Lewis Hamilton again showed that he seems to know the quickest way around the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Hamilton won his first pole and his first race here in his debut F1 season in 2007. On Saturday, he managed to outpace the pole-dominant Red Bulls, as well as his team mate, Jenson Button, who said of his own performance, vis a vis Hamilton’s, “I was happy with my Q3 lap, but I couldn’t touch Lewis. It was a phenomenal lap from him. He’s qualified on pole every time he’s been here, so he’s obviously a specialist around this place.”
While Hamilton’s best Q3 lap was undeniably quick, and is something of a wake up call for the Red Bull boys, who have had a monopoly on pole positions thus far this year, the Red Bulls were only two and three tenths of a second behind Hamilton, a margin which is likely at least in part attributable to the fact that Hamilton was on the option tire and the Red Bull pilots, Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel, were on primes.
This tire difference could play a factor in the race. The options begin to degrade very quickly, which should force Hamilton to pit much earlier than the Red Bulls, especially considering that Hamilton is notoriously cruel to his tires. This should work in the Red Bull favor if the race unfolds without on-track incidents.
But it’s worth remembering that Montreal is, as many of the paddock pundits are fond of saying, like a cross between Monaco and Monza. Much of the track is bordered by walls, like a street circuit (which, technically, it is), but its layout is a classic combination of long straights linked by tight hairpins and chicanes. That being the case, it’s no wonder that safety car deployments are quite common during the Canadian Grand Prix. Some races here have seen as man as four visits of the safety car to the track, with the effect of making such races seem like NASCAR events.
The point here, of course, is that if the safety car is deployed early in the race, it would very likely work in Hamilton’s favor, as he’d be able to dive into the pits and get his mandatory tire swap out of the way, without losing much track position. The Red Bull boys would not be able to do that, however, as they’d want to run the majority of the race on primes. By the same token, a full course yellow in the latter stages of the race could have a similar windfall effect for the Red Bulls.
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso rounded out the second row, with a pace that was only a hair behind Vettel’s. This was a reassuring performance for the Maranello squad, considering ow miserably they fared at the previous venue at Istanbul. And although Alonso was only a quarter of a second quicker than his team mate, Felipe Massa, that margin translates into three grid positions, which will also no doubt please the Spaniard, who continues to consolidate his position as the dominant driver of the team. No wonder he stated publicly that he’s happy that Massa’s contract has been extended for another two years. He seems to have the measure of the Brazilian.
Jenson Button was nearly a half second slower than his team mate, Hamilton, which doesn’t bode well for his race. Considering that Webber, Vettel and Alonso are ahead of him, he’s likely to make the podium only if two thirds of that trio make mistakes. And after their embarrassing coming together at Istanbul, the Red Bull brats will take a bit more care when running in close quarters together.
Robert Kubica made another impressive showing in the Renault. He’s becoming a usual suspect in Q3, although for the most part Renault have found podiums beyond their grasp this year. But their trajectory definitely seems to be positive, and Kubica was easily quicker than the other factory team on the grid, Mercedes.
Mercedes, in fact, was alarmingly slow. Nico Rosberg resumed his early season habit of outpacing his team mate, Michael Schumacher. Rosberg was four tenths quicker than the uber-driver, but Rosberg only managed 10th on the grid, and was the only one of the Q3 qualifiers not to break 1:16.00. Schumacher, for his part, never made it past Q2. He was on a final flyer late in that session which might have saved his bacon for the final round, but he outbraked himself and cut the final chicane, which invalidated that lap.
Mercedes’ qualifying woes seemed to be centered around tires. They couldn’t seem to get either compound to work to their liking. Last year’s iteration of this car, under the Brawn badge, was noticeably problematic in cooler temperatures. For some reason, the chassis and setup were unable to generate sufficient heat in the tires to bring them up to peak performance levels quickly and consistently. Tires have a natural life cycle, largely predicated on their heat levels, and if this cycle is disrupted, the performance of the tires can be hobbled. One wonders if something of the sort might have happened with the team again this year, as the weather at Montreal has been a bit cooler than what we’ve seen at previous venues this season.
The only other real surprise in Q3 on Saturday came from Force India’s Tonio Liuzzi, who snagged sixth spot, ahead of team mate Adrian Sutil, who was ninth. Sutil has consistently outperformed Liuzzi thus far this year, and Liuzzi has been complaining to the team of handling problems with his chassis. The team finally replaced his chassis to help address the problem, and Liuzzi promptly thanked them by rounding out the third row on the grid, ahead of both Mercedes, both Renaults and one of the Ferraris.