hard – even going across the final chicane run-off again on one occasion. The gap over Hamilton remained relatively static, his pace on the old super-softs much the same as Lewis’ on his new softs. But he lost time on one lap for a reason unrelated to tyres. “Seagulls,” explained Seb. “There were two of them on the apex on turn one. I think they had a suicide pact. Lewis obviously didn’t care so he made up quite a bit of time, about half a second. By the time Lewis came around, they just flew off. It wasn’t fair. I brake for animals, Lewis doesn’t…”
In the sister Ferrari Räikkönen was making no impression upon Verstappen. “I just couldn’t get the tyres up to temperature the whole race,” rued Kimi. Ferrari brought him in for his second stop on lap 33. By this time Vettel’s super-softs had given their best and now Hamilton was gradually reeling him in. He pitted from a 9.5s lead on lap 36 and rejoined 7s behind the race-leading Mercedes.
On paper this still looked a winnable race for Vettel. His tyres had done 13 fewer laps in their life than those on Hamilton’s car, there were 34 laps to go. Would Hamilton’s tyres keep performing? But, having monitored the laps of the soft tyres runners, it was already dawning on Ferrari that there was way less degradation than they had been expecting. Ferrari’s tyre usage science is definitely lagging behind that of its key rivals at the moment and this had played its part in the situation it now found itself.
Meanwhile Vettel set about closing that gap down and Hamilton responded. For the next 30-odd laps they remained locked in combat as they each realised the usual limitation upon their driving attack – the tyres – didn’t apply today. “I really enjoyed that,” related Lewis. “When we swapped tyres and I had a long stint ahead of me, the info we had was they would last quite a long time. But it was just a beauty. I was battling with him in lap times, trying not to let him get too close.”
“Yes, this is how racing should be,” agreed Vettel. They remained flat-out pretty much to the finish, Vettel grinding a little closer, but never by enough. Ferrari’s flawed strategy call had proved just too much to overcome.
A long way behind, the Red Bulls continued to struggle, particularly Ricciardo. Stuck for many laps behind Räikkönen before the Ferrari’s second stop, his front tyres had taken a further hammering. On the 35th lap he locked up into the final chicane and took the escape road. As he rejoined through the prescribed slow route, it was enough to allow Bottas to flash by for fourth. With the front tyres becoming ever more exhausted, he locked up badly and flat-spotted and the one-stop plan had to be abandoned, Daniel being brought in for another set of softs on the 38th lap. It wasn’t too much longer before Verstappen was suffering similarly and he came in on lap 46 and fitted with a set of ultra-softs, moving Bottas up to third and being chased by Rosberg. Massa by this time had retired with a water system problem that was causing the fresh engine to overheat.
Verstappen rejoined behind Rosberg, ahead of Räikkönen, with Ricciardo once more stuck behind the second Ferrari. Hülkenberg was just about hanging on to the group, albeit a few seconds back. But just behind the Force India was the remarkable Sainz, who had started a penalised 21st, was up to 16th on the first lap, switched to a two-stop strategy in order to make an early undercut past team-mate Kvyat and later passed Perez. It went a long way to making amends for his qualifying error.
On the 51st lap Rosberg’s difficult day became more so as the team spotted on the data a slow puncture of the right-rear. He was brought in and fitted with a replacement set of softs. Upon rejoining he was the fastest man on track and closing quickly on the battling Ricciardo and Räikkönen. He DRS’d his way past Ricciardo on the 54th lap and did the same to Räikkönen from a long way back three laps later. Next: Verstappen. This was to prove an altogether more difficult task, for Max was resolute in his defence, repeatedly covering off the inside into the final chicane then braking late enough to prevent Rosberg being able to go the long way round. This was all playing to Bottas’ advantage for the longer Max could hold off the Merc, the less time there was for it to reach him. On one occasion Rosberg tried around the outside of turn one but Verstappen had that covered too. He got some respite from attack as Rosberg locked up and went across the chicane run-off. It all came down to the penultimate lap when Rosberg again went for the outside into the final chicane, braked super-late, locked a rear wheel and spun. He got going just before Räikkönen could pounce, but fourth place was the reward for Verstappen’s tenacity.
So ended a hot race on a cold day.