GRR

Five talking points ahead of the 2024 Canadian GP

03rd June 2024
Damien Smith

After the claustrophobia of the processional Monaco Grand Prix, we come to the original ‘hybrid’ Formula 1 circuit. Neither a street track nor a traditional permanent road course, the fast, low-downforce Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, created on the man-made Île Notre-Dame in Montréal’s St Lawrence river, has long offered a pleasing contrast to its preceding race since it first hosted the Canadian Grand Prix in 1978. This time around, tantalising storylines and Monaco hangovers will keep us gripped, for a race that isn’t always easy to predict. It’ll be more eventful than Monaco at any rate.

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Is there a brewing title battle?

That’s probably wishful thinking. A fourth consecutive world title has looked nailed on for Max Verstappen since his Red Bull RB20 first turned a wheel. Nevertheless, the state of play at the front of the grid has tightened up in recent weeks (thank goodness) and Verstappen is facing more pressure and a greater challenge than at any other time in this current ruleset era. Both McLaren and Ferrari are now a genuine threat, and that bodes well for the races to come.

Verstappen has won five of the eight rounds run so far and sits 31 points ahead of nearest threat Charles Leclerc, a gap that amounts to more than the worth of a race win. But with 16 races left to run, including Canada – what used to be the full length of a season 20-odd years ago, the Dutchman won’t be taking anything for granted. In Miami he was beaten by a faster Lando Norris, even if the McLaren driver had a dose of luck with a well-time safety car. At Imola he won, but only just from the same combination; and at Monaco, the Achilles’ Heel of his sensitive Red Bull was shown up over the bumps as he fell from contention for the win in qualifying. After so much domination, Verstappen is now having to dig deep to make the difference, and his team-mate Sergio Pérez’s lack of spark only highlights just how much the champion is worth.

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If McLaren and/or Ferrari can turn the screw once more in Canada and conjure up another Verstappen defeat, perhaps we can ask the title-challenge question again. Red Bull remains brittle amid its uneasy truce in the ongoing power struggle for control of the team, the shadow hanging over Christian Horner regarding his conduct towards a member of staff, and the resignation of Adrian Newey. Cracks have opened up – but whether the empire really is about to crumble can only be a point of conjecture right now. The RB20 is still the fastest car on the grid, at least in Verstappen’s hands.

But it’s also true that in the constructors’ championship, Ferrari looms. The Maranello team is only 24 points behind Red Bull, so pressure will mount for Pérez to hold his end up and score heavily and more consistently, as Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr have been doing. How gripping this season might turn out to be at the front of the grid is delicately poised right now.

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An age-old rivalry is alive and well

McLaren vs Ferrari. Since James Hunt vs Niki Lauda in 1976, this has been a rivalry to savour whenever these two big beasts find themselves in the same competitive vicinity. Even if they aren’t fighting over a championship this time, which one emerges as consistently Red Bull’s greatest challenger over the coming weeks and months will keep us watching – and talking.

What makes it all the more nuanced is the intra-team battles playing out parallel to the teams’ duel. Norris and Oscar Piastri are so equally matched at McLaren, while Sainz remains a thorn for Leclerc even if the Ferrari momentum has shifted towards the Monegasque in recent races. Norris is 25 points behind Leclerc in the drivers’ standings, but with a flurry of fast tracks on the horizon; Montréal this weekend, then Barcelona, the Red Bull Ring, and Silverstone to come, he’ll fancy his chances of diminishing that deficit.

While we’re cautious about overhyping hopes of a title battle, the tussle for individual races could very well swing from circuit to circuit between the top three teams. Meanwhile, Andrea Stella and Fred Vasseur will also be conscious of maintaining internal serenity and harmony within their teams while their drivers duke it out to get the upper hand on each other. Juicy multiple tensions, right there.

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Can Hamilton keep his paranoia in check?

He appeared to carefully row back from what he initially seemed to be implying in Monaco, but Lewis Hamilton remains in an inevitably uneasy situation right now. The 38-year-old future Ferrari driver stated blankly that he won’t be able to compete with George Russell in qualifying this season, with an implication things are no longer quite equal within Mercedes. He’s 7-1 down in their personal qualifying tally, and as drivers tend to do in such scenarios, appeared in the heat of the moment after qualifying to seek other reasons for the deficit beyond simply being outpaced.

So far, Hamilton, Russell, and Mercedes have handled a clearly awkward situation with mutual respect and level heads. But with the team adrift of the top as fourth best - with no obvious sign of having found a means of joining that battle, cracks might well continue to appear and lengthen as we stretch into summer. Hamilton is only 12 points down on Russell in terms of scores on the board, but for the team it’s no longer about him. He knows that only too well. The seven-time champion is tasked with knuckling down, giving his best, and counting off the races before he can properly begin focusing on his exciting new start at Ferrari for 2025. But how he handles the here and now, against a team-mate who still has a few points of his own to prove about his ability to lead Mercedes, will be fascinating.

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Why Lewis Hamilton will be more motivated than ever at Ferrari

02nd February

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Ocon hurt by new ‘villain’ role

Further down the grid, Alpine remains in a state of disarray. Long-time Enstone stalwart Rob White is the latest familiar name to depart, as team chief Bruno Famin spoke of “consequences” regarding Esteban Ocon’s clumsy collision with Pierre Gasly in Monaco. Was that incident the trigger for the announcement this week that Ocon won’t be driving for the team in 2025? In truth, the split was already on the cards. Perhaps it just pushed the call along a little. Meanwhile, Ocon will race on in Canada, taking a five-place grid penalty as his punishment for Monaco. Last week the 27-year-old was moved to say he was “deeply saddened by the amount of abuse and negativity” he has received on public forums in the wake of Monaco. He appears to be the current ‘villain’ of F1 – although Kevin Magnussen, who was lucky to escape blame for his own smash with Pérez, has a long-term claim on that role.

Ocon is a great character, highly likeable with a spikey competitiveness that’s essential to his breed. As I write, he has said his plans for the future will be announced soon. Both Haas and Sauber are said to be considering him as an option, and he has long-term links with Mercedes and Toto Wolff. For now, he could do well in the time he has left with Alpine to prove his worth as a team player. Like Hamilton, the challenge is to stay married to the team in some form of harmony, when divorce has already been finalised. Will he see out the season? I’m not sure I’d put money on that.

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Is Sainz’s move to Williams on?

That seems to be the way the Spaniard is heading for 2025 and beyond. Unfathomably, Pérez appears set to cling on to his Red Bull seat and Mercedes is seemingly convinced that young Andrea Kimi Antonelli is ‘the real deal’ for its own needs; Sainz looks out of frontline options as he prepares to make way at Ferrari for Hamilton. A cooling of talk about a move to Sauber (Audi from 2026) and increasing belief that he’ll buy into James Vowles’ reasoned plan for revival at Williams means that arguably the best driver of the early rounds is facing a disheartening relegation. Williams is still a long way from midfield respectability, with only two points on the board so far this term. From race-winning Ferrari to potential rear of the grid ignominy doesn’t seem a prospect that would light the fire of any driver. Frankly, Sainz deserves better.

 

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

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