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Canada - What to Watch for...

08 Jun 2014

From the latest chapter in Rosberg and Hamilton's intra-team rivalry to the potentially epic battle for third, and from dilemmas over tyre strategy to Force India’s potential to score points, we preview the key themes to look out for in Sunday’s Formula 1 Grand Prix du Canada 2014...

Rosberg and Hamilton to do battle once more

Lewis Hamilton entered the weekend with three poles and three wins under his belt in Canada, while team mate Nico Rosberg arrived in Montreal having never qualified higher than fourth or finished higher than fifth at the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve. But any suggestion that this was effectively a ‘Hamilton circuit’ was washed away on Saturday afternoon when the German pipped his championship rival to pole position.

And who knows, it could prove to be a crucial moment, not just this weekend, but in the season as a whole. The 0.079s that Rosberg beat Hamilton to P1 by gives the German priority of pit strategy, providing of course that he’s leading the race up to the first pit window. But more than that, if Rosberg can beat Hamilton on one of ‘his’ circuits, he could land a strong psychological blow on the Briton in the race for the drivers’ title.

Hamilton will therefore be doing all he can to get past Rosberg and that can only bode well for fans hoping for another ding-dong battle between the Mercedes duo. Ideally, Hamilton will want to get ahead at the start, although that may prove hard given his starting slot on the dirty side of the grid. Failing that, he’ll want to get ahead before the first pit window to wrest back strategy priority from Rosberg.

Hamilton will take heart from his record in Canada and the fact that the polesitter has only tasted victory in four of the last 10 races here. Even so, Rosberg enters the race very much on the front foot. We should be set for another cracker.

Force India could be the biggest movers outside of the top ten

With a car that has been consistently quick all season and Mercedes power to call on, many expected Force India to go well in Montreal - not least the team themselves. Therefore it was a little surprising to see the orange and black VJM07s qualifying outside the top ten on Saturday.

But make no mistake about it, both Nico Hulkenberg (who lines up 11th and has scored points in every race so far this season) and Sergio Perez (who lines up 13th) will be hoping to score well in Sunday’s race, and with the strong long-run pace they showed on Friday, you wouldn’t bet against it.

As a team who struggle to get the tyres switched on in cooler temperatures, Force India will be hoping that the predicted warm weather arrives on race day. If it does, Hulkenberg and Perez could well be Sunday’s biggest movers.

The battle for third will be intense

While a gap of 0.079s between the Mercedes pair drew the headlines, even more remarkable was the spread from third through to sixth, with just four-hundredths of a second covering Sebastian Vettel, Valtteri Bottas, Felipe Massa and Daniel Ricciardo.

That points to an almost impossibly close tussle for third in the race, particularly given that Ferrari, who topped the timesheets in first practice, should also be in the mix. With the margins so close, the smallest differences could be key - as was the case in qualifying, with Vettel admitting he was forced to take more risks in order to snatch the advantage, and Ricciardo bemoaning a scrappy lap which left him three places below his team mate. Williams’ power unit could therefore be a major advantage, particularly through the two DRS zones on the back stretches of the circuit. Their relative frugality in terms of fuel consumption could also be an ace card given the fact that fuel could be marginal thanks to the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve’s numerous heavy acceleration zones.

Ferrari meanwhile remain a perennial threat, even if Alonso suggested he was on the limit and could not have achieved more than seventh in qualifying. The Spaniard’s prospects, and those of team mate Kimi Raikkonen, could be influenced by ambient temperatures, which affect the F14 T’s ability to switch on either the soft or supersoft compound tyres. Toro Rosso, McLaren and Force India will all be knocking on the door too, throwing up the potential for a strategy gamble to also reap massive rewards. As Vettel remarked after qualifying: “It could be a bit of a surprise, so let’s see what happens.”

The soft and supersoft dilemma

Tyre strategy has been particularly difficult to call in Canada, with changing track temperatures and circuit conditions markedly altering tyre behaviour and leading to constantly changing race forecasts. The supersofts functioned far more effectively in the higher temperatures of Saturday than they did on Friday, for example, forcing teams to revisit their Sunday plans.

As a consequence, there is still uncertainty as to whether a one- or two-stop strategy will be most effective. For the latter, expect the first stops to be taken around lap 13, and the second around lap 41. Alternatively, if drivers can eke their rubber out to around lap 26, a one-stop strategy suddenly becomes feasible. Adding to that dilemma is the fact that certain compounds have suited some teams better than others, meaning we could once again see a variety of strategies in Montreal - even if the weather is set to remain dry this year.

Drivers having problems keeping their cars on the road

Throughout the weekend we’ve seen cars skipping across chicanes, running down escape roads, spinning into run-off zones and tagging the walls - and there’s little reason to believe that trend won’t continue in Sunday’s race.

But why have there been so many offs? Well, for starters, the semi-permanent nature of the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve means that the track surface is less ‘rubbered in’ than the majority of tracks on the F1 calendar, and it’s also very smooth. Combine that with the fact that the 2014 cars have less downforce and more torque than their 2013 counterparts, that there are numerous heavy braking zones that require ultimate precision, and that the tyres have taken several laps to get up to working temperature, and you easily begin to see why the cars have been such a handful for the drivers.

Marussia’s Jules Bianchi, Caterham’s Marcus Ericsson and Sauber’s Esteban Gutierrez have all clobbered the barriers this weekend, and all three shunts would likely have triggered a safety-car period, had they have happened in the race. In fact, the statistics suggest that a safety car is highly likely on Sunday - seven of the last 13 races in Montreal have featured one or more appearance. It’s also worth noting that the so-called ‘wall of champions’ on the outside of Turn 14 has yet to claim another victim this year. The five champions on the grid will be praying it stays that way on Sunday…