Issue 20: Canadian Grand Prix Review

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11 June 2014

Race Summary: Daniel Ricciardo won a dramatic race in Montreal, passing an ailing Nico Rosberg two laps from the flag. Both Mercedes suffered a loss of power forcing Lewis Hamilton to retire. Sebastian Vettel finished third narrowly avoiding a major accident on the final lap involving Sergio Perez and Felipe Massa. Jenson Button came home fourth with the Ferraris finishing a disappointing sixth and tenth.

Ricciardo’s reward

The Canadian Grand Prix lived up to its reputation and delivered a thriller of a race. That surprise results are still possible even in a season of total one-team domination is refreshing and very welcome. There were several twists as the race unfolded, but the Grand Prix and the duel for the drivers’ title turned on the unexpected formation failure of Mercedes’ Energy Recovery System-Kinetic (ERS-K) in both W05 Hybrids on Laps 36-37. This robbed Hamilton and Rosberg of 160bhp of power produced by their ERS and significant straight-line speed, which cost them around 2-3 seconds in laptime for 10 laps. This allowed the chasing pack to close down Rosberg after Hamilton’s ERS-K fault had induced a rear brake failure and ended the now-familiar lead battle between the Mercedes drivers, which has made for compulsive viewing this season.

But who would profit from the ailing Mercedes and claim an unlikely victory? Felipe Massa, Sergio Perez, Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel were all in with a shout. In the final sprint to the chequered flag, the Red Bulls toiled behind Perez’s Force India, unable to get by. However, Perez, who was driving beautifully on a one-stop strategy, was unable to pressurise Rosberg who was roughly a second up the road. The Mercedes driver masterfully managed his ERS-K failure, driving around the problem until a partial fix was implemented and he was able to lap in the 1.19s. Despite being very slow down the straight after Turn 10, Rosberg was able to put himself out of DRS range by putting in fast times in Sectors 1 and 2 where the Wo5 Hybrid’s loss of power counted for less. It looked increasingly likely that Rosberg would hold on for the win as the chequered flag approached. Ricciardo, however, saw an opportunity to dive inside Perez at Turn 1 grabbing second place. He then attacked Rosberg for the lead and executed the killer pass on Lap 68. This capped off a great drive by the Australian.

Ricciardo has responded superbly to Vettel emerging as a competitive force again following his average start to the season. In qualifying for Canada, Vettel produced a superior lap to start from third on the grid after Ricciardo had outperformed him by 0.3 seconds in Q1 and Q2 sessions. However, in the race, Ricciardo’s great in-lap on Lap 37, a second faster than his team-mate, ensured he overtook the German and gave him the chance of a first crack at Perez and then the leader.

Implications for the drivers’ title

Hamilton’s retirement and Rosberg’s second place finish in Canada meant that the momentum in the battle for the drivers’ title swung back in favour of the German. However, a 22-point lead is far from unassailable given that there are 12 rounds left and a maximum of 325 points still available. A DNF for Rosberg and/or another run of 3-4 wins for Hamilton would likely turn the championship round again. Despite Hamilton’s setback, the Canadian Grand Prix confirmed the importance of winning track position in the intra-Mercedes duel. Hamilton was much quicker than his team-mate on the soft tyre in the second stint of the Grand Prix, but still could not find a way past. This was effectively a repeat of Bahrain and Spain, albeit with the positions reversed. In this closely matched fight, track position is king and the best way of securing it is in qualifying. Here, it is usually advantage Hamilton. However, Rosberg has shown that when the Briton does not string his best sector times together or makes a mistake in Q3, he is more than good enough to capitalise. In the race, with passing on track difficult because both drivers have the same car and rarely make errors, pit-stop strategy is often the best chance for the chasing Mercedes to gain track position. Hamilton was able to leap ahead of Rosberg in the pits in Canada, but the pitstop fried what remained of his rear brakes.

Canada re-confirmed Hamilton’s other, season-long advantage over Rosberg: fuel consumption. Rosberg is still using more fuel in race conditions than his team-mate. This means that the Briton can either carry less fuel from the start or have 2-3kg left in the final stint to attack Rosberg if he’s behind him on track. With such fine margins, this might be the difference in a future race.

Relative performance in the chasing pack

Despite track layout not favouring Red Bull, they were able to race – and in the end  – beat the leading Mercedes customer teams. Massa was slightly faster on race pace and Perez more or less matched Ricciardo lap-by-lap, but stopped only once, so Red Bull were unlikely to beat them in a straight fight. However, operational errors at Williams (a slow first stop pit-stop for Massa) and rear brake problems for Perez meant Ricciardo and Vettel were able to finish ahead. So, even on a ‘weaker’ Red Bull track, the RB10 is close to the second fastest car. This will surely give Red Bull the advantage over the Mercedes customers in the ‘best of the rest’ battle in the constructors’ championship in 2014.

There was much fanfare around Ferrari’s significant aerodynamic and powertrain upgrade in the run-up to the Canadian Grand Prix. I expected the Scuderia to move up the order and fight the Mercedes customers in Montreal. However, sixth for Alonso and tenth for Raikkonen is a pretty meagre result for Ferrari. To be fair, the Scuderia did not race all the upgrades it brought, but the bodywork changes at the rear of the car and the powertrain software update only seemed to ensure that they did not lose ground to those in front.

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