F1 Canadian GP: Rubber, Rubber Everywhere

Like the last few years, the story heading into the Canadian Grand Prix was tyres. This year, tyres weren’t expected to be as much of an issue as the pre-race talk suggested that a one-stop strategy was ideal. It turns out that the winning strategy was two stops. Lewis Hamilton used the fresh tyres from his two-stop strategy to beat the one-stop strategy of Fernando Alonso to the win. Hamilton’s win also made it seven different winners from seven races so far this season.

The race started with Sebastian Vettel leading away from the lights. The start was clean with the top six maintaining their qualifying position. The top three held their positions until the first round of pitstops. Vettel was the first to stop and lost the lead to Hamilton who was able to run a quick in-lap. Fernando Alonso stayed out a couple more laps before pitting which allowed him to put in enough fast laps to leapfrog both Vettel and Hamilton for the lead.

The lead didn’t last long for Alonso. He was quickly picked off by Hamilton with the aid of DRS. The order stayed Hamilton, Alonso and Vettel up front until Hamilton made his second pitstop. The top three were all believed to be on two-stop strategies. However, Hamilton turned out to be the only driver up front who made two stops. Alonso and Vettel decided to go to the finish on their tyres.

With fresh tyres and the win slipping away, Hamilton put in a series of fast laps. He was about 15 seconds behind Alonso with 20 laps to go. He pulled back over a second per lap from Alonso and was able to get by Vettel for 2nd in 12 laps. Two laps later, he was able to pass Alonso for the lead and cruise to victory. It was Hamilton’s first win of the season and  the second for McLaren this season which levels the team with Red Bull for most wins by a constructor this season.

The race wasn’t over when Alonso was passed though. Vettel pitted after getting passed. This promoted two-stoppers Romain Grosjean and Sergio Perez to 3rd and 4th, respectively. On fresher tyres, they were able to mow down Alonso. On fresh tyres, even Vettel was able to get by Alonso.

After Hamilton in first, Romain Grosjean and Sergio Perez finished 2nd and 3rd, respectively, to complete the podium. Vettel and Alonso rounded out the top five. Also scoring points were Nico Rosberg, Mark Webber, Kimi Raikkonen, Kamui Kobayashi and Felipe Massa.

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As good as McLaren was at calling strategy for Lewis Hamilton in this race, they were equally as bad in calling Jenson Button’s strategy. Button started the race from tenth on the soft prime tyres. Even though he had harder tyres than the leaders, he only made it to Lap 16 before pitting. Vettel stopped the following lap. The only chance Button had was to do a long opening stint on primes before making a late switch to the super-soft options.

Somehow, the McLaren team got worse at calling strategy as the race went along. They ended up going for a three-stop strategy with a short first stint on primes, two stints in the middle of the race were on options and a 27-lap final stint on the primes. If they went long first stint, just long enough option stint and back to the primes, they could’ve had a shot at the points. Instead, Button finished 17th. McLaren’s strategy call got Hamilton the win but it also cost Button any shot in Canada.

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Off the race track, the big news of the weekend was the student protests in Montreal. The protesters used F1 events as a staging ground for protest against proposed university tuition increases for students from the province of Quebec. Currently, Quebec university students pay an average of $2,100 per year in tuition for a full course load. The government’s proposal is to phase in an increase to $3,700 per year by 2017. For the sake of comparison, people I know in university in Ontario are paying approximately $5,000 per year in tuition for a full course load.

The threat of protests forced the race promoters to cancel the traditional Canadian Grand Prix Thursday open house which allows fans to tour the paddock and see the drivers, teams, cars and equipment up close before the race weekend officially begins. They did protest the various sponsor parties and team and charity dinners held on Thursday night. A CBC report stated that 39 protesters were arrested on Thursday night. There was further controversy when 1997 F1 champion Jacques Villeneuve said the protesters had made their point and should go back to class. He also suggested that they felt entitled because they had never been told “no.” This led to him receiving a number of death threats but didn’t stop him from working for Sky Sports F1 this weekend.

Protesters also attempted to disrupt the race on Sunday. Montreal police ejected 40 people from the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and arrested another 34 to prevent protest-related unrest. These people were said to be carrying items such as bricks, rocks and ski masks. Protesters also called in a bomb threat on the subway line that services the Circuit. The call was made around 7:50 AM Sunday morning which meant that the disruption was minimal.

Unlike Bahrain, the race was never in any danger of being cancelled and threats to the health and safety of F1 drivers and teams were minimal. Anyone trying to draw comparisons between the two situations needs to give their head a shake. The only similarity was the existence of protests. The Montreal students were protesting a cost of higher education increase (which would still have them paying less than any other university student in Canada). The people of Bahrain were protesting an oppressive government which was violently oppressive against the protesters. There really isn’t a comparison between the two situations in Canada and Bahrain.

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Not surprisingly, Bernie Ecclestone is stirring up trouble with the two American races before they even start. Bernie has already stated his doubts that the Circuit of the Americas would be ready in time for November’s US Grand Prix. Now, he says that he has his doubts that the Port Imperial Street Circuit in New Jersey which will host the Grand Prix of America will not be ready. Ecclestone says that there are contractual and financial issues that will prevent the race from being run in 2013. Naturally, the race promoters have no idea what Ecclestone is on about. Their plan is to have the track and other permanent facilities in place for next June.

In other American F1 news, Sebastian Vettel will run an Infiniti road car around the proposed New Jersey street circuit today for a press event. An FIA track inspector will be visiting the Circuit of the Americas for a preliminary inspection of the facility. A track created video shows Mario Andretti driving an SUV over the paved portion of the circuit. It’s hard to tell from the video but it appears that the first layer of asphalt has been laid from the pit straight to the Turn 11 hairpin. With five months until race day, I’d say that COTA is ahead of the Korean International Circuit was at this point.

Most interestingly and most unlikely, a new rumour has surfaced that the Long Beach Grand Prix, currently an IndyCar race, could become the third Grand Prix in America. Former Long Beach race promoter Chris Pool is rumoured to be bidding for the race promotion contract with the City of Long Beach when the current contract expires. Pook’s plan would be to bring F1 back to Long Beach. With races already in Austin and New Jersey, the American market might already be oversaturated. Not to mention that there are already races in the Americas in Brazil and Canada with rumoured races coming in Mexico and Argentina. I don’t think this one will come to fruition but where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

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It’s another two-week break before the next race. The next event is the European Grand Prix on the streets of Valencia. While the Canadian Grand Prix and Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is predisposed to exciting races and lots of passing, the Valencia Street Circuit is perfect for insomniacs. This race will put even the biggest race fan to sleep. The track is fairly technical but the corners are laid out in such a way that effectively eliminates passing. That seems to be a requirement of Spain’s current F1 tracks.

After this weekend’s race, I don’t think we’re any closer to figuring out who has an advantage over the rest of the field. I’d like to say that Red Bull and McLaren’s two wins say they’ll be up front in Valencia but Ferrari, Sauber and Lotus all looked strong in Montreal. Red Bull is probably the early favourite. It’ll likely come down to who works the tyres and strategy best.

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