McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton scored his second victory in a row today in Montreal, with team mate Jenson Button as runner-up, also for the second time in as many races. If that sounds like the beginning of a routine, the race was anything but. The Canadian event was action-packed from turn one, with enough overtaking and “racing incidents” to satisfy the average NASCAR fan.
The race was run at a blistering pace, and, somewhat unusually, without safety cars. One of the most critical factors of the race was tire wear. While the track had been rather cool on Friday and Saturday, today was clear and sunny, and the track heated up, which increased degradation of both the prime and the option compounds. At previous venues this year, the prime option had been able to last the complete race distance, but in Montreal today most drivers made at least two pit stops, one for their mandatory switch to the alternate compound, and one simply to replace exhausted and frayed rubber.
The king of tire wear was Michael Schumacher, who actually used four sets of tires. One of his tire changes was necessitated by a tire puncture which he sustained during a dust-up with Renault’s Robert Kubica. Mercedes took a gamble by leaving Schumi out on his option set for the second half of the race, which proved to be more wishful thinking than a real strategy. During the closing stages of the race, Schumi lost all grip was rather handily passed by the likes of Sebastian Buemi (Toro Rosso), Tonio Liuzzi and Adrian Sutil (both Force India). While it might have seemed like adding insult to injury during the German ace’s troubled comeback season, it must also be said that Schumi scraps with these mid-field habitiues were some of the most lively of the race.
Schumacher also had “incidents” with Robert Kubica, as mentioned, and Felipe Massa. The coming together with Massa ended in tears for the Brazilian, as he was forced to make yet another pit stop for a fresh nose. And it wasn’t Massa’s first collision of the day, at that. At the end of the day, the Ferrari pilot had only one word to describe this race: “Horrible.”
Another key element that affected the outcome of today’s event was gearbox fatigue. Not to say it was prevalent across the grid. But it affected the two drivers who might have otherwise been most likely to succeed, namely, the Red Bull boys, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber. Webber had his gearbox replaced after qualifying, and received a five-place grid penalty as a result. This probably decided his race finish. While he did lead the race for a number of laps, eventually he slowed due to tire degradation, and gave up the lead to Hamilton. Webber finished the race on options, which ultimately hurt his lap times. The option had a very small window of peak performance, less than five laps, and most everyone who attempted to stretch that window suffered for it.
Likewise, Sebastian Vettel had gearbox issues, but they didn’t materialize until the race was well underway. While the team was discreet in radio transmissions about revealing just what the problem was, saying only that they were “managing an issue,” the net result was that Vettel was told to short shift and keep his revs down. Once he was in that equipment-saving mode, he was never a threat to the McLarens or Alonso, who finished third.
As for Alonso, he was in the hunt for a podium finish for most of the race, and possibly could have challenged for the lead. He was always within striking distance of the McLarens, and gave Hamilton some cause for worry for a number of laps. Ultimately, he lost second to Button when he was balked trying to overtake a backmarker. The lucky Briton saw his opportunity and shot past. Button seems to have a knack for waiting for the race to come his way, and this event was no exception. He started fifth, and was only likely to see the podium if others had bad luck, or bad judgment, and that’s just what happened.
As for Mercedes, they qualified poorly, and didn’t finish much better than they started. Rosberg gained four spots from his grid position, mostly by taking care of his tires, staying out of trouble and, as Mercedes boss Ross Brawn put it, “being quick when he needed to be.” Michael Schumacher’s race, on the other hand, was far more untidy. He made a brilliant start, and in short order had moved up to sixth. After some early pit stop shuffles, he was actually up to third. However, after he made his first pit stop, things began to go awry. He exited the pits alongside of Kubica, and the two tangled and cut across the grassy instep of a chicane together, which gave Schumacher a puncture.
Although Schumacher didn’t necessarily have his pace of old, he certainly had a good measure of his old flare. He’s no longer driving like a cautious retiree. One of the hallmarks of his driving style has always been aggressiveness, and if he can recover a bit more of the pace he displayed during his heyday, he’s apt to be a force to contend with again.
That’s assuming, of course, that Ross Brawn & Co. can make the Mercedes W01 into a competitive car. The current rumor circulating through the paddock is that they’ve already exhausted their development budget for 2010. This is hard to believe when you consider that the season isn’t even half finished. However, if there’s any truth to the tale, it might well explain why both Brawn and Schumacher have been dropping broad hints lately that they might shift their focus to the 2011 iteration of the car.
All in all, it was an exciting race that should have easily dispelled the fears of those who, after the season opener in Bahrain (rhymes with boring), suspected that the new spec changes for 2010 had made the cars utterly unraceable. In fact, most of the cars in the field today looked very racy, and we saw quite a bit of racing in close quarters, which, after all, is what the sport is all about.
Next stop on the calendar is Valencia, a bona fide street course. The setting is extremely picturesque (rather like a Spanish version of the Long Beach street circuit in California, only more so), but the previous runnings of the race have been processional, with little overtaking. Let’s hope that the new race specs and tire compounds will change that.