Villeneuve was a tough but scrupulously fair racer. It’s hard to imagine him doing as his Ferrari successor Sebastian Vettel did on Sunday, short-cutting a chicane and then squeezing his rival hard to forbid him from overtaking.
Equally, he surely would have had little time for the dead hand of officialdom which smacked Vettel down hard with a five-second penalty, denying him what would have been his first victory of the season. Combined, the two acts soured what could have been a race to remember for better reasons.
Vettel holds his advantageMax Verstappen ‘out of position’ after failing to reach Q3, Daniel Ricciardo ahead of both Red Bulls.
And Vettel hoping to end a win-less streak which stretches back to last August, starting from his first pole position in 17 races. The Ferrari driver has kept his critics well-supplied with ammunition during that time: he crashed out of the lead in Germany, spun at Monza, Austin and Suzuka, and squandered a potential win in Bahrain.
After taking pole position on Saturday Vettel, wary of the long-run pace Mercedes had exhibited the day before, admitted he would need to be “perfect” to win this one.
It all went to plan in the opening stages. As usual the short run to the first corner at Montreal offers little opportunity for drivers to exchange places, so the first five drivers filed through the opening corners in grid order.
Ferrari and Mercedes’ pace advantage afforded them the benefit of being able to qualify on the more durable medium compound tyres. Those around them who started on softs faded quickly, including Nico Hulkenberg, who used his extra purchase out of turn two to relieve Valtteri Bottas of sixth place. Encouragingly for Renault, the Mercedes driver wasn’t able to recover the position until Hulkenberg pitted.
Hamilton never let Vettel get too far away. When Hulkenberg pitted Hamilton upped his pace, bringing Vettel’s lead down to under two seconds in case Ferrari reacted with an immediate pit stop. Instead they bided their time, giving Vettel longer to eke out a gap while Bottas edged closer to their pit window.
Finally Ferrari took the plunge and brought Vettel in. The stop was smooth, and as soon as he rejoined the track his sector times were quicker than Hamilton. Mercedes knew there was no point in responding, so left Hamilton out for an extra lap in case a Safety Car deployment – always a risk at Montreal – played into their hands. It didn’t, so Hamilton came in after an extra lap, the team now minded to ensure he didn’t lose out to Charles Leclerc, who was keeping the leaders honest in third.
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Hamilton closes in
The pit stops done, Vettel enjoyed a five-second lead over Hamilton. But the Mercedes driver was coming for him. After leaving the pits on lap 30 Hamilton was the quicker of the pair for 10 consecutive laps, until he had the Ferrari back in his crosshairs and within DRS range. This was the kind of fight between F1’s two multiple champions which happens too infrequently, and it looked like being one to savour.
Just as he’d got within range, Hamilton locked up at the turn 10 hairpin and ran wide, falling back out of DRS range. But within a few laps he was pursuing the Ferrari closely again.
Something was up in the cockpit of Vettel’s SF90. On lap 45, in between a stream of messages advising him how close Hamilton was and whether the Mercedes had DRS, Vettel was told: “The numbers on the steering wheel are correct. Take actions.”
Whether this was a matter of cooling, fuel consumption or brake use – and a hot day at the stop-start Circuit Gilles Villeneuve punishes all three – Vettel’s response was immediate. He eased off significantly into the final chicane, bringing Hamilton within close range. Three laps later, heading into turn three with Hamilton breathing down his neck, Vettel made the mistake which cost him the race.
“They’re stealing the race from us”
Vettel had Lance Stroll and Daniil Kvyat growing large ahead of him when he got a little too greedy with his entry speed at turn three. The back end of the car stepped out, and though Vettel fought it until the edge of the corner, he succumbed to the inevitable and skidded onto the grass.
After rejoining the track on the left-hand side, Vettel’s car moved fully across to the opposite side of the track, forcing Hamilton to brake and put all four wheels off the track. “He just came onto the track so dangerous,” complained Hamilton on the radio.
The stewards agreed, and within a few laps Vettel was informed he’d been issued a five-second time penalty. “They’re stealing the race from us,” he fumed, though the decision was consistent with recent precedent: Max Verstappen had done exactly the same thing to Kimi Raikkonen at Suzuka last year and received the same penalty.
Vettel’s defence was that he had been unable to prevent his car from straying into Hamilton’s path. “Obviously I was going through the grass and I think it’s quite commonly known that the grass isn’t very grippy,” he said. “Then I was coming back on track and just trying to make sure I have the car under control. Once I regained control, made sure it was sort-of alright, I looked in the mirrors, and saw Lewis right behind me.”
This is hard to take at face value, as other drivers whose achievements don’t amount to a fraction of Vettel’s have gone off at the same corner and not felt the need to cross the track from one side to the other as they did rejoined.
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In the press conference after the race, motorsport-magazin.com’s Christian Menath asked Vettel the question that mattered: Had he lifted or stay on the throttle as he rejoined in front of Hamilton? Vettel skirted the question with a deftness which suggests a career in politics beckons. He insisted it was “clear what happened” – perhaps forgetting that fans and journalists alike did not have an unobstructed view of his Ferrari’s footwell – and that he had “nothing to add from what I said.”
Although the five-second penalty cannot be overturned post-race, Ferrari have indicated they are considering lodging an appeal. It will be fascinating to see whether Vettel’s steering and throttle traces are presented and exonerate him, or if Ferrari chooses not to proceed with its protest.
While the stewards’ decision was correct, it was not popular, particularly among those who’ve grown weary of Mercedes success. Vettel’s error handed the Silver Arrows their ninth consecutive win, seven of which Hamilton has taken. It was undoubtedly an anticlimactic end to a gripping battle between two of the sport’s stars. And while Hamilton’s precise understanding of the rules demonstrates the kind of professionalism which wins world championship, he is also capable of the kind of overtaking feats which win admirers, and that is surely what we would rather see more of than races decided by stewarding decisions.
But if the sport is to have integrity it must also strive to be consistent and fair, a point which was obviously lost on those who took to social media even before the stewards’ investigation was announced to demand they turn a blind eye just to keep the battle going. That said, there are clearly ways F1 can improve how it polices incidents such as these – adopting the ‘return routes’ used at turns nine and 14 to prevent drivers gaining an advantage from going off would be a start.
No joy for Haas again
Hamilton didn’t need to pass Vettel to win the race, but he tried to give it a go anyway. He wasn’t able to, and so achieved the unusual feat of finishing second on the road but winning the race.
It was a remarkable turnaround for Mercedes, who had to significantly dismantle Hamilton’s car overnight after discovering a hydraulic leak. The FIA took care to note it had been reassembled in line with the rules. “The car was in a thousand parts this morning and we put it back together,” said team principal Toto Wolff when asked by RaceFans, “I think the FIA wanted to check it was all done in the right way.”
Leclerc fell short of beating to Vettel by one second. Significantly, the team did not tell him about his team mate’s penalty. Team principal Mattia Binotto claimed they “forgot”. Leclerc spared the team’s blushes by saying he doubted he could have got close enough to his team mate to claim second, but you had to wonder.
Bottas collected fourth place after pitting for fresh tyres to grab the fastest lap bonus point on an otherwise forgettable weekend. Verstappen executed his recovery run to fifth flawlessly, running a long opening stint on the hard compound tyres.
Ricciardo converted his strong qualifying performance into an excellent sixth place on the grid, first among the drivers who had to start on old tyres. He was aided by Renault interjecting to keep Hulkenberg behind, in what looked like a pre-planned move following Ricciardo’s early pit stop. Between them they successfully kept Ricciardo’s Red Bull successor Gasly confined to eighth.
Gasly’s race went awry when he was unable to clear Stroll’s Racing Point after his pit stop. Like Verstappen, Stroll found the hard tyres worked well for him, and after running a long opening stint he rejoined the track in tenth and gained another place before the chequered flag came out.
He took it from Carlos Sainz Jnr, who had been forced to pit early on when one of his brake ducts ingested a tear-off from a rival’s visor. That meant running a 66-lap stint to the end of the race on hard tyres, only to drop out of the points places in the final four laps. Daniil Kvyat was the last driver to benefit for tenth place.
It was another horrible race for Haas. Romain Grosjean came in 14th behind Sergio Perez and Kimi Raikkonen after losing his front wing at the start. Team mate Kevin Magnussen, who started from the pit lane after smashing his car up on Saturday, had a joyless race of constant reminders to lift-and-coast, and blue flag warnings for drivers he usually races for position with.
“This is the worst experience I’ve had in any race car ever,” he remarked on the radio. Team principal Guenther Steiner interjected: “It’s enough now.”
“What does that mean?” a surprised Magnussen replied. “Enough now, that’s what it means,” Steiner answered. “Enough is enough.” And yet Magnussen was not the unhappiest driver after Sunday’s race.
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“This is not fair”
Vettel left no one in any doubt how he felt about the decision as he returned to the pits. “No, no, no, guys,” he said. “Not like that.”
“Seriously, you have to be an absolutely blind man to think that you can go through the grass and then control your car. I was lucky that I did not hit the wall. Where the hell I am supposed to go? This is a wrong world, tell you, this is not fair.”
He wasn’t done. Returning to the pits he refused to join Hamilton and Leclerc for the post-race interviews and initially stormed off to the Ferrari hospitality area. Once retrieved by FIA personnel Vettel did take part in the podium proceedings but not before one final piece of theatre: He moved the ‘1’ board next to Hamilton’s car and replaced it with the ‘2’ from the empty space where his own car should have been.
But amid the deafening hullabaloo over the rights and wrongs of the outcome of the Canadian Grand Prix, the significant point was that Vettel had once again been in a race-winning position and cracked under the pressure.
Quotes: Dieter Rencken
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