Analysis: How Ferrari fumbled under Hamilton's pressure
The mixed tyre strategies produced an unpredictable Canadian Grand Prix in which Lewis Hamilton had to dig deep to fend off Sebastian Vettel. Adam Cooper analyses a fascinating Montreal race.
The Canadian GP was lacking in the sort of excitement that we had been anticipating all weekend, and for once, the FIA stewards were left twiddling their thumbs with no controversies to address, and were able to leave early.
The rain never came, nobody hit the wall, and there was no safety car period, although the briefest appearance of a VSC had a big impact on how the race unfolded.
Nevertheless, this was another fascinating 2016 race in which mixed strategies among the frontrunners once again made for an unpredictable outcome. And once again Lewis Hamilton had to dig deep and pull off some brilliant tyre management to eventually come out on top.
The days of the two Mercedes drivers cruising around at the front and simply eyeing each other appear to be over, and the great thing for the sport is that Ferrari and Red Bull are taking turns to pile on the pressure, as car development and circuit characteristics tip the balance back and forth.
“It's not easy out there,” Mercedes' Paddy Lowe told Motorsport.com after the flag. “It never is, to be honest. People take for granted that if you've got a quick car it's all a bit of a breeze.
"But I think as the cars get closer, which they are now, you are beginning to see it's not simply about the pace of the car, it's about the whole operation. And getting everything right...”
The one thing that Mercedes didn't get quite right was the start, and had the Turn 1 contact between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg been more severe than it was, things could have gone very wrong indeed.
As it turned out, Hamilton emerged unscathed, although his teammate plunged to 10th and out of contention for victory.
This was not the first time in 2016 that a start went awry for Mercedes, and in particular Hamilton, as Sebastian Vettel catapulted past both silver cars to take the lead - an impressive achievement given the relatively short run to the first corner.
"He seemed to have an extraordinarily good start," said Lowe. "I don't think ours were particularly bad, it's just they had a great start on that car."
Subsequent investigations revealed that clutch issues were at play for Hamilton and to a lesser extent for Rosberg, but there was also a tyre temperature element to the start.
"In all the laps to the grid our drivers were saying, 'I can't get these tyres working,'" said Lowe. "It's difficult enough on a hot day to get the tyres to come in here, so today was always going to be a bit of a mess on lap one, which is what we saw. We seemed to come out the worst of it."
As Vettel swept past, Rosberg had a better getaway than Hamilton, which is how we ended up with a that little episode at Turn 1.
Contact between its two cars for the second time in three races could have created a big headache for the Mercedes management. Despite Rosberg's obvious frustration, the incident was quickly filed away as just hard racing.
"It's difficult to fully resolve it," said Lowe. "When you're on the outside there at this particular corner sequence, that is one of the risks you face, the guy on the inside can push you on the kerb.
"Whether Lewis did that on purpose or not, no one will ever know. He absolutely ran out of grip, and that's the line he ended up on."
Ferrari dictates strategy
Vettel, meanwhile, was away up front, and as we've seen so often in the past he is at his very best when leading and in control of the race.
Ferrari also had control of what direction strategy took, and at this stage it was the Mercedes guys who had to try to out-think their Maranello counterparts and plan a way to get Lewis in front. They never expected Ferrari to declare its hand so early.
A brief virtual safety car period on lap 11 was the trigger, and to the surprise of just about everyone Vettel came into the pitlane. A stop under a VSC can in theory offer an advantage, but this one disappeared very quickly.
"It seemed very early to us," said Lowe. "Even for a two-stop that was very early. And they didn't gain anything. If you stop under a safety car or a virtual safety car you can save a bit of time, but they didn't."
The Mercedes strategists now had their answer on how to beat Vettel – for them it was a no-brainer to give Lewis track position and leave the Ferrari to do the chasing.
"We initially planned a two-stop," Lowe confirmed. "But we actually converted to a one-stop, reacting to Ferrari's strategy. The one and the two are pretty close, they're close strategies here. But we had the track position."
It's worth noting that in its usual pre-race strategy prediction, Pirelli had cited lap 18 as the ideal time for a two-stop and switch to the supersoft, and clearly Vettel was far from that.
He also had to work his way past both Red Bulls, and in contrast to his serene progress on a clear track in the first stint he had to work his tyres that much harder.
Having been pushing Vettel for those first 11 laps, Hamilton now had that clear track advantage, but he also had a new challenge. He had to make his ultrasofts go a lot further than he had anticipated, and thus had to adjust his approach accordingly.
How far he could go on the ultrasofts while keeping up a good pace, and how long would the corresponding second stint on the softs be? It was clear that Vettel would be on much younger softs in the closing laps, so Hamilton had to have enough performance in hand to deal with an attack from behind.
After practice, Pirelli was confident that a stint of 50 or so wouldn't be a problem come the race. In the end, Hamilton was brought in on lap 24, leaving him with a 46-lap run to the flag.
Intriguingly, Pirelli had also told us pre-race that lap 23 was the ideal time to pit, and indeed that's exactly when Valtteri Bottas had come in for his ultimately successful one-stopper.
"I got to lap 25 or whatever it was, and that lap was getting quicker," said Hamilton. "I was thinking I should probably stay out for a couple of laps, because the tyres are feeling good, I've got good pace here, and it makes it shorter for the next stint.
"But they called us in. It felt like a long, long way to go, but it actually went pretty quick."
Those 46 laps were a masterclass from Hamilton in how to maintain a good pace while ensuring that his tyres were still in good shape for the final laps; the sort of skill that helps to create a multiple world champion.
"I had a really nice balance with the car," he explained. "Us drivers, what we have to study is which corners we can push and which corners we cannot, when you're in the race, in term of damaging the front-left tyre, damaging the rear-left, right-front, right-rear.
"There are certain corners in which you can push more or less and lift and coast and all that. If you get that right balance the tyre can go forever. And I had the perfect balance today."
The gap to Vettel ebbed and flowed. The German made his second stop for softs on lap 37, which meant his tyres were 13 laps younger than Hamilton's for the last part of the race.
Initially he was some 7.8s behind, and that gap began to shrink, albeit less dramatically than Ferrari had hoped. Hamilton may have been in control, but it wasn't so straightforward on the pit wall.
"It seemed quite tough," said Lowe. "Looking at Lewis's side, there were times when we thought this isn't going to work. We were down to 4s at one point. And then Sebastian went long at the last corner, and that stepped him back. And I think from then on he was settling for second.
"That's how Lewis won the race, getting the tyre to last that long, and really matching Sebastian lap for lap, pretty much through the fact that Sebastian was only finding two-tenths each lap, even though his tyres were much younger."
Mercedes even managed to turn more misfortune for Rosberg into a positive. When the German was forced to pit on lap 51, his used tyres provided valuable information.
"Nico was also on a one-stop, but then he had a puncture," said Lowe. "We actually got wear data off Nico's tyres, which was actually useful for maintaining confidence in Lewis's strategy."
There was another useful barometer. Fernando Alonso had pitted for softs as early as lap 17, and his softs were thus seven laps older than Hamilton's.
While it's always hard to make direct comparisons between different cars, Mercedes kept an eye on the Spaniard's pace.
"Even with the slightly hotter track we felt the one-stop was feasible, and you could see that most of the other teams had the same thinking," said Wolff.
"Interestingly, the soft was really robust, we could see Alonso had seven laps more on the tyres, so it was a pretty good indication how far the tyre would really go.
"So we knew we would have a warning if his tyres suddenly would fall off the cliff, and they never did."
After the flag, Vettel staunchly defended his team, refusing to cast doubts on the strategy and instead going for a glass half-full, "at least we know are competitive" approach.
It was impressive to see him in that team player role – contrast his approach with Daniel Ricciardo's understandable recent frustration – but up and down the pitlane, the consensus was that Ferrari had got things badly wrong, as it did in Australia.
We will never know for sure, of course, and it should be noted that while both Hamilton and the third- placed Valtteri Bottas made those long stints work, others could not, and that must have played a role in Ferrari's thinking.
However, it could be argued that having chased Mercedes for so long, and Red Bull before that if you go back a few years, Ferrari has simply forgotten how to win from the front, and has at times made things unnecessarily complicated.
The big question is, will Maranello get it right next time it gets the chance?
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