Issue 19: Canadian Grand Prix Preview

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4 June 2014

If the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is a Red Bull Racing track then the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal is undoubtedly a Mercedes venue. The combination of slow-speed corners, heavy traction zones and fast straights suit the Mercedes powertrain very neatly. The circuit almost always produces great racing, due to the nature of track and changeable weather conditions in Montreal.

Take risks: ride the kerbs, attack the barriers

The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is low grip and tough on brakes, tyres and fuel consumption, which helps promote overtaking and close, combative racing. Extracting the maximum lap requires a driver to ride the kerbs at the chicanes and play dare with the barriers. The track itself has a street circuit feel to it. Unlike the new breed of F1 circuits, it is unforgiving, punishing driver error most notably on the exit of the final chicane where the infamous ‘wall of champions’ lies in wait for anyone who has been greedy over the kerbs or understeered wide  in Turn 13. The need for straight-line speed in order to maintain track position or overtake means that teams remove downforce from the car. The drivers therefore rely heavily on mechanical grip from the tyres. Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is unusual in that the track surface varies in different places as sections have been resurfaced at different times over the years. Like other street circuits, the track is rarely used, so the drivers will seek to put down plenty of grip in the early sessions, which will mean the track evolves significantly throughout the weekend. The rear tyres in particular need to withstand not only the traction demands of constant deceleration and acceleration, but also the energy created as the drivers ride the kerbs, according to Pirelli. A car with compliant suspension will pay dividends. Less overall downforce means that sliding of the rear tyres, which leads to overheating, is a greater risk in the Grand Prix.

Powertrain performance is critical too, not only topline speed, but predictable torque delivery to minimise wheelspin. Good low-speed traction is especially important at the exit of Turn 10 to avoid being overtaken on the long straight or to stay within overtaking range of the car in front. This is undoubtedly the best overtaking zone on the circuit, however, the braking zones for Turns 1 & 10 also present good opportunities.

Challenging Hamilton in Montreal

Hamilton and Rosberg will once again duel in a race of their own. Only a wet race would give the others a glimmer of catching the Silver Arrows. Hamilton’s prowess around the streets of Gilles Villeneuve Circuit is reflected in his strong record of three wins and poles in Canada. I expect him to maintain a slight performance advantage over Rosberg given his ability to post marginally quicker laptimes while using less fuel in addition to his confidence under braking, which is vital given that 13% of the lap is spent braking hard, according to brake manufacturer Brembo. Crucially, Hamilton is also one of the best drivers at attacking the kerbs and the barriers. Mercedes proved to be the best at riding the kerbs in Monaco, a good indicator for Canada. Hamilton will surely be seeking to regain the momentum after Monaco, but will events in the principality have spurred him on or caused him to lose focus, increasing the chances of the Briton overdriving? To beat Hamilton, Rosberg will probably need to either attack the barriers and kerbs harder than Hamilton, which of course carries risks, or learnt to mirror his approach to fuel saving.

Will Ferrari move up the competitive order?

The Scuderia are bringing a major aerodynamic and powertrain upgrade to the Canadian Grand Prix. The question is what impact will this have on their performance and will it move them up the competitive order? Their limitations in 2014 have been topline speed and low-speed traction, at least compared to Mercedes. However, they’re now promising to run their powertrain in more aggressive settings following a software upgrade. Fernando Alonso was unsure about Ferrari’s planned upgrade claiming that the team’s updates in 2014 have produced inconsistent results. The difficulty for Ferrari in Canada is likely to be testing these upgrades as rain is forecast for Friday and Saturday, which will disrupt their testing programme. However, if successful, this update package is likely to be sufficient to edge them slightly ahead of the Mercedes customer teams. Alonso and Raikkonen will still have a big fight on their hands to finish ahead of the Williams, McLarens and Force Indias as Ferrari’s other weakness compared to the Mercedes is fuel consumption. Their Energy Recovery System is not as effective as Mercedes’, so they are forced to rely more on the Internal Combustion Engine, which means they need to carry more fuel. Even so, a strong points finish is surely Ferrari’s target.

McLaren is likely to be more competitive in Montreal as the MP4-29 is well-suited to fast straights and low-speed corners. What might blunt their performance, however, is colder track temperatures, as Button and Magnussen have struggled with graining and getting heat into the tyres in these conditions. Force India will probably be able to make hay around Circuit Gilles Villeneuve given their ability to better preserve their tyres. This advantage could be magnified if there are safety car periods outside of normal pit stop windows. Force India are likely better placed than Williams, for instance, to stretch out tyre stints or change to a one-stop strategy and gain places if others need to pit twice.

A tough weekend for Renault

The Renault-powered teams, including Red Bull, are in for a difficult race such is their deficit on topline speed and traction. The Renault runners will be vulnerable down the long straight after Turn 10. They are likely to need to rely on an unconventional strategy, weather conditions or safety car periods to pick off struggling Mercedes- or Ferrari-powered cars and move up the placings. Renault are bringing an upgrade, but not an increase in horsepower. Red Bull will not be able to minimise this disadvantage by deploying their superior aerodynamic grip to great effect either given the lack of high-speed corners.

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