It’s strange to say Mercedes is on the ropes when it has won two of the last three races, but the German manufacturer arrives in Canada looking like the genuine underdog in the title fight for the first time since the start of 2014. Ferrari’s convincing one-two last time out at Monaco coincided with a dismal weekend for the reigning world champions, with neither car registering a podium finish. Toto Wolff has confessed the team’s W08 contender is causing “complications” — notably tyre warm-up issues which were exposed in Monaco and may not have a short-term fix — and conceded that Ferrari are now the favourites for the title.
While Mercedes has been inconsistent this season, championship leader Sebastian Vettel has been the opposite — finishing first or second at every race so far this year. His status as Ferrari’s number one driver is impossible to dispute after his win in Monaco, helped by his team’s strategy for early race leader Kimi Raikkonen. Vettel, with the weight of his entire team behind him, is the most formidable opponent Mercedes has had to contend against in this V6 turbo era.
The presence of the ultra-soft tyre — the softest in Pirelli’s range — could cause headaches for Mercedes again in Montreal, though the forecast of rain may well be a blessing for the team in the fight for pole and victory with Ferrari. That weather could also bring Red Bull into the mix at the front, although on outright pace they are likely to struggle on Montreal’s layout of long straights and low-speed corners.
In need of a win
You have to feel for Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn had a near-perfect weekend in Monaco, claiming his first pole since 2008, and he deserved his first win since 2013 the following day. But his slow start to the season — and Vettel’s superb one — meant Ferrari had very little choice but to put Raikkonen onto a strategy that helped his German teammate to the lead. The chances of Raikkonen being allowed to win in a similar situation this season look slim to none. Apart from team orders in Bahrain, Mercedes has not found itself in a position where it has needed to swap its drivers and are yet to openly back one over the other. Valtteri Bottas’ Spanish Grand Prix engine failure was hugely damaging to his prospects but, as long as he remains in range of Hamilton, he will make it very difficult for Mercedes to abandon his title hopes. Winning in Canada — one of Hamilton’s favourite stomping grounds — would be a huge statement to the team and once again close the gap between the lead trio.
In need of points
The Indy 500 was supposed to be a feel-good story for McLaren and Honda and, despite generating lots for the team and raising the stock of Fernando Alonso, it ended on a Honda engine failure. The F1 relationship is now approaching “a fork in the road”, according to team boss Zak Brown, and it appears time and patience is finally running out. Not only is Honda trying to deliver progress to convince Alonso to stick around in 2018, it appears to be doing the same to save the whole McLaren-Honda project. A top-ten finish in Canada is just the boost everyone at the F1 team needs.
Despite his difficult weekend in Monaco, Hamilton remains the bookies’ favourite — narrowly, with odds of 6/5 edging Vettel’s 5/4. Bookies aren’t predicting a happy homecoming for Canadian teenager Lance Stroll, who is tipped to be the first retirement at 9/1, odds shared by McLaren pair Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne.
Rain is forecast for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Montreal’s 2011 classic always comes to mind when imagining a Canadian Grand Prix with showers and it would certainly spice up a race which is is usually already unpredictable and dramatic. Crucially for Mercedes, rain in qualifying or the race would switch the focus away from its struggles to extract performance from the softest of Pirelli’s dry tyres. It also could throw Red Bull and a certain Max Verstappen into contention…
Rain would make this one genuinely difficult to predict. In the dry, Mercedes would have a tricky job getting on top of the tyre issues it suffered in Monaco, As he showed with his win in Spain after a below-par performance in Russia, Hamilton seems invigorated most by his own setbacks. That, the Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve he loves so much and a Sunday rain shower should be enough to tip the scales in the three-time world champion’s favour.
Compounds: Soft, super-soft, ultra-soft
Tyre facts, courtesy of Pirelli:
Canada is all about traction and braking: longitudinal rather than lateral forces. This affects tyres and especially brakes.
Warming up the front tyres effectively is one of the keys to a quick lap time in Canada.
Being a rarely-used semi-permanent track, the surface tends to evolve rapidly.
Some graining has been seen in the past: this is now less likely with the new family of 2017 tyres, based on previous experience.
Weather can range from heat to full rain.
Mario Isola, head of car racing: “Montreal has many unique features, but with its smooth surface, it actually contains some similarities to Sochi. Last year the winner did one stop, while the second-placed driver made two stops using all three compounds, which just goes to show the very wide variety of strategies that are possible.
“Finding the right set-up, with the correct aerodynamic and mechanical balance, is never easy in Montreal: this is one of the key factors to making the tyres work effectively there. It’s also important to take an openminded approach to strategy, given the variable weather and safety cars that are historically possible.”