The final corner of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montréal, home to the Grand Prix of Canada, is a tricky right-left chicane. To get through there on a fast lap you have to be as deft as a cat on a shelf full of china, because opposite the pits, right on the racing line, is a concrete wall cheerily emblazoned with the words Bienvenue au Québec. In 1999, Michael Schumacher led for half the race before he fumbled the chicane, drifted wide and smashed into the concrete wall, climbing from the crumpled remains of his Ferrari with a face as scarlet as his overalls - thankfully hidden by his helmet. Damon Hill (World Champion 1996) had already retired after hitting the very same wall, and Jacques Villeneuve (World Champion 1997) followed him not too long after, so ever since then the Quebec wall has been known as the Wall of Champions.
That little story tells you everything you need to know about the upcoming Canadian Grand Prix. Even the best can be caught out by the circuit on the Île Notre Dame: the odds are there will be crashes, safety cars, flying carbon fibre and general mayhem. And no wonder:
Fundamentally, this is a fast track where the cars break 300km/h in multiple places. That means wings are pared back for top speed and minimal downforce. Normally that would allow you to soften the suspension to make the car more forgiving, except that the need to stay nimble through the chicanes and around the hairpin rule that out in Canada. For the drivers, the cars are left feeling nervous, highly strung - and the barriers are never far away. In most places, the space between the ribbons of Armco is only as wide as a tennis court. High speeds, edgy cars and hovering barriers - what do you think is going to happen?
Just for extra variety - and once again, I'm indebted to Martin Brundle and his book Working The Wheel for pointing this out - the ideal setup on this track actually requires a little understeer to keep the rear wheels planted so you can get on the power early. That means - for once - the, lesser drivers can keep up with the big fish, who can't leave them behind like they usually do (or if they do, it's because they're over-driving like crazy - see "hovering barriers" above). There's every chance that when someone else has an accident, you'll just be in it. Now throw in a dash of the downright bizarre like hitting a groundhog (although that seems to have dropped off in the last couple of decades), and the World Sports Car race in 1990 that produced only genuine case I know of of a car sucking up a manhole cover*, and you have the recipe for a truly unique race.
|Although, come to think of it, we saw this all the time.|
Just in the nick of time, then, for Renault's round of new engine upgrades. Renault's overheating problems in preseason testing meant for the first few races they had to devote 100% of their resources to getting some reliability - with, it must be admitted, spectacular success. Compare Daniel Ricciardo's regular podium finishes to his inability to even complete a an outlap in January, and you see just how far the crew at Viry-Châtillon have come.
The downside is that hasn't left much time to chase kilowatts and drivability, and as I said drivability is huge in Montréal. The driver who can get on the power first, wins, and the Renault's nasty habit of kicking the car sideways as the turbo spools up is about the worst trait the engine could have, either robbing the car of traction at the exit of each corner or - even worse - robbing Vettel and Ricciardo of confidence, so their throttle application becomes ginger, hesitant.
Remi Taffin, Renault's man at the track, says:
“The long straights demand maximum power for a high percentage of the lap, therefore stressing the [internal combustion engine] hugely. I expect we’ll see speeds in excess of 330kph as we did in Barcelona so we will rely on the MGU-K [kinetic energy harvesting unit] and MGU-H [heat energy harvesting unit] to boost both top speed and acceleration. With very few corners energy recovery via the MGU-K will however be pretty difficult as the cars do not slow frequently over the lap. As a result the emphasis will be on the MGU-H to recover energy through the exhaust gases - we’ll need as much energy as we can as we’ll be right on the limit with the fuel consumption here.”
No, I have no idea how the MGU-H works: I keep imagining a miniaturised cyberpunk boiler, complete with tiny engineers heating their soup on the steam pipes, but it's probably much cooler and more interesting than that. Renault Sport employs people much smarter than me, and the Red Bull otherwise seems like a damn fine chassis, so if Renault can keep up their current rate of progress I predict they'll win a race before the year is out - Hungary maybe, or Abu Dhabi after the sun goes down and the temperatures drop.
Lastly, I have to give credit where it's due - Vettel is taking this season amazingly well. No, I know nobody in Australia wants to hear that, but it must be said. We haven't seen any of that boyish Backpfeifengesicht and its beaming smile like we used to, but that's no surprise. He's losing and he's not happy about it, and - come on - why should he be happy about it? The success of the last four years is pretty easy to get used to, but now he's being shown up by his "junior" teammate, he's finding the car doesn't like him, and even if they don't admit it, every single journalist out there sees the whole situation as karma. Maybe he's let off some steam in the German press, but in the Anglosphere I haven't heard a whisper of complaint. Given how much frustration there must be under that helmet, and I have to respect that.
But I also have to admit - and not just because I called it weeks ago - the schadenfreude of finding out he's been studying Ricciardo's data is delicious.
* Yes, I know Mythbusters supposedly busted this one, but the IndyCar they tested it with has a regulation flat bottom. Those Group C monsters had venturi tunnels which, combined with their phenomenal top speeds, must have produced some truly staggering levels of downforce. Adam, Jamie, I have four words for you - re-visit with ground effects!