The Canadian Grand Prix was manic, pure and simple. The battle up front was always going to be dominated by the two Mercedes drivers, and it looked that way for much of the race. However, when similar problems cropped up on the two Silver Arrows, all hell broke loose in the field’s frantic bid to end Mercedes’ string of wins.
It all came down to one pit stop.
After admitting to an underwhelming qualifying in which he was beaten by his teammate for the first time in a few races, Daniel Ricciardo found himself in the middle of the top-10 early on in the Canadian Grand Prix, behind the Mercedes and Williams duos and Sebastian Vettel.
As usual this season, the Silver Arrows were in a league of their own, dropping the field at an alarming rate once Lewis Hamilton worked his way back to second place after a scruffy start. Frankly, it looked like another weekend of fighting over third place, with the main contenders looking to be the Williams, Red Bull and Force India duos.
For Ricciardo, the first stint of the race was mostly about staying with the cars in front. The Williams pair were much faster than the Red Bull down the straights, so staying in DRS range was the only thing keeping the Australian in contention down the back straight. The first round of stops came earlier than expected, even with the early safety car period, suggesting much of the field would be two-stopping. Ricciardo was the first of the frontrunners to make a break for the pits, cycling out behind his teammate and Valtteri Bottas, but jumping Felipe Massa after the Brazilian’s slightly delayed stop.
This undercut was crucial for Ricciardo, allowing him to pass a car in the pits he would otherwise have struggled to pass on track owing to his car’s top speed disadvantage. However, this wasn’t the most crucial overtake for the Australian.
Having emerged from his first stop in 15th, Ricciardo was the first frontrunner to show his hand on the soft tires. The two Ferraris and Mercedes stayed out a few laps longer than most of the drivers, but with the Silver Arrows already well ahead of the rest of the field, they were able to pit and rejoin the race with their large lead in tact.
This left the one-stopping Force Indias in third and fourth places, soon defending from the Red Bulls and Valtteri Bottas who were able to catch up on their fresh tires. Ricciardo was now running seventh, still pursuing Bottas but unable to pass even with the advantage of the DRS.
With Ricciardo dropping back from Bottas to conserve his tires and avoid overheating on his car, the second stint of the race was just a game of cat and mouse between the two-stopping Red Bulls and the one-stopping Force Indias. Hulkenberg was on the slower prime tire for his first stint, meaning once the chasing group of two stoppers caught up to him, it was just a matter of deploying energy at the right moment to keep them behind. He executed this very well, only allowing Vettel and his pursuers mere glimpses at the thought of passing.
Sergio Perez finally made his first stop on lap 34, bringing an end to a monumental first stint on the supersoft tires, reminding us all how he ended up on the Canadian Grand Prix podium two years ago for Sauber. Vettel and Bottas were in on lap 36, while Ricciardo would be in next time around.
This second stop was what sealed the victory for Daniel Ricciardo. Knowing of the emerging problems in the Mercedes garages, Ricciardo knew that a big result was on the line. His out lap was nearly a second faster than Vettel’s, and his pit stop was two tenths faster. All of this culminated in the Australian jumping both Bottas and his teammate. He was now sitting in eighth place behind the yet-to-stop Hulkenberg, Massa, Alonso and Vergne, and the tire-conserving Perez. Vettel was relentlessly hounding his teammate who he did not expect to end up behind.
Vergne, Hulkenberg and Alonso soon pitted, leaving Massa in second place. But he was rapidly catching the two leaders to the tune of nearly two seconds per lap. The victory was in danger when no solution to the Mercedes duo’s problem could be found. Rosberg made his final stop on lap 44, with Hamilton coming in one lap later. When they emerged from the pits, they were in the immediate clutches of an opportunistic Felipe Massa who had received orders early on in his second stint the goal was to run to the end of the race on the soft tires.
Rosberg was overtaken by Massa when he emerged from the pits and he had no answer to the Williams’ pace, something we never thought we would witness this season. Hamilton was also overtaken by Massa, though he crucially got past Rosberg. Hamilton overcooked it on his outlap, allowing Rosberg to overtake on the back straight. As the cars ran side-by-side, the rear of Hamilton’s car started emitting ominous smoke. The 2008 world champion reported brake failure. His race was soon over.
Force India, Red Bull and Williams were all waiting to pick up the pieces of the Mercedes catastrophe. Massa was leading, but he had to finally pit on lap 48, promoting Rosberg back to the lead. But for how long?
The final stanza of the race, while not separated by pitstops, was absolutely enthralling. Sergio Perez was in the best seat to end Mercedes’ amazing run of wins. With Rosberg nursing his brakes, it looked like the run would finally see its end. But Perez was unable to make the final push past the Mercedes on the back straight. Ricciardo, Vettel, Hulkenberg, Bottas, Massa and Alonso were all following closely behind and were soon all in line behind the tire-conserving Perez.
This was a game of cat-and-mouse on an enormous scale. The Red Bulls were unable to pass on the back straight, and couldn’t use their advantage on the rest of the lap to its full potential. Ricciardo finally made it past the Mexican in the final few laps, brake problems were taking their toll on Perez’s race as well. This ensured at least a second place finish for the Australian.
With Perez holding the rest of the field up with ailing brakes, Ricciardo was able to catch up with Rosberg and pass. The German had no power – literally – to take the fight back to the Red Bull driver. His first career win was sealed.
The accident between Perez and Massa removed all doubt that Ricciardo would win the race. “Nobody can overtake you. You’ve won the race,” came the message to Ricciardo.
The closing laps of this Grand Prix makes the fireworks or Bahrain look pedestrian. It was a game of opportunism, grit, luck, fortune and misfortune, and it produced a race we will remember for a long time.
Ricciardo sealed the deal for his first career victory with just one brilliant in-lap. Had he been unable to undercut Vettel in the second round of stops, we may well be celebrating the German’s 40th career victory. As it happens, though, we get to celebrate the win of one of the most likable characters on the grid. Congrats, Dan. It was brilliant to watch.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic and Mercedes AMG PETRONAS