A huge team effort after the trials and tribulations of Monaco, involving 24/7 shifts at Brackley HQ, reaped the best possible reward with the team’s first 1-2 finish of 2017 and a sixth Canadian Grand Prix victory for Lewis.
Canada has always had emotional connotations for Lewis
That incredible result puts Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport back into the lead of the Formula One World Constructors’ Championship, with an eight point advantage over Scuderia Ferrari.
Canada has always had emotional connotations for Lewis. In 2007, his debut season, he scored his first F1 victory around the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in just his sixth Grand Prix. That win on Sunday moves him to within striking distance of the great Michael Schumacher’s record seven Canadian Grand Prix wins.
What’s more, a stunning sixth pole in Montréal for Lewis on Saturday saw him equal the 65 pole positions of his childhood idol and fellow three-time World Champion Ayrton Senna – an achievement marked with the presentation of one of Ayrton’s race-used helmets during the post-session interviews.
After Friday practice, it had looked as if the Prancing Horse may have the advantage once again over the Silver Arrows. Bear in mind too that last year, amid a season in which Mercedes was so dominant, the team had less than 0.2s in hand over Vettel and Ferrari in Canadian qualifying.
Toto: I don’t think we’ve discovered the Holy Grail
But a totally committed lap from Lewis gave him pole with a significant 0.33s margin over Sebastian Vettel. Valtteri was third quickest, 0.72s behind what the Finn acknowledged as “a mega-lap” from his team-mate.
So, why does Lewis go so well in Montréal? Downforce levels are low and, perhaps more than any other driver, the Brit is comfortable with any rear-end instability under heavy braking and through the rapid directional changes required by the track’s four chicanes. “It’s a bit like a big go-kart track!” he beamed.
“I don’t think we’ve discovered the Holy Grail,” team boss Toto Wolff admitted. “But the more data we collect, the better we can put the jigsaw together – although it is still a complicated picture. You can see that through the differences between our two cars with no major differences in set-up. And when you talk to the drivers there’s a difference in how they perceive the car. The way we put the car on the track was different to how we would have done if we hadn’t had the slap in Monaco.
“Lewis sometimes has these days where you understand why he’s different. Whether it was a circuit he particularly likes or just that he got the car where he needed it, he was just stellar!”
Lewis: They worked harder than ever
The team’s engineers and strategists echoed that sentiment. Looking at practice, they believed that a 1m11.9s qualifying lap was the absolute limit that could be extracted from the W08, with Ferrari possibly having a slight edge. True to those expectations, Vettel lapped the Ferrari in 1m11.789s. Somehow, though, aided by unexpectedly strong grip in the first sector of the lap, Lewis produced 1m11.459s. Valtteri, on 1m12.177s, could only doff his cap.
Brilliant though Lewis was, other factors in play pointed to the influence of changing ambient and track temperature, as witnessed already at other races this season. In lower track temperatures, Ferrari appeared to have the upper hand. But, conversely, the W08 transformed in warmer conditions with Ferrari seeming to lose performance – a differing scenario to the season-opening race in Melbourne. What surprised those on the pit wall most, however, was the scale of the swing in power.
Whatever the reason, Lewis made a point of thanking the team for their efforts between the races to give him a race-winning machine once again. “They worked harder than ever and did an amazing job to firstly understand where we went wrong in Monaco and then figure out how we can progress.”
So, what exactly did the folk at Brackley do to return their boys to the top two steps of the podium? Put simply, working 24-hour shifts, they ran a range of simulations and driver-in-loop programmes to evaluate what could have done better in Monaco with the benefit of hindsight.
Normally, not too much time is spent looking backwards
Normally, not too much time is spent looking backwards. But, in this instance, an exception was made to facilitate better understanding. That provided three or four threads of information that were explored before applying the same logic to Montréal. That in turn led the team down a slightly different set-up avenue because, aerodynamically, the car was fundamentally exactly the same.
If the foundation of a comfortable 20s victory for Lewis on Sunday was that sensational Qualifying lap, the events of the opening lap helped further. In the third shortest run to the first corner of any circuit on the calendar, Lewis made a fine start to lead out of the tight Turn 1-2 sequence
But the combination of a determined bid down the inside from Valtteri and a start reminiscent of Gilles Villeneuve himself from fifth-placed Max Verstappen saw Vettel caught in a sandwich – his Ferrari suffering front wing damage that necessitated an early pit stop.
A first lap incident between Carlos Sainz and Romain Grosjean that also took out Felipe Massa’s Williams brought out the Safety Car, with racing proper resuming once again on lap four. By lap 10, Lewis had opened up a 4s advantage over Verstappen before the Red Bull ground to a halt with a mechanical problem, prompting a four-lap Virtual Safety Car period.
Valtteri: I think I need a dentist as well
Despite not having the easiest of opening stints, Valtteri was now up to second, followed by Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull, Sergio Perez’s Force India, and Kimi Räikkönen Ferrari – the delayed Vettel now with work to do from 14th.
“The lock-up and flat-spot in Turn 2 at the start compromised my opening stint,” Valtteri explained. “The vibration was really strong. It was difficult to see and I think I need a dentist as well!”
That contributed to a relatively early lap 23 pit stop for Valtteri, as the Finn switched onto the yellow-walled Pirelli Soft tyre. In an ideal world, he would have completed a longer opening stint. But, with that flat-spot, the strategy was to take him to the point where the team felt he was secure in second position but not so far from the flag that he risked a tyre failure.
While that call meant Valtteri emerged behind Esteban Ocon’s well-driven Force India, which ran another nine laps before making its sole visit to the pits, the Frenchman’s pace was strong and the team’s strategists were therefore not unduly concerned by a potential delay – the priority was avoiding that potential tyre failure.
The move also provided a good performance indicator
A strong Friday run on the Soft tyre was behind the decision to go that route with selection – Valtteri actually preferring the feeling to both other compounds (UltraSoft and SuperSoft) without it being that far offset in lap time. Ricciardo had also chosen that route after a very early stop on lap 13 and the team could see that it had a decent level of performance on the Red Bull. The move also provided a good performance indicator when the time came for Lewis’s single stop on lap 32.
By the time Lewis did head for the box, he had a 26s lead over Ocon and Valtteri. After another trouble-free stop from the in-form Silver Arrows pit crew, the leader returned to the action with a 9s advantage as the 70-lap race approached its halfway stage.
A set of the red-walled SuperSoft tyres now bolted onto Lewis’s car, the unstoppable Brit doubled his lead before the chequered flag fell to cap off a fine all-weekend performance.
The result saw Lewis trim his Drivers’ Championship deficit to Vettel to just 12 points after seven of the season’s 20 races. Valtteri backed him up with second place, a comfortable 15s clear of Ricciardo, which extended his third place advantage over Räikkönen to 20 points.
The epic battle now shifts back to Europe
As a compelling see-saw season continued – with the victory count now reading Mercedes 4, Ferrari 3 – much of the day’s drama happened behind the Silver Arrows, with Ferrari electing to go for a second pit stop back onto the UltraSoft Pirellis with Vettel in an attempt to chase down the duelling Force India cars and Ricciardo’s Red Bull in the closing stages. Vettel was able to limit the damage to his title campaign with fourth place, just 0.6s behind Ricciardo.
Lewis’s race pace suggested that, even without Vettel’s troubles, the win was still likely. He set the race’s fastest lap – 1m14.551s – on 32-lap old SuperSofts with six laps remaining. Not because he needed to or for the glory – but to give the team relevant feedback on the car’s capability at that stage. Vettel, doing likewise, set his best lap – 1m14.719 – on the very last lap with 21-lap old UltraSofts.
After the North American interlude – which brought more good news, as Montréal extended its Canadian Grand Prix hosting contract to 2029 – the epic battle now shifts back to Europe and the new-for-2016 street circuit of Baku in Azerbaijan.
While everyone at Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport was delighted by the post-Monaco progress and the resulting success in Canada, nobody is complacent enough to say that all the problems are solved. Azerbaijan will be a real test. Last year, for example, Red Bull had lost its rear tyre performance in six laps – an indication of the challenges the teams will face around the streets of Baku.
But, in the meantime, the team will enjoy a glass or two of well-earned champagne!