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Six key questions ahead of the Canada race

12 Jun 2016

Saturday’s Montreal qualifying session was the closest of the year so far, but can Ferrari finally break through for victory in the Formula 1 Grand Prix du Canada 2016? We consider this and several other unknowns ahead of the season’s seventh round...
Can Hamilton make it a fifth win in Montreal?

He took his first Grand Prix victory here in 2007 and repeated in 2010, 2012 and 2015, so Lewis Hamilton’s chances look good to make it five and further to reduce the points deficit to Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg.

But both are all too aware, as they have been for some time now, of the growing threat from Ferrari and Red Bull.

The 0.178s gap between the best Silver Arrow and the best red car is the closest it’s been all year, and a strong indication that Ferrari’s modified turbocharger has helped them to overcome their biggest shortcoming, a lack of speed in qualifying.

But was it so much a case that Ferrari have improved, or that neither Mercedes driver nailed it on the second Q3 runs?

As Vettel cut his time dramatically from 1m 13.479s to 1m 12.990s, Hamilton failed to improve on 1m 12.812s with 1m 12.905s, and Rosberg likewise was unable to beat his 1m 12.874s after locking the left front going into Turn 1 and deciding to abort the lap straight away.

Asked about his best lap, Hamilton was remarkably candid.

“Honestly, qualifying wasn’t a great qualifying for me in terms of laps, they weren’t particularly that great. Even my pole lap was definitely at the lower end of the good laps of pole laps that I’ve had. So being as that’s the fact, I’m pretty happy that I’m still on pole.

“Ferrari have obviously picked up the pace with the upgrades they’ve got in their car. This is a great track to test the ultimate speed so we’re excited to have the race with them. I think it should be exciting for the fans, I think their long runs look very strong. I don’t know if they were stronger than ours, but we shall see tomorrow.”

Will Ferrari finally break through to an overdue victory?

When Sebastian Vettel apologised after qualifying for failing to beat the Mercedes to pole position, it highlighted just how great the Scuderia’s expectations had been coming here. And the scant 0.178s gap between his car and Hamilton’s Mercedes has given Ferrari similar expectations for the race. Traditionally in 2016, they have raced better than they have qualified, though that might not be the case now that the latter aspect has been improved with the new turbocharger. But it does mean that they should have the race pace to make a fight of it.

So will the modifications help the team to turn the vital corner?

“I think we expected to bring performance to the car and that’s what it did,” Vettel says. “I think this is probably a track where it’s quite important. There are a lot of straights, so I think that’s why we decided to bring it here and as I said, it worked and it should help us also tomorrow, not just today.”

Will Red Bull be able to challenge?

In Monaco Red Bull were faster than Mercedes. Here they are not, though Daniel Ricciardo was happy to be proved correct in his suggestion that they would be within a second of the silver cars; the gap between him and polesitter Lewis Hamilton was just 0.354s. Max Verstappen was 0.602s adrift, but didn’t get the best out of his second qualifying lap as it only improved on his first by 0.016s.

Ricciardo said he was worried when he clipped the Wall of Champions and that his RB12 felt “buckled.” And he added: “It felt like a pretty big kiss actually. As soon as I hit it, I thought about what happened to Carlos [Sainz] in my head. I thought ‘Just please keep the wheels on until the line, and then they can fall off it they want!’”

But he said that he didn’t think it accounted for the deficit to Vettel, in a tacit admission that the red cars have gained pace this weekend.

It’s Vettel who is the most likely to take the fight to Mercedes if anyone does if it stays dry, but Ricciardo is an incorrigible battler and optimist.

“The start is important here, but you can pass,” he says. “I think we’ve got pretty good straight-line speed now so we’re in a position to overtake. Tomorrow’s going to be cool, if not wet, so with those conditions it could be anyone’s race. Hopefully it’s a five- or six-way fight - that could be a lot of fun. I think being on the right tyre at the right time is crucial. It’s about being smart, but being quick at the same time, so it’s worth taking some risks.”

“Our race pace is looking good and that is where you score the points, also you never know with the weather,” Verstappen says. “It will be difficult to beat the Mercedes and the Ferraris also look quick, but hopefully a bit of rain will help us tomorrow. I think it will be very challenging.”

Which Red Bull driver will be stronger?

In the end it was Daniel Ricciardo who rose to the occasion with fourth fastest time in Q3, 0.248s ahead of Max Verstappen. But does that mean that the Australian will have the upper hand in the race?

Not necessarily. The Dutchman was quicker in FP1, when they were following different programmes, and edged his team mate by 0.012s in FP2. In FP3 he was 0.329s ahead.

Ricciardo, who said he was building up steadily all weekend, took back the initiative in Q1, and kept it in Q2, but the gap was equally negligible at 0.253s.

These two are well matched, so it could go either way.

Could this be Williams’ best race of the year?

Both drivers said that they felt they got the best out of the Williams FW38, and they topped the speed trap figures during qualifying with Felipe Massa at 336.7 km/h and Valtteri Bottas at 336.6.

Head of performance engineering Rob Smedley admitted disappointment at being only the fourth fastest car, however, especially as they have the Mercedes engine which remains the one to have, but that being the case annexing the fourth row amounted to the best they could have hoped for. In their favour, they know they have a good set-up for the race - assuming of course that the forecast rain does not fall.

With a good race car they at least have the chance of maximising their points scores again, after the disappointment of Monaco.

Force India versus McLaren?

Forget Fernando Alonso’s grid time, what is more relevant is McLaren’s pace compared to Force India’s in Q2.

Nico Hulkenberg’s late burst of 1m 14.166s elevated him to ninth place at the expense of team mate Sergio Perez, who had been 10th on 1m 14.317s. Alonso sat between them with 1m 14.260s, and team mate Jenson Button just behind with 1m 14.437s despite not getting the tow he needed on his second run. Strategically, if the rain holds off, Perez and Button may have the advantage of open tyre choice for the start.

Both Force India drivers say their cars feel good here, but McLaren and Honda have high hopes that their revised turbocharger will improve power delivery and economy, helping their drivers to race harder and to indulge in less ‘lift and coast.’ And Alonso’s 10th on the grid was better than they had expected.

Theoretically, the Mercedes-engined Force India has grunt and reliability on its side, but McLaren-Honda are making progress and Alonso is pledged to “maximum attack”, so this particular battle still seems wide open. It will be crucial for both to maximise their points score, at a time when Toro Rosso are vulnerable with their cars starting only 15th and 16th. Force India have 37 points, Toro Rosso 30 and McLaren a closing 24.