It had all looked so promising after qualifying, the top cars so closely-matched, the differing tyre choices intriguing. But it didn’t work out that way. Sebastian Vettel was unopposed into Turn 1 and he simply romped away for the rest of the afternoon, with such a comfort margin it didn’t matter what the tyre choices were in this one-stop race. Valtteri Bottas, who’d got his elbows out at the start to keep Max Verstappen behind, tried applying a bit of late pressure to the Ferrari. Vettel responded with a lap that told him not to bother any further.
Red Bull’s tyre strategy of hypers/supers (compared to ultras/supers of Ferrari and Merc) just transposed the stint lengths, but had no impact upon the order. Verstappen kept the pressure on Bottas, and crossed the line just 0.1sec behind, but Valtteri was in control of the situation. A little way behind them, Ricciardo held off a late-charging but otherwise mechanically compromised Hamilton, Daniel saving his tyres, cleverly managing his electrical deployment, until the Mercedes became a threat, at which point he banged in the race’s fastest lap. Hamilton’s race was strategically compromised by having to come in earlier than his tyres would’ve allowed because of an overheating power unit that required the cooling slats to be opened out.
A throw of the dice of those factors that determine the 2018 competitive order at any given event – track layout, temperature, upgrades, issues, tyre choice and allocation – this time gave us three different teams in the top three, with just 0.15sec spread between Vettel’s pole-sitting Ferrari and Verstappen’s third-quickest Red Bull. Nestled between was Valtteri Bottas’ Mercedes. A brake-locking Hamilton could manage only fourth around a track at which he usually excels. Räikkönen was a few tenths adrift in fifth, yet again choking at the crucial moment – locking up into Turn 1 on his final run – ahead of Daniel Ricciardo who was playing catch-up after losing track time in the practices and just not reaching Verstappen’s level of confidence between mid-corner and exit on Turns 3, 6 and 10 (the final chicane).
The track layout favours braking performance, traction and low-speed downforce (Red Bull territory), power and aerodynamic efficiency (Mercedes territory), with Ferrari having a great blend of all those qualities. Now mix in a tyre – the hypersoft – that the Mercedes doesn’t like and on which the team has done very little running. Then add the Q3 modes of Ferrari and Mercedes, the upgrade of the Renault motor in the Red Bull from a re-arrangement of the inlet trumpets devised around a new fuel from BP (but which the Mobil-fuelled Red Bull doesn’t benefit from quite as much) and the tyre allocation chosen by each team. Factor in a smaller upgrade (and associated oil and fuel developments) from Ferrari’s power unit and a significant aero upgrade. Then account for the withdrawl of Merc’s new ‘phase 2’ engine that was going to be given its debut here but wasn’t. Then insert into that mix the remains of a dead bird into one of Hamilton’s brake ducts.
Shake it all up, press the green light to start the session – and this is how it all unfolded.
Vettel’s pole was the product of a clinically great lap on his first Q3 run in a superbly balanced Ferrari in which his confidence grew over the weekend, having suffered a bit of a scrappy Friday with a steering problem and a brush with the Turn 4 wall. “On Friday I just couldn’t get the rhythm,” he explained. “Usually I like this track but yesterday was very difficult. I felt it was there in the car but I just couldn’t get to it. I wasn’t really in charge, I was more a passenger. This morning when I went out, straight away it felt a lot better – I guess I woke up the right way! On a track like this where you have to attack braking and kerbs so much, I think it’s important that you feel at home and have the confidence to play around and then you can extract a lot more from the car. The car was incredible in quali. It just kept getting quicker. In my final lap I made a small mistake, otherwise I think there was a little bit more but it was fantastic. I was very happy with the first lap, but I thought that maybe in the first half of the circuit there’s a bit more. And the second attempt in Q3 I found that little bit and then I was like ‘OK, now I just need to repeat what I did before, because it was really, really good’ but I struggled and I lost a little bit of time.
“Being on pole here with Ferrari means something extra. The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve – I think the meaning of Gilles for the Scuderia Ferrari is huge and I think motor sport in Canada is linked to that name.” This weekend was the 40th anniversary of Villeneuve’s fairytale first victory here in the Ferrari 312T3 and there was a touching little ceremony with his widow Joanne and son Jacques on the start line on Thursday.
Räikkönen in the other Ferrari followed his usual pattern – more quickly into it than Vettel on the Friday but not progressing from there, 0.3sec slower on his first run and then locking up into Turn 1 on his second. Fifth on the grid for him.
Ferrari, like Red Bull, had brought a lot of hypersofts and only three sets of the harder ultras. Mercedes, on the other hand, favoured the ultra. The W09’s low-rake aero concept gives it a more forward-biased aero balance than the others and the higher grip of a softer compound tends to upset the balance more. Like all Mercs of the last few years, it doesn’t find as much lap time from a softer compound as its rivals. Consequently, the team steered away from the hyper in their selections. The car was easily fast enough to get through Q2 on the ultras (something that Ferrari also did) but the hyper’s greater performance was needed for Q3 and the first time either driver had tried this short-supply tyre was in practice that morning. Whether the imbalance of the car on this tyre in Q3 could have been improved with more running was a question the team was asking itself after Bottas lost pole by a mere nine-hundredths of a second. The upgraded engine would also have been worth more than that, but a tolerance problem was discovered on the dyno that would have made it unlikely this spec would have lasted the required seven races, so – in the nick of time – it was withdrawn and both cars used the original spec, higher mileage, motors throughout.
Fourth-fastest Hamilton was bedevilled by front brake locking in Q3 and was generally unhappy with a difficult oversteery balance. An odd barbeque smell was apparent in the pitlane each time he pitted – and later the remains of a bird was discovered in a brake duct. It may have played a part in him being a tenth down. He locked up into the hairpin on both his Q3 runs. On the first of them he was quicker than Vettel up to that point.
Third-fastest Verstappen was in exuberant, super-confident form between the walls, recent events having zero impact on his enthusiasm. The RB14 was fantastically responsive into the turns, stable through them and strong under braking – even with trimmed-out wings (a shallower upper element than usual for the front and a Baku low-downforce rear). On Mobil fuel the Renault wasn’t benefiting as much from the re-arranged inlet trumpets as on the new BP fuel on which the upgrade was based (and with which it gained around 14bhp), but there was still a benefit in excess of 0.1sec. The bogey sector remained the last one, with the long straight between the hairpin and the final chicane. In practice it was generally the fastest but its advantage was insufficient to make up the Ferrari/Mercedes 0.25-0.3sec of Q3 engine mode. “I think we got the maximum from the car,” related Max.
Ricciardo had lost time on Friday to an engine that wouldn’t run cleanly and he was never quite as confident between the walls, hence his sixth place, just over 0.1sec adrift of his team-mate.
There was the usual big gap (around 0.9sec on this occasion) behind the big three teams and heading that second group once again was Nico Hülkenberg’s Renault, albeit pushed hard by an over-delivering Esteban Ocon in a Force India that wasn’t as inherently quick. Their respective team-mates Carlos Sainz and Sergio Pérez rounded out the top 10.
Kevin Magnussen was fastest of those not making the run-off, in 11th. He’d been consistently three-tenths off Haas team-mate Romain Grosjean run-for-run in the practices so it was a great disappointment for the team when the latter’s engine blew in a big way as he was making his way down the pitlane to begin qualifying. Grosjean had been a comfortable P7 in morning practice and reckoned he could’ve repeated that.
Honda’s upgrade had delivered everything expected of it – and maybe more. There was almost 0.5sec of power increase (around 27bhp) which puts it just about on par with the Renault now. Pierre Gasly was enjoying its benefits in the Toro Rosso until FP3 when it failed, obliging him to run the old-spec motor for qualifying, giving a 10-place penalty. Brendon Hartley retained the new one and qualified a strong 12th, with Gasly going out in Q1, 0.5sec adrift, in 16th. After qualifying, a new-spec unit was refitted to Gasly’s car, incurring another penalty, and putting him on the back row with Grosjean.
Charles Leclerc continues to impress at Sauber and on his first visit here never looked in danger of not making Q2. Once there, he stuck the car a solid 13th, a couple of tenths faster than the McLarens. Team-mate Marcus Ericsson glanced the wall, damaging the suspension after just one run and took no further part, so was slowest of those who ran.
McLaren was deeply disappointed to be a whopping 0.9sec adrift of Renault around this track, which places a heavier-than-usual emphasis on aero efficiency. Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne – separated by a tiny margin – could do no better than 14th and 15th. The Williams shows no signs of progress and they were more than 0.5sec adrift of making it out of Q1, Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin separated by half a tenth.
The race effectively ended with a combination of a) Vettel getting a near-perfect combination of clutch slip and wheelspin to lead away and b) Bottas getting a wheel-spinning start from the dirty side of the grid and having to get defensive for the next two corners to keep Verstappen behind. “Yes, all the support races had rolling starts,” pointed out Bottas, “so no rubber had been laid down there.” But he was taking no nonsense from the Red Bull and resolutely held his line into turn two, even banging wheels slightly. “Yeah, but it was just tyre-to-tyre. We don’t count those!”
This was a major blow to Verstappen as part of the reasoning of starting on the hyper had been for the greater performance off the grid. Their squabbling allowed Vettel to go unhindered, free as the wind on this beautiful bright Montréal day. Ricciardo, having hidden in Räikkönen’s blind spot through Turn 1, calmly went down the Ferrari’s inside into two to take up fifth place, behind Hamilton.
The top six had already pulled out a gap over the ‘second division’, which was headed by a Renault-Force India scrap, with Ocon at its head after a ballsy move on Hülkenberg into Turn 3 on the opening lap, Sainz and Pérez following on from the fast-starting Leclerc and Magnussen.
As Vettel appeared with a huge lead the fans in the stands at Turn 6 gave a rousing cheer to see their beloved red car heading the field.
But the race was already neutralised at this point, the safety car deployed after a dramatic-looking coming-together between Stroll and Hartley that began at Turn 5 and ended in the Turn 6 run-off. Hartley had momentum on the Williams as they came to the left-handed kink and he flicked to the outside there – he remained convinced afterwards that a pass was feasible. But at just the point he partly overlapped the Williams, Stroll got a big oversteer moment that wedged the Toro Rosso between him and the wall. Interlocking wheels, an airborne Hartley – and the two entangled cars took each other on a crazy ride to retirement, thankfully without anyone getting hurt. Those in the Lance Stroll stands (really) on the back straight never even got to see their man…
Vandoorne couldn’t avoid the debris and the McLaren picked up a right-front puncture. After stopping for replacements, he didn’t really have enough suitable tyres left to go the distance, his race effectively done. The crash moved up Sirotkin, Alonso, Gasly and Grosjean. At the back, Ericsson pitted for a tactical change of tyres and planned to get through to the end on them.
Vettel was nervous, as his initial advantage had been lost. But his restart at the end of the fourth lap was flawless and he was already 1.2sec clear and going away at the end of that first racing lap. Pérez had got the jump on Sainz at the restart, enough to be able to slipstream alongside him down the pit straight. But Carlos held firm on the inside through the fast kink of Turn 1 as Pérez tried to take up his line as though the move were completed. They touched and the Force India went clattering across the grass and half-spun. Alonso, who had just passed Sirotkin on his hard tyres that had poor warm-up, took advantage of Magnussen being slowed by the wayward Force India to nip by them both. Pérez was calling for Sainz to be black-flagged but it was difficult to see what he’d done wrong.
Bottas had no answer to Vettel, losing a steady 0.5sec per lap to the flying Ferrari initially. Verstappen, on his softer tyres, was initially being held up by the Mercedes but after 10 laps or so the hypers had given their best and Bottas began to edge clear of him. Verstappen wanted to chase but a radio warning about critical front tyre temperatures forced him to call off the assault for now.
Hamilton had nothing in his armoury with which to take advantage of Verstappen’s issue. He’d radioed that his engine was occasionally ‘dropping out’ of its power band. This was from an automatically-triggered safety programme as the engine’s temperature reached a critical point. A failed part on the chassis had caused the overheating (the team quite coy about what it was). They instructed Hamilton to select an engine mode that enrichened the mixture to control the temperatures (at the expense of power), but this wasn’t sustainable on such a heavily fuel-demanding circuit. There was no way around it from inside the car, and the team realised it would have to stop him much earlier than planned in order that they could open out the cooling slats to compensate, so as to allow a more economical fuel mixture. Obviously, the team didn’t want to put that out over the radio, so Hamilton remained unaware either of the nature of the problem or the upcoming compromise to his race strategy that was going to be necessary.
The delayed Pérez, stuck behind the slower Gasly, was brought in as early as lap nine and switched to a two-stop. A couple of laps later the other Force India of Ocon was brought in to defend against the undercut vulnerability from the closely-following Hülkenberg, as the Force India just didn’t have the Renault’s pace. His car dropped off the rear jack, losing two seconds – enough to allow Renault to pit Hülkenberg and Sainz two and three laps later respectively, and still clear Ocon. The Renaults’ pace once clear of the Force India was more than 0.5ecs faster.
Grosjean was making great progress from his back of the grid start and by lap nine was already right up with team-mate Magnussen, who’d started 11th. Gasly had got past Magnussen and was chasing Alonso, who’d now given up on trying to pass Leclerc. Having a couple of times gone wheel-to-wheel, the rookie remained impressively impervious. Leclerc was in fact keeping Ocon and the Renaults in sight, but the Sauber didn’t have quite enough to challenge them. His fastest lap was slightly faster than those of Hülkenberg, Sainz or Ocon but he was managing heavy brake consumption. It’s becoming the norm for this guy to deliver seriously impressive performances.
As soon as Hamilton had a pitstop’s-worth of gap over Leclerc, Mercedes brought him in. This was lap 16 – not even half the expected stint length for a set of ultras. As the Mercedes guys came out of the garage, Red Bull had time to respond to bring Verstappen in on the same lap, thereby neutralising the Hamilton undercut threat. As with everyone else who would pit, they were fitted with the hardest tyre (the super) in order to get to the end.
Red Bull had been surprised by the early Hamilton stop but by bringing in Verstappen on the same lap, it allowed Ricciardo to stay out just one extra lap rather than two – thereby limiting Hamilton’s chances of getting his tyres up to temperature in time. It underlined again the tactical sharpness of Red Bull. Ricciardo was told to give it everything – and he responded with an in-lap a full 1sec faster than Hamilton’s. In addition, Hamilton had suffered a bit of a moment as he rejoined from the pit exit lane, getting a rear tyre on the grass as he sought to ensure he got out ahead of Leclerc.
The combination of Ricciardo’s in-lap and Hamilton’s iffy moment meant that the second Red Bull was now up to a net fourth, right behind Verstappen, with Hamilton demoted a place. These enforced early stops had made all three of them vulnerable to Räikkönen’s Ferrari that, with no undercut threat from behind, could run way longer on his ultras. Though now well used, the tyres were still comparably quick to the new supers on the two Red Bulls and Hamilton. As Ricciardo rejoined on lap 18, Räikkönen was 14sec ahead of Verstappen, 16sec ahead of Ricciardo and 17sec in front of Hamilton. A pitstop would cost around 18sec.
With his tyres good for another dozen laps or so, and clear air ahead of him, he needed to make up around 0.33sec per lap on Verstappen before stopping if he was to leapfrog past all three of them. It was perfectly feasible; in the same car on the same age and compound of tyres as Räikkönen, Vettel made up an easy 0.5sec per lap on Verstappen – for several unpressured laps. Räikkönen would fail to pull out enough time to clear any of them by the time he pitted on lap 32. He’d go on to finish sixth from a situation where a podium had been more than possible.
McLaren brought Alonso in on the 18th lap in an undercut attempt on Leclerc. Sauber responded next lap but it was too late – Alonso was through and chasing after Ocon. He had halved the 8sec deficit by lap 40 when the McLaren’s exhaust began breaking up, overheating the bodywork and the under-body temperatures, triggering the engine into a limping ‘get home’ mode. He trailed it slowly to the pits and climbed out, his mind already on Le Mans.
Vettel meanwhile was maintaining his lead over Bottas at around 4.5-5sec, neither having stopped yet but still lapping quicker than anyone else. As the tyres wore down, Vettel locked up into the chicane, but without really flat-spotting them. He was being asked to complete all sorts of systems switches at around this time. “At some stages I was saying, ‘Ok, when I am allowed to drive again?’ They were just managing something in the background. Otherwise car was beautiful today.”
So what was it that needed to be managed? “It wasn’t a problem with the car,” related a Ferrari spokesman, “just something we need to do to satisfy the FIA.” This is believed to be related to proving that no advantage is being taken of the twin battery layout being used to circumnavigate the FIA energy deployment sensors.
Mercedes brought Bottas in from just over 6sec behind Vettel on the 35th lap. Ferrari responded a couple of laps later to bring the leader in. Game pretty much over. “They were just a bit too good for us this weekend,” admitted Bottas later. Could it have been different if he’d had more track time on the hypers before qualifying? “I honestly think that if we had chosen one or two sets more of the hypers, potentially we could have extracted a tiny bit more out of those in qualifying. Being 0.09sec off pole, it’s easy to say afterwards, but…”
Verstappen was around 6sec adrift of Bottas, with Ricciardo having fallen away somewhat, just marshalling his energy to keep Hamilton behind. Bottas had used up a lot of fuel in the first stint and would have to begin eking it out now – so allowing Vettel an even more comfortable time, and Verstappen the chance to begin edging closer.
Hülkenberg still led division two in seventh place, with Sainz’s sister car following his every move. They – and Ocon – had to pass the yet-to-stop Haas of Grosjean, who was hanging on for a remarkably long time on his original set of ultras, but still going reasonably quickly. Team-mate Magnussen had pitted from just ahead of him on lap 22 and on his new tyres had quickly reduced the gap to the older-tyred Grosjean. By lap 29 Magnussen had a margin of more than 5sec in hand, allowing for Grosjean’s pitstop. But thereafter, as Magnussen was lapped by the leaders and got several laps of blue flags and the associated dirty tyres, Grosjean got his head down and nailed a sequence of terrific laps on his by-now very old ultras. Remarkably, he clawed back all those 5sec and more – and after stopping on lap 48, exited ahead of his team-mate despite having started half a grid behind him.
This put Grosjean just behind Gasly, who in turn was chasing Leclerc for 10th place. The Sauber driver was continuing to monitor his brakes very carefully while Gasly was in full attack mode. On his way to this position, Gasly had passed the likes of Sirotkin and Magnussen down the straight – a bit of a novelty for a Honda-powered car. He couldn’t quite pierce Leclerc’s defences and Grosjean couldn’t quite pierce his, but all three had produced drives of which they could be proud.
On the 56th lap Bottas – having lost a bit of tyre temperature lifting and coasting – was lapping eighth-placed Sainz at the end of the pit straight but misjudged things and clattered over the grass, allowing Sainz back ahead for a while. Verstappen was now just 4sec behind and closing. But passing was going to be a different thing entirely. Even the addition of a third DRS zone between Turns 7 and 8 didn’t really help with overtaking.
Hamilton, meanwhile, was now right with Ricciardo who had used up his energy store in keeping the Merc behind. A couple of laps of harvesting was required, which might’ve made him vulnerable. “But I knew if I just put my car in the right places, he wouldn’t be able to get by.” Teasingly, he allowed Hamilton to get right with him on the penultimate lap – then reeled off the fastest lap of the race.
Except it didn’t count. Because the race was back-dated two laps – as a result of a mix-up with the chequered flag. It was actually shown to Ricciardo/Hamilton/Räikkönen at the end of lap 69, instead of the scheduled 70. Leader Vettel noticed it on the big screen as he passed and radioed in about it. “I just wanted to make sure that fans didn’t come on the track, thinking the race was finished while we were still racing.”
In the end it made no difference to the result: Vettel’s 50th Grand Prix victory, a Ferrari win on the 40th anniversary of Gilles Villeneuve’s win here for the Scuderia, Bottas backing right off on the last lap, with Verstappen just 0.1sec behind on the line, Ricciardo and Hamilton doing good damage-limitation jobs in fourth and fifth, ahead of a disappointing Räikkönen.
The closely-matched division two runners were a lap down – in the order of Hülkenberg, Sainz, Ocon, Leclerc, Gasly, Grosjean, Magnussen and the two-stopping Pérez. The struggling Ericsson, Vandoorne and Sirotkin were a further lap down.
Later, everyone packed up and left the little island on this beautiful summer Montréal evening, the skyscraper skyline across the other side of the St Lawrence lit up by a setting sun and promising one last night of partying in this F1-crazy town. To think, it all started with that crazy Canuck all those years ago, taking a career-saving first victory on F1’s first visit here. His name resonates still.