The Canadian Grand Prix was the most exciting race of the season, but also one of the most interesting tactically.
There were some important decisions to be made in qualifying which affected the way teams tackled the first part of the race, but there were also big decisions to be taken during the race, reacting to events.
It was clear from Friday practice that the tyres were going to be a big problem in Montreal. They grained very badly and the rears were degrading very quickly. Drivers found that once they started to go, the performance dropped very quickly.
There are several reasons for this. Some are predictable, some less so. The Montreal track causes graining because it is all about acceleration and braking, so the wheels are spinning up and sliding, which sheers the rubber on the rear tyres in particular. Also because Montreal has a low grip asphalt surface the tyres slip both longitudinally and laterally, which adds more to the graining. This year much of the track had been resurfaced to avoid the embarrassing break ups seen in recent years. The new asphalt was very slippery.
Over most of the weekend, the temperature was lower than expected; it was in the low 20s and this means that the rubber can’t soften, which adds to the problem. This was less of a problem on race day, when the temperatures were high, but the problem then was that the support races and the parade of historic cars had lifted the F1 rubber off the track, so in the early part of the Grand Prix the tyres were going off very quickly. As the race went on the problem lessened.
The track ramped up in grip quickly in qualifying. In choosing what tyres to use, most teams adopted the tactic we have seen repeatedly in 2010 of looking at what everyone else is doing. This is the “reactive” race strategy we are seeing at most races.
Red Bull started out Q1 on the soft tyre, which immediately told us that they were going to run the hard tyre for their final run in Q3 and therefore start the race on that hard tyre. They made this decision because the difference in performance between the soft and the hard tyre was not so significant for them, perhaps a tenth or two. So it might have cost them the pole at a push, but they thought they had the better tyre for the race. They did not anticipate the degradation the hard tyres suffered in the early race laps.
Robert Kubica also chose the same tactic. It definitely cost him some places on the grid. In Q2 on soft tyres he did a 1m 15.682, the fourth fastest lap of that session. Most people then found another couple of tenths in Q3 as the track improved. Kubica however switched to hard tyres in Q3 and did a 1m15.715. Had he followed the herd he would probably have been between Alonso and Button in 5th place instead of 8th. He might even have got on the podium from there, so skilled is he between the walls in Montreal.
In the race the tactic backfired pretty quickly as he pitted on lap 9, soon after the soft tyre runners. The Renault seems to have a more rearward weight distribution than many of its rivals and he went through the rear tyres pretty quickly at the start of the race.
Although it looked quite good for Red Bull in the early laps, as they took the lead when Hamilton pitted, it went wrong because the drivers weren’t able to push hard enough for long enough on that first set of tyres. In comparison, the drivers who started on the soft tyre pitted early (around lap 5/6) and then on a new set of hard tyres were catching the Red Bulls quickly. At this point the Red Bulls still had the soft tyre to take and it was clear that the chance of victory was gone. Red Bull expected Kubica to stay out on the hard tyre to hold up Hamilton, Alonso and Button after their stops but his early stop wrecked that plan.
What makes the performance of the hard tyre so surprising is that this is the same tyre (Bridgestone call it the Medium) which lasted the whole race in Monaco for Alonso and even did 33 laps of Bahrain. This has been, up to now, their best performing tyre and it has a higher working range than the soft, so should have been suited to Sunday’s conditions.
There was an argument for doing what Alonso did in Monaco and pitting on the first lap for hard tyres, (although there he went through to the finish, which was not possible in Montreal). This is what Liuzzi was forced into after he was taken out at the start by Massa. He fought back very well to finish 9th. He pitted for his second set of tyres before the rest of his competitors and, on a new set, was able to make up some places.
One interesting decision taken at the first stop by Red Bull, knowing that they were now on the back foot, was to put Vettel on the soft tyre for the middle stint and Webber on the hard.
Pre-race analysis showed that hard-soft-hard was actually quite a fast race strategy, the key to it being at the second stop to cover off the cars that start with a short stint on the soft tyre and then a long stint on the hard. Vettel thought he had done this and it was a considerable shock to him to find that he hadn’t done enough even by the first stop. As well as the Kubica factor, part of the reason for this was he lost six seconds in two laps around the time of Hamilton’s first stop. This allowed Alonso and Button to get ahead of him.
This was Alonso’s kind of race, complex and requiring patience at times and extreme aggression at others. Sadly for him it didn’t result in a victory because he lost positions when boxed in behind slower cars; once to Hamilton and another time to Button. But it was a much stronger showing by Ferrari and Alonso is still hanging in there with the McLaren and Red Bull drivers in the championship.
As for fuel consumption, which was the limiting factor in Turkey, it was as expected in Montreal. The only thing which surprised the engineers was the temperature on race day, which was higher than expected and this meant that they drivers could not run the engines too lean for risk of overheating. The leaner the fuel mixture the hotter the engine gets.