2016 Canadian Grand Prix: A tale of 3 starts and 2 stops

The first curve in the Canadian Formula 1 Grand Prix happened before Turn 1. Lewis Hamilton sat on pole in the Mercedes-AMG Petronas, Sebastian Vettel in a Ferrari behind. That order changed as soon as the lights went out. Hamilton and teammate Nico Rosberg started well enough, but Vettel flew off the line, passing Hamilton in just a few meters.

Vettel led through Turn 1 while Hamilton defended against Rosberg trying to pass on the outside by using the entire track. Hamilton bumped his teammate, sending Rosberg into the concrete runoff with an » infuriating but fair» maneuver Hamilton blamed on understeer. The Brit stayed second, his teammate fell to ninth by the time he rejoined the circuit and got back on the gas.

Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on June 12, 2016 in Montreal, Canada.

The Ferrari finally looked an even match for the Mercedes, Vettel slowly building a gap out front. On Lap 11 the Honda in Jenson Button’s McLaren self-ignited just after the hairpin, forcing Button to pull over on the Casino Straight. A Virtual Safety Car slowed the field, convincing Ferrari to pit its drivers. Vettel came in, handing the lead to Hamilton. The marshals cleared Button’s car more quickly than expected, so the scuderia didn’t get the full time advantage it expected, sending Vettel back on track seven seconds behind the Mercedes.

Button’s and Ferrari’s unplanned stops decided the race. Ferrari had always planned to run a two-stopper, but the early pit didn’t give the team a chance to gauge the ultra-soft Pirelli. The ultra-softs lasted longer than anyone expected. Hamilton only pitted once, Vettel had to pit again, and the Ferrari simply couldn’t close the gap to the Mercedes even with newer tires.

Post-race commentary accused Ferrari of two blunders: giving up track position, and not taking advantage of Mercedes’ only known weakness of not being nearly as good in dirty air. If the ultra-softs had fallen off a performance cliff, however, Ferrari’s play would have been considered daring and brilliant. Hamilton took his second win of the season, followed by a hard-driving Vettel five seconds later.

Valtteri Bottas of Finland driving the (77) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on June 12, 2016 in Montreal, Canada.

Valtteri Bottas and Williams got everything right, the Finn taking advantage of a one-stop strategy, a perfectly-timed pit stop, and more unusual Red Bull issues to finish third. It’s Williams’ first podium of the year.

Max Verstappen claimed fourth after two pit stops, holding off a frustrated Rosberg who had to make an unscheduled stop to remedy a slow puncture. Kimi Räikkönen’s turn-in issues relegated him to sixth, while another pit stop issue knocked Daniel Ricciardo’s back to seventh. Force India scored another double points finish with Nico Hülkenberg in eighth and Sergio Perez in tenth, split by Carlos Sainz in the Toro Rosso with a fantastic recovery drive after starting at the back of the grid.

What can we take from the Canadian race to the European Grand Prix at Azerbaijan’s Baku street circuit next week? Ferrari provided Vettel the pace to stay ahead of the Mercedes when leading. Mercedes still looks to have the edge in qualifying, but if Ferrari can perfect its technique everywhere else we might see real racing at the front before the end of the season.

Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer battles with Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on June 12, 2016 in Montreal, Canada.

The Italians have a harder road than the Germans, though, because Red Bull is close enough to capitalize on any Ferrari mistake. Red Bull’s troubles in the pits, however, have continued three races in a row, compelling Ricciardo to urge the team to «up its game.» The street circuit in Baku should let Red Bull emphasize its strengths.

Williams remains an unknown. Bottas’ Canada podium last year was William’s first of 2015. After that, the team scored three more podiums but only at power tracks. If that’s true again this year, Williams could suffer through Baku but resurface on fire in Austria, where Felipe Massa finished third in 2015.

What’s happened to Haas F1? Tires. The American team scored 18 points in the first two races but only four points in the following five races, dropping from fifth to eighth in the Constructor’s Championship. Team boss Günther Steiner said the team finally understood how its chassis worked with the Pirelli rubber, but Canada delivered another hard lesson. Romain Grosjean said the Haas has trouble getting tires up to temperature on smooth tracks, hence issues at the «very smooth» Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. This is the price of being a new team, and of having to make some tire choices before the season even begins.

Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates on the podium with Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari and Valtteri Bottas of Finland and Williams during the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on June 12, 2016 in Montreal, Canada.

The result in Montreal gets Hamilton right back in the Driver’s Championship battle after being 43 points behind a few races ago. Rosberg still leads with 116 points, Hamilton now just nine behind at 107. Vettel slides up into third place with 78 points, sending Ricciardo to fourth with 72 points.

On the Constructor’s side, Mercedes inched a few points ahead to 223. Ferrari climbs to 147 points, putting more space between it and Red Bull with 130 points. The next stop is Central Europe in six days, and we’ll see you then.

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