Eight races, eight podiums, and six victories. If there’s one aspect that the 2023 Formula 1 championship has repeatedly shown, it is that one of the few certainties of this season lies in the duo formed by Red Bull and Max Verstappen, capable of leaving their mark even on Canadian soil.
However, behind the Dutchman, the competitive landscape continues to vary from race to race, from track to track, especially in the fight for the podium. Different teams arrived in Montreal with different expectations: Mercedes aimed to confirm their performance after the double podium in Spain, Ferrari was seeking answers regarding their new package of upgrades, while Aston Martin aimed to recover from a lackluster weekend.
On a track that, on paper, seemed more suitable for the characteristics of the SF-23 compared to Montmelo, the first day of practice seemed to provide positive indications for the Prancing Horse team. They showed agility over the curbs, impressive race pace, and were quick in qualifying runs. Compared to the Spanish debacle, undoubtedly one of the toughest moments of the season, two intense weeks of behind-the-scenes work and a friendly circuit helped highlight the strengths of the Italian car, putting them back in the game for a prestigious result.
Without a doubt, it can be suggested that the layout of Montreal highlighted some positive features of the SF-23. Going back to two weeks ago, it was Carlos Sainz himself who suggested that the new upgrade package was specifically aimed at improving performance in slow corners, providing a broader operating window.
In this case, the path taken since Melbourne in terms of setup played in their favor, with a softer setup that allowed the Maranello team to perform well in slow corners as well as over the curbs. This was also due to the fact that the curbs at the Canadian track are noticeably higher in certain areas compared to other circuits. On one hand, there are teams like Red Bull that took more time to find their way, while on the other hand, there are those who were able to adapt quickly, like Ferrari. Additionally, the car’s good efficiency and a more streamlined aerodynamic configuration compared to direct rivals, especially Aston Martin, allowed them to maintain a good advantage on the straights.
A betrayed confidence: rain on Saturday led to a disappointing qualifying session in Montreal, resulting in a tenth and eleventh place on the starting grid. At that point, all the ambitions that had emerged on Friday collapsed because mounting a comeback and fighting for the podium would be anything but simple.
While it is true that historically Montreal is one of those tracks that offers multiple overtaking opportunities, the risk was that a train of cars would form due to the presence of the DRS, and that is exactly what happened. Starting in traffic, the objective was to plan the strategy, hoping to have clear air and showcase the car’s true pace rather than being dictated by competitors. That’s why from the beginning, as can be heard from the team radio, both drivers of the Prancing Horse were on “Plan B,” which was the one-stop strategy.
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The interesting aspect is that, on paper, the other drivers who had opted for this strategy, such as Sergio Perez and Valtteri Bottas, had chosen the hard compound, while Ferrari lined up on the grid with the medium compound. This decision was probably made to provide some flexibility, allowing for the possibility of changing the plan during the race and switching to a two-stop strategy in the event of a Safety Car or extending the stint to follow the Plan B.
This choice materialized at the moment the safety car was deployed after George Russell’s incident, forcing teams to make a decision. Although Ferrari had considered the idea of adopting a strategy opposite to Lando Norris’s, thinking about pitting in case the British driver didn’t stop, the Prancing Horse ultimately stuck to the predetermined plan, definitively aiming for a single pit stop.
Being able to showcase their pace in clean air, the Ferrari drivers quickly built a significant advantage over the drivers behind them, not only those in the midfield but also a struggling Sergio Perez throughout the entire weekend. For instance, in approximately 25 laps, Charles Leclerc, closely followed by Carlos Sainz, managed to extend the gap to Esteban Ocon’s Alpine to around 16 seconds, a margin almost sufficient to secure a pit stop window while still coming out ahead. Considering the comparison with Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, who were facing the duo in red, despite a difference in tire life, the Monegasque driver maintained a gap of under five seconds from the Aston Martin driver for a long time, only losing ground in the final part.
Also significant was the last stint, which had a similar length for the three main contenders in the battle. Both Charles Leclerc and Fernando Alonso, on the hard compound, maintained a similar pace, while initially Lewis Hamilton was able to take advantage of the competitiveness of the medium compound to set a significant rhythm, slowing down towards the end when the positions were virtually solidified.
Undoubtedly, the (non) issue with the fuel system on AMR23 number 14 prevented maintaining a consistent pace in certain phases, especially because lift and coast didn’t help keep the tires in the correct operating window. However, the team minimized the impact on lap times, quantifying it at approximately one-tenth per lap.
Realistically, if Ferrari had started in the top two rows as anticipated after Friday, the podium wouldn’t have been a mirage but a concrete and achievable objective. Perhaps several scenarios would have changed, and the single-stop option wouldn’t have been as viable, shifting the focus to the possibility of attempting (or covering) an undercut.
Two significant aspects of the weekend are noteworthy: firstly, even on a friendly track, the package demonstrated good potential in the race, confirming the strengths of this car. Secondly, the tire performances aligned precisely with the strategists’ expectations. This is perhaps the most crucial element, not only because it had been lacking in previous events but also because it allows for race planning with greater certainty.
Beyond all the factors that favored the SF-23, such as cooler temperatures compared to the first day, a less abrasive track surface, numerous slow corners, and relatively moderate tire degradation, as confirmed by Alex Albon himself, who could push without worrying about tire wear, there was a correlation between pre-race expectations and what was actually witnessed on the track.
Ferrari had planned to extend the first stint, identifying the best tire of the weekend, the medium compound, which lasted almost forty laps. This also allowed for minimal use of the hard compound, a tire that didn’t provide significant references, highlighting issues with warm-up and temperature management.
These are encouraging signs, although it would be hasty to suggest that Ferrari passed the test of maturity in Canada after being delayed in Spain because various favorable elements cannot be excluded from the equation. In Formula 1, there is no magic wand capable of solving problems in a few days. On the path to graduation, the Prancing Horse still faces two significant challenges: Austria and Great Britain, where technical updates will also be introduced. It will be a double appointment where the Maranello team will have to confront the well-known weaknesses of the car, such as tire management in long and medium-fast corners and high temperatures.