We often forget that pit stops are an important roll of the die in the game of racing – the last two races have shown us precisely that. The Canadian Grand Prix told a similar story to that of Monaco: careful and measured driving, a seemingly assured lead… Only to be dismantled by tactical errors and pit stop miscalculations.
Vettel’s start was spectacular. His Ferrari humming in P3 behind both Mercedes on the starting grid, he swiped the lead with a clean overtake from the outside curve, settling into P1 at the first turn. The two Mercedes behind him grappling for position, light contact forced Rosberg off-track into ninth place as a scuffle between Felipe Nasr in his Sauber and Kevin Magnussen’s Renault caused the former to spin off a nasty start to the race.
Vettel seemed comfortable in the lead, but Hamilton was unrelenting in pressuring the Ferrari, keeping a close eye on the German with a steady 1.5-second gap. All was well until smoke billowed from the rear of Button’s McLaren on the eleventh lap – pulling over to the side of the track as the fire was extinguished triggered the deployment of the virtual safety car. Ferrari took this opportunity to bring Vettel in for his first pit stop, assuming that the temporary restrictions would cause time to work in their favour – but the VSC was recalled as soon as Vettel entered the pit lane. Hamilton was making up time.
It was clear that unlike most others, Ferrari had planned a two-stopper for their drivers, while everyone else – Hamilton included – was targeting a one-stop strategy. The race soon became a contest of tyre management, a battle with rubber, a balancing act of pushing and pulling the car to maximise the trade-off between tyre preservation and all-out attack. Hamilton finally traded his ultra-soft tyres for softs, making them last for 45 laps until the end of the race, while Vettel opted for 26 laps on super-softs before making the switch to soft tyres for the remainder of the race, unable to close the five-second gap to Hamilton before reaching the chequered flag.
The one-stoppers prevailed. Valtteri Bottas clinched a neat third place after Verstappen, previously ahead of him, reneged on his initial one-stop strategy and pitted on lap 46. But young Verstappen held his own when faced with a charging Mercedes helmed by Rosberg, confidently and expertly defending his fourth place against the championship leader. Rosberg finally took it too far when a final surge forced the car into a spin (without contact with Verstappen), finally settling for a fifth.
With two consecutive wins, Hamilton is creeping perilously closely to Rosberg in the standings – he now remains only nine points behind his teammate. It seems that karma has reversed itself – his recent wins have been aided by bad calls from the challengers; the mistake Mercedes made a year ago in Monaco has righted itself, one year later.
The draw of racing for many is the spectacle that it provides: the sharp manoeuvres, the dizzying spins – the performance of on-track action. But once in a while it’s nice to be reminded that racing always involves risk and gamble, and how teams need to play their cards right.