Why Montreal always matters

It wouldn’t be the European leg of the Formula One season without an inexplicable trip across the Atlantic for the ever-popular Canadian Grand Prix.

Sandwiched between the glittering Monaco Grand Prix on the famous streets of Monte Carlo and the decidedly less famous streets of Azerbaijan’s Baku — also not in Europe but at least on the same landmass — Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve will host its 38th Formula One race this weekend.

Europe it may not be, but the idea of the so-called European phase of the year is less about location and more about the state of racing. With the opening long-distance rounds complete, the season’s narrative unfolds from here until the next long-haul race in September.

Montreal presents a particularly fascinating chapter in this story, too, with few performance or other guarantees on offer bar the statistically high chance of a safety car.

On paper Mercedes would hope to have a marginal advantage, with this circuit’s long power-demanding straights favouring the still class-leading Mercedes power unit.

On the other hand not only has Ferrari caught up a great deal in the power stakes this season, but last year Sebastian Vettel was less than 0.2 seconds off Lewis Hamilton’s pole position time, signalling a shrinking of even this fine margin in this new near-equal era.

As is increasingly the case between the evenly matched rivals, strategy will be key with that high safety car probability. Last year Ferrari lost the race because it made a snap decision to put Vettel on a two-stop strategy during an early virtual safety car. Mercedes held its nerve for Hamilton, keeping him to one stop and delivering him victory.

But the tug of war between the Germans and Italians could yet be swayed in favour of the latter if Monaco form is anything to go on.

As in Monaco, in Canada Pirelli has brought its three softest compounds. Not only did these grippy tyres prove too hard in Monte Carlo, but last year these same compounds — which in 2016 were one step softer than this year’s tyres — proved too durable in Montreal.

Though at first thought the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve should be a dramatic departure from Monaco’s snaking streets, the two present similar challenges for the car.

Neither offers the high-speed corners to work the tyres nor the abrasive surfaces to wear them down. The slow chicanes, even if the straights leading to them are worlds away from Monaco, aren’t all that different to the turns found on the famous street circuit.

Could Ferrari exercise a similar advantage, derived from its easygoing, easy-to-set-up car, for the second successive weekend?

Another faltering Mercedes performance would be costly. Already Lewis Hamilton is 25 points behind Vettel, and a heavy loss would be a blow for Mercedes’s constructors title deficit.

But in the event the Silver Arrows can cure its tyre malaise a secondary issue will have to be dealt with: both its drivers are Montreal experts.

Lewis Hamilton has made himself synonymous with Canada, claiming his debut win in Montreal, one amongst a five-win total.

Valtteri Bottas is in the process of making himself similarly comfortable, scoring podiums here in the last two seasons for Williams and outqualifying his teammates on all four of his career visits, including P3 in his rookie season.

If a flashpoint were looming in Hamilton and Bottas’s relationship as title contenders, this could be it.

But with Bottas enjoying greener pastures, his former Williams team has no choice but to look to his replacement, Lance Stroll, to score heavily at a circuit that has typically suited the its car since 2014.

Williams’s specialised low-drag car propelled by Mercedes’s powerful engine has made it a particularly handy machine in Canada — as Bottas’s results attest — but Stroll is thus far point-less in 2017 as he begins his first home grand prix as a Formula One driver.

With Williams’s other driver, Felipe Massa, never having stepped on the Canadian podium despite his long and storied career, what ought to be a heavy points-scoring round for the team ailing in the constructors standings could turn quickly into a disappointment.

But for peak disappointment look no further than McLaren, Honda’s works team and one rapidly running out of patience with its engine supplier.

Responding to the news that Honda’s engine upgrade for the engine-critical Canadian race has been delayed indefinitely, Zak Brown told Reuters “We can’t sit around forever”.

“You can only take that so long. And we’re near our limit.”

The season and its stories are in full swing, and there are few better places to see Formula One unfold than in Montreal.