Qualifying analysis: Canadian thriller

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F1 Grand Prix, GP Canada, Circuit Gilles Villeneuveca

Formula One has been partying hard since the beginning of the 2018 Championship. Yesterday’s qualifying session turned into a bloody thriller where six drivers had realistic chance for the well-desired pole position.

The epic battle saw Sebastian Vettel claiming his fourth pole position out of seven qualifying sessions of this year’s championship season. It also confirmed the assumption that this year is the first time since 2008 that Ferrari has an inherently fast car which is capable of allowing its drivers to fight for pole position on a regular basis.

Sebastian Vettel scored his 54th pole position with a lap record of 1:10.764. His time was set on the hypersoft tyres. The best time on the ultrasoft was recorded by Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas who clocked a 1:11.514 in the second qualifying segment. However, his team-mate was on course to set an even better time on the ultrasoft. Based on his first two sector times, Hamilton could have set a 1:11.3, albeit he locked up heavily into the hairpin in the last sector.

Mercedes was a class of its own on the harder compounds which is usually the case, but it was even more evident this weekend because the Anglo-German team ordered only five sets of hypersofts compared to Red Bull’s and Ferrari’s allocation of eights sets, prompting them to fine-tune their setup on the harder compounds. This difference, Mercedes’ miscalculated order could also explain why Lewis Hamilton could not nail his setup and rhythm on the softest Pirelli tyre.

Sector times

Hamilton and Verstappen has dominated the first sector performance at the whole weekend, however Bottas and Vettel erased that gap in the crucial moment. Of the six top drivers, it was only Kimi Räikkönen who was over two tenths off the best time. It has been his worst sector since Friday morning where he also made a mistake on his final qualifying lap, sending his Ferrari slightly onto the grass coming out of turn two, after having been unable to generate the right temperature in his front tyres.

The Ferrari drivers excelled in the second sector, but it was exceptional that the six best drivers were within 0.070 seconds which even more highlights the intensity of competitiveness.

The last sector turned out to be strength of Ferrari on Saturday. After opting for lower downforce, especially in the case of Sebastian Vettel, the two Ferrari cars were exceptional on the never-ending straight of the last sector, but they also had superb traction coming out of the hairpin. Bottas’ 28.689 came in the very last moment when Mercedes allowed their drivers to use the absolute maximum of their power unit, making the deficit of their old engine nearby non-existent. Lewis Hamilton’s deficit to the pole position time came mainly in the last sector where the Briton faced unperishing woes in the hairpin, constantly locking into it and suffering traction problems out of it.

Engine differences

Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and both Red Bull drivers started this event with a new power unit, the second-generation Ferrari and Renault engine respectively. Meanwhile Kimi Räikkönen is still using Ferrari’s first spec unit after his engine woes over the Spanish Grand Prix. Mercedes drivers are sticking to their first power unit which completes its seventh and final race this weekend. Mercedes also wanted to debut its second-specification power unit, but two days before the team wanted to set off to Montreal, the engineers detected a quality problem on the dyno which prompted them to hold the upgrade back and postpone it until the next event in France.

According to Mercedes, the new engine is only a tenth faster in qualifying mode. Ferrari’s new power unit also bring a gain of a similar extent.

It is natural that the two leading engine manufacturers can’t find huge leaps in performance because the current engine formula has been in force since 2014. Both Ferrari’s and Mercedes’ new power unit could provide a better efficiency and better reliability which should allow the drivers to use higher engine modes during races.

It is worth noting that Red Bull’s engine deficit compared to Mercedes and Ferrari was mitigated with the three DRS zones, making this Canadian Grand Prix the first venue where three different DRS zones were marked.

Top speeds

Sebastian Vettel topped the speed measurements over the sector border lines while it was Sauber-Alfa Romeo’s Charles Leclerc who topped the speed trap with 329.3kph with his Ferrari engine. Vettel’s top speeds are better than those of his team-mate, Kimi Räikkönen. It is, however, not only the consequence of his newer specification Ferrari power unit, but the difference in setup. Both Ferrari drivers used similar downforce level on Friday, but Vettel opted for a lower downforce setup from the Saturday practice session onward.

Both Mercedes drivers run with a slightly higher downforce package which also explains their strong pace in the opening sector of the Montreal semi-street track. According to Red Bull’s Christian Horner, his drivers have had to sacrifice the most downforce with their rear wing setup to balance their Renault disadvantage out.