Tales of the Riverbank

One of the great strengths of Formula One is the variety of venues with which cars and drivers have to cope. We talk about optimising setup – but the reason that is so very hard to do is that the demands are very different week to week. There is probably no greater performance gap than the one from Monaco to Montréal. It is a very different circuit. It’s practically a different sport.

This is always a good week for F1. Montréal embraces its race. The action switches from track to city centre, where the roads are closed and the party on Crescent Street takes off every evening. The weather can be a mixed bag – it might be cold, wet or hot enough to melt the tarmac – but the crowd will be massive and enthusiastic whatever happens. It’s also one of the narrowest main straights of the year – which generates a great atmosphere in the pitlane and garages.

The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve sits in the middle of the St Lawrence River. The long, thin artificial island (built with spoil from the construction of the Montréal metro) informs the shape of the circuit: a line of straights interrupted by short, tight corners. There’s more performance to be gained from increasing end-of-straight speed than there is in carrying speed through the corners, and so the big wings of the maximum downforce setups seen in Monaco and Spain give way for something more like that seen in Baku: not quite the skinny wings of Monza but definitely close to the middle of the range. Traditionally, top speeds in Montréal have been in the 330-340kph bracket – about 60kph higher than Monaco. 

What does carry over from the last race is the ubiquity of the concrete walls and the penalty for running off-line. There really isn’t any margin for error. The infamous Wall of Champions has the notoriety – but the first chicane tends to collect the greater number of scrapes. 

Even without tagging a wall, Montréal is tough on the cars. It’s a heavy fuel race, with a bit of lift-and-coast sometimes required to offset the constant see-saw of braking and acceleration on the short straights of the first two sectors – but the traditional worry for engineers is brake temperature. Unlike the occasional brake issues in Monaco, where the brake systemgets very hot in traffic, because there’s a lack of cooling airflow, the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is all about the discs and pads. There are a sequence of heavy stops but not long distances between them for heat to dissipate. Modern F1 doesn’t go for changing the size of its brake ducts, what does happen is that the internal arrangement of baffles and packers is moved around to maximise cooling. Of course, air that’s used for cooling isn’t being used for downforce, and there’s a temptation to steal back a little bit of performance. It’s a set of sums that is very important to get right, lest the driver require a warning to take it easy in the final third of the race.

Our successes on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve have been mixed – but memorable. It’s a race that we’ve won twice, with Sebastian Vettel in 2013 and then, unforgettably, a year later when Daniel Ricciardo took his maiden F1 victory. While getting over the line is what matters with a debut win, what the team remembers from that day is the gritty overtaking that got Daniel into position, after a very unhappy Saturday left him starting P6. 

Other than the wins, we’ve had an up-down time in Canada. 2008 is poignant with hindsight: unknown to us it was to be David Coulthard’s final F1 podium of a superb career. Following that, Sebastian Vettel took a trio of poles between 2011-2013. The 2011 race is memorable for many reasons. At four hours and four minutes, (there was a long rain delay and a lot of water) it’s the longest F1 race on record. It also left us slightly nonplussed at the flag, as Sebastian led 69 of the 70 laps – including the last lap – but finished second in fairly horrible conditions.

Happily nothing like that on the radar for this weekend.