As usual, this weekend’s Grand Prix provides a short interlude in the European part of the season as the Formula 1 circus crosses the Atlantic for the Canadian Grand Prix, the seventh round of the championship. You don’t hear many complaints about the extra travelling time, because Montreal has always given the sport a very warm and enthusiastic welcome.
While it’s neighbour the USA is finally making a return to the F1 calendar this year, Canada has been a fixture every season since 1967, with the exception of three years. The circuit, named in honour of the Maple Leaf’s most famous racing son, Gilles Villeneuve has some similarities with the previous venue Monaco: it is a semi-permanent race circuit, with barriers very close to the track side and most of the corners, with the exception of the hairpin are quite slow speed. It uses roads that are open to the public, it is surrounded by water, being on the Ile Notre Dame and it even has a Casino! However, there the similarities tend to stop, because Montreal is a quick track, with an average speed around 55 km/h faster than that in the Principality, even if last year’s winning average was only 74.8 km/h given the race lasted an incredible 4 hours and 4 minutes, after a long halt caused by the storm that hit the area on Sunday afternoon.
By the time the Scuderia Ferrari crew and the eleven other teams have repacked all their equipment and prepare to return to Europe on Sunday night, one third of the season will be complete and, going into the Montreal race, Fernando Alonso is at the top of the Drivers’ classification, leading the Red Bull duo by three points. It’s hard to believe, given the technical package represented by the F2012 at the start of the year. But slowly, like the super-tankers that can be seen from the circuit as they move along the St Laurent Seaway, the technical team in Maranello has turned its performance around to a point where, although not yet where it should be, it has allowed the Spanish double world champion to win one race and finish the last two on the podium. “Leading the championship is only the beginning, it’s a starting point, because the ultimate target is leading the championship after the final race in Brazil in November,” says Alonso. “It’s a long championship and the first six races brought us enough points to be in the lead, but we are well aware that we have to improve. We need to make the car faster, working hard, while making no mistakes and finding consistency, which is not the easiest thing to do in this championship.”
Traction and top speed have been the Achilles Heel of the F2012 and the nature of the Montreal circuit highlights these two areas of car performance. “I think we have improved the car in these areas since the beginning of the season and Canada will be a good test in this respect,” confirms the man from Oviedo. Hopefully this weekend we will see a competitive Ferrari and that will be very important for us, not just for this race but also for the rest of the season.” While traction and top speed are therefore important, other parameters such as downforce are less so. However, the brakes get some serious use here and, as always tyres will play a vital role and for this weekend, Pirelli is bringing exactly the same compounds used two weeks ago in Monaco, namely the Soft Prime and the Supersoft Option. However, the way these two compounds work here will not necessarily replicate what was seen in the Principality, making it yet another factor that is hard to predict. “It’s hard to say in advance, as this season has been so unpredictable with ups and downs for everyone over the course of six races” says Fernando. “However, I don’t see any reason why Ferrari should not be competitive in Canada, fighting for the top places come the end of the race. Winning races is not easy, neither is finishing on the podium, but the important thing is to score points and find a good level of consistency.” Maybe it’s hard to recall after what was such a chaotic race here last year, but there were two zones where the Drag Reduction System could be used to aid overtaking and this year, it’s been decided to have just one straight where the device can be deployed, given that the natural layout of the track lends itself to passing moves.
The fact the circuit in Montreal is named after Gilles Villeneuve will have a particular significance this year, the thirtieth anniversary of his death and Fernando and Felipe were both in Maranello last month to mark the actual date. “It was a very emotional event,” recalls the Spaniard. “The anniversary of Gilles’ death was a very special day, with his son Jacques driving his father’s car at Fiorano, in front of his wife and daughter. Now we come to race at the circuit named after him and this city has always had a lot of Ferrari supporters, so we want to do well and give our tifosi and Gilles’ fans something good to cheer about.” Of the 42 Grands Prix held in Canada to date, the crowd has never cheered as loudly as it did on the race’s first visit to Montreal in 1978, when it was won by their hero Gilles Villeneuve, during the first of his five seasons with Ferrari. Apart from that victory, a Prancing Horse has been first past the chequered flag a further ten times, the last one dating back to Michael Schumacher’s 2004 victory. As for the Scuderia’s current line-up, Fernando Alonso’s only podium appearance in Montreal came when he won from pole in 2006, while Felipe Massa has also made just one trip to the rostrum, with a third place finish in 2010.
One last point about the coming weekend - For an avid sports fan like Fernando, race day will also be important as Spain is playing Italy in the European football Cup. “The Spanish football team has been very strong over the past two years and I have to say Spain is therefore favourite to win this tournament,” reckons Fernando. “If I can win the race on Sunday, then it will be a fantastic day, whatever the result in the football!”