Canadian Grand Prix preview – will Mercedes march on in Montreal?

So far, this season has turned into a one-sided Mercedes procession that even the most die hard of Silver Arrows fans would have been hard-pressed to call before the Australian Grand Prix opener.

Six wins from six races, including five 1-2 finishes from the opening five races, means that Lewis Hamilton’s Monaco victory has seen him extend his championship lead to 17 points from teammate Valtteri Bottas.

It’s worrying times for Ferrari already, with Sebastian Vettel a further 38 points adrift of the Finn and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen right on his coat tails.

Ever since pre-season testing in Barcelona, Mercedes and team boss Toto Wolff have been masterful at playing down their own chances and bigging up their rivals – a tactic that has taken the pressure off his drivers and seen Ferrari muddle tactics in an alarming way.

With the championship now moving to one of the most picturesque locations on the calendar on the Ile Notre-Dame in Montreal, Wolff yet again seems to be playing the clever role of spin doctor, hinting that this is a circuit that could suit rivals Ferrari better.

“To a large extent, the challenges of Montreal are opposite to those of Monaco; the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is a high-speed track with relatively long straights and lots of overtaking possibilities,” said Wolff in the team’s race preview. “Similar to Monaco, however, are the concrete walls that punish any mistakes heavily and a tight qualifying session around this relatively short lap.

“Canada is the seventh race of the season and we are beginning to see more clearly the strengths and weaknesses of our car. In the past six races, we were very strong in the corners but lost time on the straights. This will make Canada a huge challenge for us as the track characteristics could favour our opponents – there are many long straights, and fewer corners in which to make up lap time.”

Another bluff from the Mercedes boss? Quite possibly, especially as his team are likely to bring a first engine upgrade of the season to Montreal to help on the long straights of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

“I know the guys back at the factory are working on developments… I think we will probably have a new engine by the next race, so the car will continue to move forwards, as we will,” said Hamilton after Monaco.

Even more ominously, perhaps, for the opposition, is the fact that the world champion feels he has not performed to the best of his ability so far this season.

“I definitely feel that it’s been quite an average performance from myself, maybe above average but generally quite average for the first six races,” he added. “I feel like I’ve got the best I could get. I’ve arrived prepared – the best prepared I could be – but in terms of extracting the true performance from the car, I feel like I’ve struggled a little bit in these six races.

“I hope, at some stage, that I’m able to crack the issues that I’ve had and get back to the form that I have within me. Whether that’s the next race or 10 races from now, I can’t really say but I am very, very focused on making sure I rectify any of those.”

The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is a tough test of man and machine and similar to Monaco in that any mistake is severely punished due to the lack of run-off. But it’s there that the similarity ends, as this is very much a horsepower circuit with long straights and slow corners that is the toughest test of a car’s brakes.

The temporary nature of the circuit also means that the grip levels increase as the weekend continues, as Ferrari’s Vettel explains in his team’s preview.

“Usually, the track starts off really slippery and it takes quite a while to rubber in and provide a decent level of grip,” said Vettel.

“The track is also known for being stop-and-go, with long straights and heavy braking points, split up by a few slow corners and some chicanes where you need to use the kerbs a lot. The final part of the lap is usually the key: you have to brake perfectly at the big hairpin so that you get the best exit to have a lot of speed on the long straight that leads to the pit lane or the final chicane. This is where you can try and overtake.”

Another driver who will be relishing the tough challenge is Racing Point’s Lance Stroll, and the Montreal local is bound to receive a warm reception from his home fans.

“Nothing beats your home race! I was born in Montreal and grew up there so it’s always a really special week,” said Stroll. “When I was a kid, the Canadian Grand Prix was always the race I went to with my Dad. I can remember being five or six years old and being there when Michael [Schumacher] was winning. He was a real hero of mine.

“The F1 race is a big deal for Montreal. You can feel the excitement and buzz in the city all week, and I really enjoy and feed off that atmosphere. Canadians love F1 and the race has become a tradition for the city. The whole weekend feels like a festival and I get huge support from the fans. Seeing the Canadian flags in the grandstands and knowing that the crowd is behind you feels very special.”

Another driver who will have happy memories about returning to race in Montreal is Williams driver Robert Kubica. Having walked away from a massive accident at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in 2007, Kubica made it a fairy-tale turnaround a year later when he piloted his BMW Sauber to victory, winning from teammate Nick Heidfeld and David Coulthard.

“Montreal is a great city and one of my favourite Grands Prix,” said Kubica. “Although it was a long time ago, I have good feelings there and I am excited to return. It is a unique track, very demanding and can be quite tricky. I am looking forward to racing once again in Canada, let’s see what we can achieve this weekend.”

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.