F1: Canada to test Vettel’s mettle

Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel. Picture: Getty
Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel. Picture: Getty
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IT doesn’t take much imagination to conjure up the scene at the Canadian Grand Prix. It’s Sunday morning in Montreal, and the sun is beating down, promising shredded tyres and frayed nerves as soon as the race gets underway.

At a little past seven o’clock our time, the lights will all go red and the quickest of the 22 cars will spend an hour and a half roaring around the picturesque Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

It’s nearing the midpoint of the season and, in the context of the drivers’ championship, squeaky-bum time has just arrived. But, as a famously ambitious German world champion lines up on the grid on the Isle Notre Dame alongside the vast St Lawrence River, in front of 112,000 spectators, there are even more butterflies than usual. That’s understandable, though. This will be a particularly significant race in which victory over Finland’s Kimi Raikkonen and Spaniard Fernando Alonso, his two closest rivals in the Formula One Drivers’ Championship, would put him clear at the top of the Championship and bring him one step closer to the fourth consecutive title which would see him equal the feat of the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio. That landmark is, he admits beforehand, constantly on his mind.

If that sounds like a peek ahead to this evening’s high-octane confrontation in Montreal, where Red Bull’s three-times champion Sebastian Vettel will attempt to extend his 21-point lead in the Drivers’ Championship at one of the four circuits of this season’s 19 grands prix where he has yet to finish atop the winner’s podium, then think again.

Instead, it is a description of this grand prix ten years ago when Michael Schumacher, trailing Raikkonen in the 2003 championship as they arrived in Montreal at the halfway point, started third on the grid yet claimed his 999th grand prix point as he won the race with a performance of crushing brilliance to pull ahead of the Finn and his next nearest challenger Alonso.

Schumacher would never again leave the top of the table that year and would go on to claim his fourth successive title but it was by far the tightest margin of victory of his five in a row. While he won the 2001 championship by 58 points and was 67pts ahead in 2002, that year he would win by two points, having to rely on team-mate Rubens Barrichello to beat Raikkonen at Suzuka on the last day of the season in a nail-biting finale. It was a hard-fought campaign which turned, Schumacher later insisted, on that win in the June sunshine in Canada.

The parallels with Vettel’s current position are uncanny but there are also some important differences. As with Schumacher, the Red Bull driver is also duking it out with Raikkonen and Alonso, with the Spaniard having won two of the last four races, while the Finn knows that a win could see him leapfrog Vettel at the top of the Championship table.

Vettel is in a better position than last year, when he arrived in Canada third in the championship, but if a repeat of 2008 and 2011, when he memorably smashed into the Wall of Champions, were to result in a Did Not Finish today, it could be disastrous for his chances of that legacy-affirming fourth consecutive championship. Even a repeat of last year, when he skimmed the wall and was lucky to finish fourth, would severely dent his title hopes.

Vettel is very aware that, while Schumacher loved the Canadian track, it has not been kind to him and that, with Ferrari and Lotus becoming more competitive and having cars more suited to this circuit, he will do well to break his North American duck today. “It’s always a very long weekend when you race here,” he said of Montreal, leaving little doubt as to his views on the circuit. “It’s a very difficult track because the walls are so close.”

The two Germans are equally dominant in their respective eras but, if Canada was one of the foundations for Schumacher’s success, it has so far been Vettel’s Achilles heel, along with the other grand prix at which he has conspicuously struggled, his home race at Hockenheim. The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is a street-racing circuit whose long straights and short, tight corners do not suit his Red Bull car. He is also prone to uncharacteristic unforced mistakes here, most notably in 2011, when he had the race at his mercy only to slide wide on the final lap and let Britain’s Lewis Hamilton sneak in for the win. Schumacher, on the other hand, loved Montreal and it loved him back. That 2003 victory was the sixth of his record seven wins there, with five of them coming in title-winning campaigns. It seemed his talisman and when he stopped winning in Canada – with his last victory there coming in 2004 as he won his last title – he stopped winning full-stop.

On the evidence of his three championships so far, Vettel will never need Montreal as much as Schumacher did. Not that it will feel like that today when he sits on the grid willing himself to beat Alonso and Raikkonen, both of whom have won here in the past, both of whom love the circuit and both of whom are breathing down his neck. It’s shaping up to be quite some race.