Will politics kill a great GP?
For the second time in 2012 Formula 1 is gearing up for a grand prix facing political disruption - even cancellation - with this weekend’s Canadian GP, scheduled for a part-street circuit on the man-made Notre Dame Island in the St Lawrence Seaway, the latest to come under fire.
Just as Bahrain’s GP was threatened by political protesters, so Montreal’s race is in danger after the authorities substantially hiked university fees and banned protest marches while spending gazillions on a car race promoted by an 81-year-old whose daughters spend money like they fear tomorrow.
The island’s main access is via the metro system’s Yellow Line. During a race weekend carries it 80% of traffic. Students have threatened to block access at each end of the underground rail system and, if successful, could force the race to be run without spectators or even scupper Formula 1’s hopes of delivering a record-setting seven different 2012 winners in as many races.
As with Monaco’s circuit, where a fortnight earlier Red Bull Racing’s Mark Webber reigned supreme over Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) and Ferrari star Fernando Alonso, the 4.361km Gilles Villeneuve Circuit - named after Ferrari’s legendary local hero who died 30 years ago in May – is a temporary circuit, albeit a fearsomely fast one.
Despite its low downforce, stop-go layout incorporating 14 corners (8R, 6L), the circuit resembles an elongated oval with speeds of 320km/h being reached on its two long straights. An idea of the circuit’s wide-ranging mix can be gleaned from cornering speeds: three are taken at less than 100km/h and two at more than 250km/h to deliver a lap average of close to 200km/h.
HARSHEST ON BRAKES
The FIA has specified a single DRS zone - on the back straight - after accusations in 2011 that overtaking was too easy with a zone per straight. Full throttle is used for 67% of each lap, with the longest foot-flat period 14 seconds – among the highest on the trail. In total, the finishers will make 3500 gear changes during the race’s scheduled 70 laps; brake and tyre energy are rated as ‘high’.
Seven heavy-braking events (Canada is harshest of all on brakes) and the traction required to power out of the myriad slow and medium speed corners place heavy demands on tyres, particularly the rears. The surface is extremely low-grip yet highly abrasive, thus causing cars to slide excessively and further increasing tyre wear.
Thus Pirelli’s choice of compounds - Supersoft (red sidewall) and Soft (yellow), as per Monaco – should deliver two stops rather than one if dry, more if it rains – which, given the region’s capricious weather, is possible. For proof of Canada’s chaos, go back no further than 2011’s rain-soaked, two-part, four-and-a-half marathon.
The Canadian Grand Prix is infamous for a higher-than-average number of stoppages, incidents and pace car interventions due, mainly, to the closeness of the barriers to the track. The event has seen 14 pace-car periods - five in the rain in 2011 – in 10 years for a 67% incident rate, while two of the past three Canadian races featured at least five leaders.
SEVEN OF SEVEN - OR A DOUBLE?
Factor in that the race has only been won from pole three times in the past 10 years – versus eight out of 10 at Monaco – that the victor has twice recently come from seventh on the grid, including last year’s surprise winner Jenson Button (McLaren), and that six drivers have stood on the top step since 2004, and an unpredictable result is virtually guaranteed.
Sunday’s race will either deliver seven-in-seven or produce the first double winner of an already tumultuous season. Any of this year’s sextet of winners – above-mentioned Monaco trio, plus reigning champion Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), who lost out in 2011 last year on the final lap, so needs to prove a thing or two; Button, who is desperate to make up for recent poor showings, most noticeably Monaco; and street specialist Pastor Maldonado, who scored Williams’s first win in eight years – stands a real chance in Montreal, as do more than a few others.
That Alonso is leading the title hunt at the third-way mark despite having arguably only the fourth-best car underscores the 2005/6 champion’s skill and commitment, while Rosberg, having sunk F1’s Champagne for the first time in China, is angling hard for a repeat. And Webber: well, after being dominated by team mate Vettel in 2011, the gritty Australian is relishing his fight against the double reigning champion on equal terms.
Then double Canadian winner Lewis Hamilton, who should by now have won at least one race this season but for his butter-fingered McLaren team, and Lotus twins Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean need to be factored into the equation, for all three have shown race-winning form this year, as a string of podium finishes attests.
Michael Schumacher, who scored pole for Mercedes in Monaco, cannot be discounted: the German seven-times champion virtually owns the Canadian GP, having won it an incredible seven times before his 2006 retirement, and is racing with renewed vigour as contract renewal time beckons.
Then Felipe Massa has shown a welcome upswing in form after Ferrari put the Brazilian on notice, making 11 potential winners from six different teams - in a 24-car field.
Just how tough calling Sunday’s winner is is reflected in the championship standings: the top six spanned by just 25 points (a single win): Alonso (76), Vettel and Webber on 73 apiece, Hamilton 63, Rosberg on 59 and Räikkönen on 51. The Constructors’ championship is slightly more open, with Red Bull on 146 points versus the 108 and 86 of McLaren and Ferrari respectively.
The 70-lap race will start at 2pm Canadian time (a convenient 8pm for South Africa) with qualifying an hour earlier on Saturday.