The Formula One circus rolls into Canada this weekend for the first North American race of the year with Mercedes keen to prove that their breakthrough win in the Monaco Grand Prix a fortnight ago was not just a one-off, as the controversy over their secret tyre test continues to rumble on in the background.
Just a few hours ago, the sport’s governing body – the FIA – put out a statement saying the matter would be brought before its International Tribunal, an independent body which has the authority to issue penalties of varying severity, from a mere slap on the wrist to exclusion from the world championship, which is unlikely to happen.
Mercedes have arguably built the fastest car this year, a fact borne out by their four consecutive pole position starts. But come raceday, the team have continued to suffer from their age-old bugbear – tyre wear – that has seen Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton tumble down the order, as a result of their W04’s tendency to overheat its rear tyres.
Take Bahrain for instance — Rosberg started on pole but ended the race ninth. At the next race in Spain Mercedes locked out the front row with Rosberg on pole again. Yet the best the two cars from Brackley could manage was a sixth for Rosberg while Hamilton finished out of the points in 12th.
But in Monaco Rosberg, was able to hang on to finally covert pole position into Mercedes’ first win of the year, thanks to a combination of factors.
Firstly, Monaco is a track made up of slow-speed turns and unlike Barcelona and Bahrain features no long, high-speed corners that put tremendous amounts of energy through the tyres. Secondly, the tight, twisty nature of the circuit makes it notoriously difficult for drivers to overtake around the streets of the principality which means the leader is able to dictate the pace of the race.
As a result, the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Canada, made up of long straights broken up by chicanes and hairpins, will prove to be a key test of how much progress Mercedes have really made with their tyre-wear problems.
Yes, the track doesn’t feature the long, high speed corners that put extreme lateral loads through the tyres, but heavy braking into and the need to get good traction out of the slow chicanes and hairpins means the low grip surface asks a lot more of the tyres compared to Monaco.
“Canada is always one of the most unpredictable races of the year and this is partly because it is so challenging for tyres, mostly due to the heavy braking and traction demands of the circuit,” Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery, who is expecting drivers to make between two and three stops on Sunday, said in a preview statement ahead of the race.
One man who will most certainly be hoping that Mercedes’ Monaco form carries through to this weekend will be Lewis Hamilton, as he seeks to redress the balance in his intra-team rivalry with Rosberg. The Briton, who has won the Canadian race thrice, has admitted to having had trouble getting used to his new car after a lifetime spent working with McLaren.
And though Rosberg, who lies 15 points behind his team-mate in the overall standings, hasn’t quite shown Hamilton a clean pair of heels, three straight pole positions followed by the win in Monaco have certainly given the German the edge over his far more highly-regarded teammate.
“The Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve has been a strong circuit for me and I’ve been lucky enough to win there three times in my career, including last season,” Hamilton said in a Mercedes statement ahead of the race.
“It’s not too far off a Monaco-style circuit where you need a similar set-up to bounce off the kerbs so we should be quite competitive, although looking after the tyres will be our main challenge.”
“There’s a really good feeling in the team at the moment following Nico’s win in Monaco and we’re continuing to work hard to make sure we have the potential for more victories this season.”
Two other drivers for whom this weekend’s race is crucial are title contenders Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen.
Both drivers endured dismal races in Monaco on a day when championship leader Sebastian Vettel finished a comfortable second in his Red Bull, stretching his lead to 21 points at the top of the standings.
In contrast, Alonso drove an uncharacteristically defensive race to finish seventh in his Ferrari while Raikkonen managed to salvage only a solitary point in his Lotus after a collision with McLaren’s Sergio Perez forced the Finn to make an extra pit-stop.
“We did well last year and it’s good in terms of the memories, but that doesn’t mean we’ll necessarily do well there this year,” Lotus team principal Eric Boullier said.
“What we do know is that this year’s car is strong and has performed well on all different types of track layout, so it’s reasonable to expect a good weekend in Canada. I don’t think it will be an easy weekend, but we’ll be disappointed if both cars aren’t close to – or on – the podium.”
Image courtesy of Octane Photographic