Qualifying analysis from Montreal

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F1 Grand Prix, GP Canada, Circuit Gilles Villeneuveca

The qualifying session for the Canadian Grand Prix provided a thriller between the two championship protagonists, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton. The latter had the upper hand at the end of the fierce battle.

Gaps between the various teams have been pretty close over the whole weekend which is not surprising given the nature and the length of the track which lies on an artificially built island. The Montreal race track is 4.361 km long with 14 turns. With the exception of turn five, every corner is a low-speed-turn or is part of a slowish chicane. To be precise, corner five is not a proper turn anymore as it is taken with full throttle.

Considering the high-speed nature of the track, Mercedes-powered cars were expected to excel on the narrow layout. Five of the six Mercedes-propelled machineries made it through into the last qualifying session, only Williams’ Lance Stroll had to take leave after the first qualifying segment.

The nature of the track urges the engineers to trim the wings and other aerodynamic devices down to achieve the necessary top-speed. However, most teams presented themselves with a medium-downforce configuration, some even tried their Monaco-specification tripe-decker T-wing because they were not able to generate heat into the tyres which have proved to be really challenging to manage over the first months of the 2017 championship.

Looking at the speed trap data, Pascal Wehrlein set the highest top speed. However, it was the Williams team again which consistently topped the top speed sheet. Both their cars achieved top speeds of around 330 kph.

Interestingly, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen recorded a 334,6 and Daniel Ricciardo a 329.8 kph. In the top-speed-dominated last sector which is a never-ending full throttle section coming out of a hairpin and cut into two parts by a chicane, Ricciardo was only 0.266, Verstappen only 0.345 slower then Sebastian Vettel’s best third sector time. It clearly shows the improvement Renault had done over the past weeks with the peak performance of its double-hybrid power unit. Red Bull brought a new floor and modified vanes to Montreal, but it is clear the energy drink-owned team cannot complain much about the steadily-improving power unit. On top of that, the French manufacturer is expected to introduce its 2017-specification KERS soon which is around 5 kgs lighted than the one it is using currently.

Mercedes drivers Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton recorded a top speed of 327.7 and 328.7 kph respectively. That shows the reigning world champion team run with more downforce and give up a bit of top speed in order to gain stability over the kerbs. It is also likely that Mercedes wanted to make sure that the cars can generate enough heat into the tyres over one qualifying lap which has been one of the weaknesses of their current W08. Hamilton recorded the best times in the first and second sector of the track and his car was like on rails in the all-important session of Saturday. The balance yielded confidence and forced the Briton to hardly any counter-steering.

Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel was beaten by his championship rival Lewis Hamilton by 0.330 seconds. The German could have trimmed that gap down to one tenth without the mistake he made in the first sector on his fastest lap when he lost two tenths compared to his best sector time recorded during his second run in Q3. The German recorded a top-speed of 331.5 kph and the overall best time in the third sector and proved to be very confident through the difficult last chicane of the track. He was only a tenth down on Hamilton in both the first and second sector, but he seemed to find it hard to wring the last drop of performance out of his SF70-H and was forced to apply multiple counter-steering on his final qualifying laps.

The Maranello-based team’s Finnish driver Kimi Räikkönen felt very comfortable on the track on Friday, but did less so on Satuday. In the third practice session, he asked his team to revert back to the Friday set-up after making changes during night. In the qualifying session, the Finn did not get the tyres to work properly, he suffered especially from the front tyres.

McLaren’s Fernando Alonso started his return into the sport with hydraulic problems on Friday which meant the Spaniard’s mileage was heavily limited on the opening day of the weekend. Still, the Oviedo-born driver managed to turn its fortunes around. He qualified 12th and was only 1,193 down on the best Q2 time. His sector times clearly show the weaknesses and strenths of the McLaren-Honda package. The Spaniard was seventh fastest in the first sector, only a tenth down on the Red Bull drivers. That sector is the slowest sector of the circuit, made up by long, slowish corners where engine power plays the least important role. He was 11th fastest in the middle part of the track where two long straights bring the engine power more into relief. In the last sector which is made up by the massively long back straight and the start-finish straight, a hairpin and a chicane, Alonso lost nine tenths and recorded only the 16th fastest sector time. His top-speed of 319.6 and his team-mate Vandoorne’s 318.3 were on the absolute bottom of the top-speed sheet. The lack of peak engine performance explains why the partnership of Honda and McLaren are in such a strained state that paddock gossips can only imagine the continuation of the Anglo-Japanese collaboration if Honda manages a miraculous upturn in form in the coming weeks.