Mercedes headed into the Canadian Grand Prix chasing their sixth consecutive one-two finish, something that no team in Formula One has ever managed to nail. But, despite dominating the 2014 season so far, wise heads like team boss Paddy Lowe knew to temper what looked like favourable odds against the fact that this brilliant street circuit is also a car breaker – tough on engines, even tougher on brakes, and merciless on tyres.
So it was that Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo was the man to profit from Mercedes’ mechanical misfortune by passing Nico Rosberg’s wounded Silver Arrows with just two laps to go, in a genuinely nail-biting finale to what was an epic race from start to finish. Sebastian Vettel completed the podium, while McLaren’s Jenson Button – who went from last to first in Montreal in 2011 – managed a similar last gasp lunge on the penultimate lap to pass Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India and Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari. Williams’ Valteri Bottas was seventh, and Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne eighth.
There was drama, too, on the very last lap, when Williams’ Felipe Massa threw away a possible victory when he collided with Force India’s Sergio Perez, plunging both of them in spectacular fashion into the tyre wall. Fortunately, neither driver was seriously hurt, despite pulling 27g in the impact.
With the track temperature nudging 50 degrees, this felt like a race that was poised to spring a few surprises, in true Montreal style. Seven of the previous 13 GPs here have seen at least one safety car intervention, and it was in play before a single lap had been completed. Fresh from their first ever points finish, in Monaco a fortnight ago, Marussia lost both cars when Max Chilton slewed sideways into his team-mate Jules Bianchi, ending the Briton’s remarkable record run of 26 consecutive race finishes.
After that, it looked like business as usual, with Rosberg continuing his recent pole form and looking to have the edge on Lewis Hamilton. As well as speed and intellect, Nico also has that crucial additional element, luck – and plenty of it. On lap 18, he had a gigantic squeaky bum moment as his Mercedes’ snapped sideways seemingly millimetres from one of Montreal’s hungry concrete walls. Then, with Hamilton having pitted to switch to the harder of the two available Pirelli tyres, he over-shot the chicane as Lewis was taking chunks out of his lap-time. The stewards investigated Rosberg for ‘exceeding track limits’, but no further action was taken. Hmm.
Despite the early safety car levelling things out, Mercedes’ engineers were also issuing fuel saving messages, advising Rosberg to ‘hogey’. Topgear.com doesn’t know what this means, but intends to find out. Lewis was now all over his gearbox.
We do know what a power loss is, though, and on lap 37 Nico was on the blower complaining of a sudden loss of grunt. A lap later, Lewis was similarly stricken, both cars’ devastating race pace now hobbled to the tune of three seconds per lap. Rosberg pitted on lap 44, Lewis on lap 45, managing to rejoin ahead of his team-mate (definitely not his ‘friend’, as he has recently been at pains to point out), with Felipe Massa now out in front, and in with a shout of his first win since Brazil in 2008 if he managed to nurse his tyres to the finish. (He couldn’t.)
With both Mercedes now suffering some cataclysmic hybrid failure, it looked like game over. Because the MGU-K part of the 2014 powertrain plays such a key role in supplying stopping power, the rest of the braking set-up is relatively puny, and wasted no time cooking itself and forcing Hamilton into his second retirement of the season. The question now was, how long could Rosberg hold on, if at all?
By lap 50, it was suddenly Sergio Perez’s race to lose, although he did have both Red Bulls breathing down his exhaust pipe, and Massa’s hard charging Williams on much fresher rubber reeling them all in. With 10 laps to go, just 10 seconds covered the top seven. This was dynamite stuff.
When Ricciardo nailed the struggling Perez on lap 66 and the impressively resilient Rosberg two laps later, he proved two things: firstly, that it’s only a matter of time before the guy with the mile-wide grin is shutting down his first driver’s world title. And secondly that, for all the bleating about F1’s emasculated new era, at least three of the seven races we’ve had so far this year have been corkers. The technology might be new, but this was vintage motor racing entertainment, crowned by an opportunistic but still richly deserved win by a fast-rising superstar.
In terms of the bigger picture, Nico Rosberg now has a 22-point lead over Hamilton in the drivers’ world championship. The Canadian GP may yet turn out to be a decisive marker in their battle for supremacy, not least because the bad luck has a habit of hunting out Lewis Hamilton. What with that Monaco pole controversy, beneficent stewards, and two DNFs to Nico’s nil, the pendulum has definitely swung to the German’s side of the Mercedes garage. It’s time it was coaxed back in Lewis’s direction.