Thursday’s Hot Topic: Who will win the power war in Canada?
Mercedes have been in astonishing form this season, winning all six races so far. The news, then, that the Silver Arrows are going to have a “phase two” power unit plugged in for this weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix, a power sensitive circuit no less, won’t be music to the ears of their rivals. But will this development pull them clear or could we still have a fight on our hands this weekend in Canada?
What Mercedes have achieved in 2019 is nothing short of sensation and the chatter in the paddock, following the confirmation of their power unit upgrade, was of admiration – rather than disdain – for an outfit that is operating at arguably the best level of any Formula 1 team in the history of the sport.
Sebastian Vettel triumphed at Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve last year, but this had previously been Mercedes’s – and more specifically Lewis Hamilton’s – playground. The Briton has won three of the last four editions and six in 11 attempts. He said on Thursday that the W10 has been better in the slower and medium speed corners than previous iterations and he anticipates “we will be stronger than we have been in the past”.
He also added that “this is a power circuit, so [the engine upgrade has] come at the perfect time”. He’s not wrong. Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve rewards engine grunt and top speed, and the mods Mercedes have made will be of most benefit here. They will also have fresh engines versus their rivals Ferrari, who have run their spec two engine for two races – and thus accumulated two weekends of mileage – already.
But all is not lost for the Silver Arrows’ rivals. Ferrari, after all, are believed to have the best power unit on the grid. At some circuits, it has given them a three-tenths of a second advantage on the straights. That kind of time gain will be crucial here in Canada. And while Mercedes are hoping they have gained ground on the Scuderia, Valtteri Bottas admits that it may not be enough to put them ahead in the power stakes.
“The engine upgrade is very welcome,” he said. “Obviously it’s something we need to see physically how it actually behaves on-track and everything. We also need to make sure that it’s reliable. We’re expecting already from a fresh engine a tiny bit of power gain, but we’re expecting a small step forward. We don’t think it’s quite yet enough to match Ferrari’s straight-line speed. They will have the upper-hand on that, but we have our strengths in other areas. I look forward to feeling it on Friday.”
I am confident we will have a good weekend here because it does emphasise some of our strengths
Indeed Friday practice, notably the second session, will give us the first real indication of how much of a step forward Mercedes have made. But it will also be the first time that Ferrari’s spec two power unit has really stretched its legs. Introduced in Spain and Monaco, the Prancing Horse will have gathered plenty of data and had the opportunity to prove reliability – but they will not yet have really demonstrated what the engine can do because the track characteristics of those circuits didn’t allow.
“I can’t make any predictions but on paper it looks a bit more promising, so more towards Bahrain,” said Vettel of Ferrari’s chances this weekend. “On the other hand, the asphalt is very smooth and it will be difficult to get the tyres up to working temperature.
“We have been struggling with that at the last couple of races, so it remains to be seen. [But] I am confident we will have a good weekend here because it does emphasise some of our strengths.”
If Ferrari are closer to their Bahrain form, we could have a genuine fight for victory between Formula 1’s top two teams. But how much will the tyre woes that afflicted Ferrari all year hurt in Canada? Can they get the heat into the tyres and keep them in the right operating window?
According to our data, which maps out a predicted pecking order based on what we’ve learned in previous races and track characteristics and conditions of upcoming races, Ferrari should halve the deficit they have had to Mercedes in the last couple of races in Canada.
Red Bull have been a match for Ferrari of late, Max Verstappen in particular delivering a series of stand-out performances. Their Honda engine has made solid progress this year, with suggestions that they are closing the gap to leaders Ferrari and Mercedes in the engine stakes. However, our data suggests they will be a little bit off the top two of Mercedes and Ferrari in Canada, that engine deficit hurting them on the long straights.
“I think, compared to Monaco, it’s going to be slightly harder, especially against the Ferraris that are really strong in all the straight lines and on really high-speed tracks like here,” said Pierre Gasly. “We know they might be stronger than they have been recently, but on our side, we know also we are making improvements every weekend, understanding the package that we have a bit better. We need to see the performance we have on Friday. But we know Ferrari will probably pick up some more pace on a track like this.”
Verstappen admitted he expected Ferrari to have the edge here, but remained positive about his hopes for the weekend. “We know that Ferrari, for example, have great top speed so for them naturally this becomes a better track,” he said. “If we compare it to Monaco, it should be not as good for us but we will find out. I’m not massively worried about it, because at the end of the day you can only control what you can control.”
Canada should be not as good for us but I’m not massively worried about it – you can only control what you can control
And then there’s Renault, who introduced an update in Spain. Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg have spoken of the gains they have felt in qualifying recently, while Carlos Sainz, whose McLaren team run Renault power, says he has really felt the step forward this year in terms of power and reckons that will help boost their competitiveness in Canada.
Plenty of unknowns, then, as we approach the first track action of the weekend. Mercedes bringing an upgraded engine is, on paper, worrying for their rivals, with the team having come out on top in every race so far this year. But Ferrari’s power unit has proved to be quite the force, and we’re likely to see what it can really do in Canada for the first time. While Red Bull’s Honda engine isn’t quite up to par yet, the Red Bull package as a whole has been getting better and Renault’s gains could make the squabble for the lower points even more exciting. An enticing prospect in store!