Thursday race preview - Canada 12 Jun 2003
Welcome to the start of the Canadian Grand Prix weekend, as the city of Montreal begins to hum to the tune of Formula One racing.
Following on from the closely-fought Monaco Grand Prix, which brought Williams its first victory since Malaysia 2002, there is a genuine feeling that the Anglo-German team has turned a corner. The arrival of former team aerodynamicist Frank Dernie, back after spells with Ligier, Arrows and Lola, has helped to put the team on the right track setting up the FW25s, and the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on the Ile Notre-Dame has always suited the BMW-engined cars. Both Ferrari and McLaren are expecting them to be a threat again this weekend.
At Ferrari there is an atmosphere of calm despite the defeat in Monte Carlo, thanks to the announcement this week that all of their key players are committing themselves to the team until the end of 2006.
All of them - Michael Schumacher; sporting director Jean Todt; technical director Ross Brawn; chief designer Rory Byrne; engine director Paolo Martinelli; and engine designer Gilles Simon - were contracted until the end of 2004. Then, it was initially thought, Schumacher would consider retirement. But now he has sent a clear message to the young lions - Juan Pablo Montoya, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso - who are snapping at his heels: I won't be going for a long time yet. The stability this gives Ferrari is incalculable.
The F2003-GA, events in Monte Carlo notwithstanding, is still generally considered the best car of the season so far, and the Ferraris will take a lot of beating.
McLaren has always gone well in Montreal, and in years gone by David Coulthard earned a reputation as something of a circuit specialist here. He and Raikkonen are very buoyed by their initial tests of the new McLaren MP4-18A at Barcelona last week, even though the Finn crashed the car. Coulthard said: "After all the hype it was fantastic to be able to drive it and it felt good." And though it won't be racing this weekend there is a strong feeling of optimism within the team allied to the knowledge that the current MP4-17D is still a very competitive tool on its Michelin tyres.
With its excellent aerodynamic package Renault should also be in good shape this weekend, and recent progress on the engine front has given the R23 more horsepower which will be vital here.
Likewise, Honda's continuous engine development saw a new version of the RA003E power unit in Monaco and another iteration is expected here. It is not yet known whether Jenson Button will be fully fit to take his place at BAR alongside local hero Jacques Villeneuve, but just in case Takuma Sato is standing by as reserve for what may be his first Grand Prix since he scored his first points in a Suzuka fairy tale last October.
The 4.361 km (2.709 mile) Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is very similar to Monza in some respects and has some very quick straights where the cars reach 300 km/h: the sweeping run from the hairpin down to the final corner, and again going past the pits before they brake for the tight first corner.
It's a power circuit (though interestingly Renault engineer Fabrice Lom describes it as the "fifth least demanding Grand Prix" from the engine standpoint), and accordingly teams run in low downforce mode to minimise aerodynamic drag. Other sections of the track, notably Turns One and Two, are quite slow and therefore demand higher downforce, so set-up is always a compromise here and mechanical grip is very important, as is stability under braking. The stop-start nature also makes it very tough on fuel consumption, so strategy is again going to be very important.
Usually this is a single stop race and the pit entry in particular is very quick (and can be misleading for a driver following another driver who, unknown to them, intends to pit. They can be duped into braking so late that they, too, have to go into the pit lane). The pit exit is also quite quick, so two-stop strategies are the most likely tactic.
The 35th Canadian Grand Prix will be held over 70 laps and starts at 13.00 local time on Sunday.