Was this a race in which Ferrari snatched defeat from the jaws of victory? For a second successive weekend Lewis Hamilton mastered a one-stop strategy to profit over a rival with an advantage, while once more Ferrari failed to capitalise on an opportunity which came its way.
Around the high-speed Circuit Gilles Villeneuve it was expected that the battle would be between the two Mercedes drivers, but Red Bull’s progress and Ferrari’s form – aided by an upgraded turbocharger – indicated that a three-way fight for overall honours was possible.
Hamilton collected pole position but a scruffy lap, and inferior second attempt, meant he had both Nico Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel in close company, while cool conditions on race day left teams scratching their head in terms of strategy.
As eyes focused on Hamilton and Rosberg when the lights went out it was Vettel who rocketed off the line, slotting his Ferrari between the wall and Hamilton’s Mercedes to surge into the lead. Hamilton desperately searched for traction and hugged the inside line into the first corner, as Rosberg adopted the outside approach. Hamilton encountered understeer which took him on a wide line and left the two W07 Hybrids making minor contact. The brush left Rosberg with little option but to take to the run-off and re-join at Turn 2, as the pack swamped past.
Vettel hammered out an advantage across the first sequence of corners but locked up under braking for the final chicane and had to take to the escape road; it presented a chance for Hamilton but the Briton wasn’t close enough to legitimately challenge into Turn 1, and Vettel once again edged clear.
Vettel and Hamilton were separated by just over a second throughout the first stint of the race until Jenson Button’s McLaren spluttered to a halt along the back straight, his stricken MP4-31 requiring the use of the Virtual Safety Car.
Ferrari, intending to two-stop, serviced Vettel for Super Soft tyres, indicating that an extra trip through the pits would be required; not only would 59 laps on the red-banded rubber be highly improbable, but he had yet to run the mandatory Soft compound. Vettel limited some of the pit lane time loss due to the Virtual Safety Car, but racing resumed before he had entered his pit box.
Hamilton stayed out and maintained a gap back to Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, the two Red Bull drivers having swapped positions in evading Rosberg on the first lap. Vettel made light work of the pair across successive laps and tried to claw back time compared to Hamilton, who came in for his one and only stop in lap 24.
He filtered back into second position 13 seconds behind Vettel; the Ferrari driver needed to build a gap but on fresher tyres it was Hamilton who was edging closer. By the time Vettel scuttled into the pits on lap 37 his gap had been reduced to under 10 seconds, and he faced a seven second deficit when he re-joined the action.
Vettel and Hamilton traded quick sector times but overall it was the Ferrari driver who was gradually closing in, moving to around four seconds of his rival. However, it proved to be a false dawn; Vettel erred at the chicane for a second time, dropping 1.5 seconds, before another mistake at the same place a few laps later ended his charge once and for all.
Ferrari team boss Maurizio Arrivabene was quick to admit that the outfit had underestimated the durability of Pirelli’s tyres – it had, after all, given up track position and once again chose the wrong route. Vettel, however, strongly defended his team.
“As it turned out, we committed fairly early, maybe we were also hoping that the VSC gives us a bit of an advantage and makes the two stop favourable but I will always defend our strategies, what we committed to as a team,” he said.
“I think there were other people as well, favouring the two stop. With hindsight maybe they would do a different job but as I said, that’s a decision we take as a team. Kept in hindsight it’s always easy. Put yourselves in the shoes of those on the pit wall, to make that call is quite tricky and you have to be really quick.
“Strategy-wise I think we have a very very strong team. I wouldn’t favour anywhere near to criticise them because the guys are really on the money and very strong, reacting very well and if here and there we maybe don’t do the optimum, that’s part of the job but overall I think we end up doing better choices than other people.”
Hamilton conceded he was initially nervous about extending the stint on Ultra Soft tyres, but it was a move which ultimately swept him to the top step of the podium for a fifth time in Canada.
“The team obviously told us what the tyres could do, how far they would go,” he said.
“I wasn’t really sure how far the Ultra Softs would go. I had already seen graining earlier when I was behind Sebastian. So I was a little bit nervous about it, but it seemed to last, which was great.
“I could have kept going on the Ultra Soft, which was interesting; I had a good pace. Then we swapped. It was a long stint on the information we got before that that tyre could last quite a long time and it was just a beauty.
“I didn’t have to push too much on the tyre at the beginning, just looking after them, but very conscious that this guy behind was pushing. I was really enjoying the race with him, you know, just battling times here and there. He was so quick and it’s great to see how quick they are and they are really giving us a run for our money, and I just happened to be on a one stop.”
Hamilton’s delight was no doubt assisted by another poor race from Rosberg, who dropped to the foot of the top 10 on the first lap.
Having gradually worked his way back to fourth, a slow puncture demoted him down to seventh, before he quickly overhauled Kimi Räikkönen and Ricciardo. Neither Red Bull driver had shown pace to challenge for victory (Ricciardo had hoped for an outside chance) and a second stop dented its prospects further.
Verstappen proved a tougher nut to crack than Räikkönen and Ricciardo and the Dutch youngster defended expertly as Rosberg also had to contend with fuel saving. Rosberg had a final stab into the chicane but the rear of his Mercedes rotated out of control and he sheepishly had to make to with fifth.
Having entered his ‘home’ race with a 43-point cushion, Rosberg heads to Baku this week having witnessed it whittled down to a mere nine.