2018 Canadian Grand Prix Analysis: Vettel’s “perfect day”

Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

Come Friday evening in Montréal, Sebastian Vettel was far from happy. In Free Practice 1 he stood fourth fastest, two-tenths away from pacesetter Max Verstappen, and got a little too close to the wall towards the closing stages of the session. He fared no better in the afternoon. He failed to appear for the first third of FP2, thanks to needed repair work on his Scuderia Ferrari, and when he did reach the track he hit traffic when it mattered. The gap to Verstappen increased by half a second and he dropped to fifth, behind Lewis Hamilton.

I am not entirely happy yet and there’s still some work to do,” he said afterwards. “It is difficult to get to know all the answers.

“I think we need some more time to get everything together and then we’ll see what happens. We tried various things, but there’s still something we have to work on.”

And that’s what Ferrari did. Reserve driver Antonio Giovinazzi, just a week before he competes in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, was summoned to the simulator in Maranello, tweaking and testing different setups as the team looked to correct the car’s wayward balance.

The end result was overly positive. A fired up Vettel edged out Hamilton’s Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport team-mate Valtteri Bottas to pole position by just 0.093 seconds, setting a new outright track record in the process with a time of 1 minute 10.764 seconds. Theoretically, he could have gone quicker, but admitted to making a mistake on his final Qualifying 3 run. On the other hand, his main championship rival stood fourth and battled his own problems.

On race day, he was untouchable. Vettel controlled the pace just as he did so often in his glory days with Aston Martin Red Bull Racing to take victory from Bottas by seven seconds. The Finn could have been closer, but for an error when lapping the Renault Sport Formula 1 Team car of Carlos Sainz Jr. on lap 56 and therefore losing the momentum he had built. Vettel got the perfect start from the clean side of the track, holding off the squabbling Bottas and Verstappen out of Turn 2. His immediate progress was stunted by the wince-inducing crash between Lance Stroll and Brendon Hartley at Turn 5, but, just as he did four laps earlier, he held firm to keep the Mercedes behind.

He stayed kind to the ultra-soft tyres he started on, ensuring that he was the last of the front-runners to stop on lap 37 for super-softs that lasted until the end. He didn’t have it all his own way though. For the past two races, the FIA have been monitoring Ferrari’s two-battery hybrid system to make sure that they are not exceeding any regulation figures in terms of energy harvesting or deployment. It is The Checkered Flag‘s understanding that Vettel had to perform numerous ‘driver default’ switch changes to turn the required systems off and on again. It led to a minor front right lock-up at the hairpin late on, but nothing more. Had he been subjected to a fiercer challenge from Bottas, it could have presented a greater hinderance.

Credit: Scuderia Ferrari

The sour mood on Friday had long gone, turned to joy by Sunday evening. Not only had the German equalled the feats of Alain Prost, Hamilton and – maybe most significantly to Vettel – Michael Schumacher in taking 50 wins in Formula 1, but he had retaken the championship lead that he had lost in Azerbaijan two months’ ago.

“Great result, great performance from the team,” the German beamed post-race. “I think we never had a moment in the race where I had to be scared – it was really controlled, the pace was there and the car was doing what I wanted.

“A perfect day I guess.”

Vettel did note that, just seven races into a 21 race calendar, the championship is still far away, reiterating the importance and meaning of the victory – his third of the season.

“[The lead is] a nice side effect,” he added. “I think that today the victory is more important.

“Obviously if you win, you score more points than others – but I think there’s a long way to go, it’s very early. I think I’m more happy about the fact I have won here, what it means, all the Ferrari fans here have been waiting a long time for a Ferrari win. It was amazing to see how excited they were on the drivers’ parade, they gave me a lot of energy and to get the job done in the afternoon was fantastic.”

He even had the time to point out the early appearance of the chequered flag, thanks to the designated marshal prompting supermodel and friend of Hamilton, Winnie Harlow, to bring proceedings to a close prematurely. Fortunately, the only effect it had was that the DHL Fastest Lap award went to Verstappen and not Daniel Ricciardo – to the latter’s bemusement!

Hartley suffers another setback

The Canadian Grand Prix weekend had been going very well for Hartley. Boosted by a more powerful Honda engine, thanks to a reported 27 horsepower increase from the previous spec, the New Zealander spent FP2 and FP3 on the fringes of the top 10. Additionally, Hartley managed to do the most laps of anyone on the hyper-soft compound in Practice, far surpassing Pirelli Motorsport‘s projected figures. A solid Qualifying run saw him finish twelfth, whilst team-mate Pierre Gasly struggled with the older engine and failed to make it out of Q1.

That was the end of the highlights for Hartley. Just seconds in, he tried a – potentially overambitious – move on the fast starting Stroll around the outside of Turn 5. Stroll reportedly suffered a right rear puncture, forcing a snap of oversteer that sent him careering across the track leaving the gap that Hartley was aiming for to get smaller and smaller. Wedged between the Williams Martini Racing car and the concrete wall, the Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda climbed on top of Stroll in a terrifying manner before the pair came to rest in the barriers at Turn 6 without collecting another car.

Slow-motion footage shows that Hartley banged his head against the headrest, deforming the structure in the process. Fortuitously, both drivers walked away after medical observation. The Toro Rosso driver was sent to the local hospital for further scans, but was found to have suffered no damage. But for the still contentious halo, he may have not been as lucky.

Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

And whilst his body suffered no lasting effects, his Formula 1 career may have done. Toro Rosso reiterated their support for Hartley, despite rumours linking them to FIA Formula 2 series leader and McLaren F1 Team junior Lando Norris and Mercedes reserve Pascal Wehrlein in recent weeks. Team manager Graham Watson said that he and the team want the best for the 28-year-old two-time World Endurance champion, but the decision may be out of their hands.

“We want him to be successful, as a Toro Rosso team we are 100 per cent behind Brendon,” said Watson, speaking to Newshub.

“We don’t have the actual control of what happens with our drivers in Toro Rosso. The drivers are predominantly controlled by Red Bull.”

Hartley has just a solitary point to his name, scored in Azerbaijan, compared to Gasly’s 18 so far. He needs another weekend like this – in terms of performance – to be translated into points.

Who has the best package?

Mercedes may have a 17 point advantage over Ferrari a third of the way into the 2018 championship, but statistics may fail to tell the whole picture.

If you neutralise engine performance between Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault Sport and Honda, you would be inclined to say that Red Bull have conquered the 2018 regulations. Two victories for Ricciardo in China and Monaco have been supplemented by top five finishes in Australia, Spain and Canada. Big points were on offer in the Azeri capital, but for a race-ending collision with Verstappen when the pair ran fourth and fifth – Ricciardo trailing the Dutchman.

The self-titled “peasants’ world champion” of 2016 still has an outside chance of the title proper, despite losing his third place in the standings to Bottas. Can Renault’s customer unit help propel Red Bull’s undeniably brilliant chassis to more wins? Time will tell, but because of this, Red Bull do not have the best overall offer.

And neither do Mercedes. They may have alleviated the “diva” like characteristics of the W08 over the winter period, but the car still struggles on certain tracks. Hamilton was overjoyed with a podium in Monaco and was delighted to even finish in Canada. Mercedes found a quality control issue on the batch of upgraded power units they planned to run last weekend whilst putting the unit through its paces on the dynamometer on Wednesday evening. They were amazed that Bottas managed a very credible podium.

Credit: Daimler AG

Fearing two ‘Did Not Finish’ results to their name, they have postponed the upgrade for Paul Ricard in a fortnight’s time – it may give them the upper hand on the Mistral Straight. Looking further down the line, Mercedes will now have to rethink what engine they want to run in Hungary – dare they give the primary one an eighth race?

Ferrari seem to be the most sensible answer. In terms of power, the 062 EVO engine looks to be a match for the M09 EQ Power+ in the Mercedes – even in Qualifying trim, where Mercedes have found a clear advantage in recent years. The SF71H looks balanced and kind on its tyres; should they avoid the disasters that befell them in Asia last year, the chequered flag in Abu Dhabi in November may provoke a different emotion to 12 months prior.

Not a good weekend for wildlife

Friday signalled the first groundhog related incident in F1 for 11 years. Romain Grosjean followed Anthony Davidson‘s example by massacring a poor creature on the back straight in FP2, wrecking the Haas F1 Team‘s new front wing – a part they have few spares of. The onboard shot provided a graphic representation of how lethal a 780kg car travelling at speeds circa 320 km/h can be.

On Saturday, Hamilton’s brake issues at the hairpin were reportedly a consequence of a bird getting stuck in one of the front brake ducts. Motorsport Magazine‘s Mark Hughes wrote: “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.” Before the final sector, Hamilton was close to trumping Vettel’s pole position time but fell to fourth as a result.

However, there were no stray gulls at Turn 1 to distract Vettel this time.