As rivals close in, Verstappen finds way to win in Montreal

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MONTREAL — If Max Verstappen secures his fourth Formula One world championship with multiple races remaining at the end of this year, it might be easy to forget just how hard he had to fight for it at races like the Canadian Grand Prix. Sunday’s result may have looked routinely predictable to anyone glancing at the results after the chequered flag, but the reality was that it was among the most hard fought of Verstappen’s 60 career wins.

The key to results like Sunday’s — and a Verstappen trait that is so easily overlooked — is his ability to avoid mistakes on an afternoon when tripwires seem to lurk around every corner. Even a rogue groundhog — the likes of which have been known to destroy a front wing at previous Canadian Grands Prix — couldn’t put Verstappen off his stride as he deftly swerved past the startled critter under braking at the end of Lap 31.

As always, credit has to be shared with his Red Bull team, who helped Verstappen negotiate the changing conditions and safety car periods Sunday, but on a weekend when at least six drivers had a car capable of winning, it was once again the runaway championship leader who came out on top.

Did McLaren throw away victory?

In the immediate aftermath of the race, Lando Norris was happy to accept his second-place finish. Just before the first safety car period, he had led the race by more than 10 seconds, only to be shuffled back to third when he missed the opportunity to pit on the first lap under the safety car period.

At first it seemed like simple bad luck. Just as Norris had benefited in Miami when Verstappen had missed the chance to pit under a safety car and the McLaren driver had gone on to win, it seemed like the racing gods had dealt out a remarkably even level of karma to favour the Red Bull driver in Montreal.

As it transpired, though, Norris had not yet passed the pit lane entrance at the moment the safety car period was announced, meaning he had a narrow but sufficient window of 1.5 seconds in which a call could have been made for him to pit and retain the lead of the race.

“We should have won the race today and we didn’t, so frustrating,” Norris said in the postrace news conference. “We had the pace, probably not in the dry at the end, but it turned out it didn’t really matter too much.

“But yeah, we should have won today. Simple as that. We didn’t do a good job, I think, a good enough job as a team to box when we should have done and not get stuck behind the safety car.

“So I don’t think it was a luck or unlucky kind of thing. I don’t think it was the same as Miami. This was just making a wrong call. So, it’s on me and it’s on the team and it’s something we’ll discuss after.

“We should have won today. I think we’re at a level now where we’re not satisfied with a second, like the target is to win. And we didn’t do that. So, frustrating, but a tough race and still to end up in second when it could always finish and could be worse is still a good result.”

Those points were put to McLaren team boss Andrea Stella after the race, who admitted the team should have acted differently with the benefit of hindsight.

“We took a look back at it and there was 1.5 seconds from the time when you need to either turn or go straight [when the safety car was called,” he said. “In hindsight, we could have told the driver that in case of safety car, pit, so he would have just reacted instinctively, but we were monitoring the intensity of the rain, and this intensity in the last few minutes was reducing. So we didn’t want to pit unnecessarily for a new set of inters when this set of inters could have been very good enough in case of very light rain. I think it was much easier for the car behind to do the opposite, for instance, of Lando.

“So I think that is a little bit unlucky, not only with when the safety car was deployed with respect to Lando’s position on track, but also the time of the safety car in the race, because by that time Lando was by far the fastest car on track.”

But Stella believes there was a team that dropped the ball more than McLaren. He pointed to the pace advantage Mercedes had in dry conditions at the end of the race and what that could have resulted in had George Russell exercised a bit more caution over the 60 laps prior.

“Actually I think Mercedes should have finished ahead of Lando today,” he said. “If anything we maximised what was available after the safety car. Without the safety car, Lando could have accumulated such a large advantage that then we could have tried to make it to the end on the dry tyres, but I think Mercedes could have caught up, because they were a few tenths of a second faster today.

“So we really needed a decent advantage to make it safely to the end. But obviously this is a little bit academic, because in a race like this with two or three safety cars, you have to assume that will happen and the weather was around, so we knew it was going to be a race decided by different scenarios.”

Could Mercedes have won?

In the right conditions, the Mercedes was the fastest car in Canada. Verstappen may have been able to match Russell’s pole position time down to a thousandth of a second in qualifying, but in Q2 both Mercedes drivers set times that would have been the standalone fastest (Russell’s by more than 0.25 seconds) had they repeated them in Q3.

In the race, the two Mercedes drivers set fastest laps 0.7 seconds clear of their nearest competitors on the final lap. Part of that advantage was down to the fresh tyres they fitted at an additional pit stop under the second safety car, but it also underlined the performance the Mercedes had in dry conditions.

Combine that pace with the off-track excursions Russell endured attempting to defend the lead from Norris on Lap 22, while missing the apex at Turn 8 on Lap 51 and failing to pass Oscar Piastri on Lap 63, and it’s fair to say the result could have been a lot better.

“It felt like a missed opportunity, to be honest,” Russell said. “We were really quick at the beginning of the race on the inters, and then obviously Lando came through really fast, and then we jumped back onto the slicks, made a couple of mistakes out there, just pushing the limits and paid the price for it.

“But nevertheless, first podium of the year, we truly had a really fast car this weekend, and to be back in the mix fighting for victory was really fun. That’s what Formula One is about, and that’s why we go racing.”

Lewis Hamilton — who qualified seventh and ran as high as third at the end of the race but ultimately lost the last place on the podium to Russell — was even harder on himself.

“Over the weekend just a really poor performance from myself,” he said after the race. “[On Saturday], some other things came into it, mostly myself, and then [Sunday] one of the worst races that I’ve driven, lots of mistakes, but of course if I’d qualified better I would’ve been in a much better position so it is what it is.

“I will go back to the drawing board.”

Team boss Toto Wolff played down the missed opportunity, but perhaps only in the knowledge that the result bodes well for team’s season and its three-year struggle in developing its car.

“Maybe for a few minutes we dreamt about a win,” he said. “But in reality, it probably wasn’t possible.

“Definitely since Imola we have taken the right steps and put parts on the car that are working, and that is something we were struggling with in the past couple of years. Now directionally we seem to be adding performance every weekend and we have new parts coming in Barcelona that should help us, so I would very much hope we can continue the positive trajectory.”

No room for error

The clearest message from Montreal is that for the fourth race in a row, Red Bull was beatable. Albeit to a lesser extent than in Monaco, where Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc emerged victorious, the weaknesses of Red Bull were exposed again in Canada. That made Verstappen’s performance all the more impressive and the errors of his rivals all the more galling.

“That’s a well-earned victory today,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said Sunday evening. “Just look at the restarts, how [Verstappen] was really able to make use of the conditions, he was at the top of his game and working well with the pit wall. I think we made the right calls strategically during the race and we reacted well to what was going on around us, so a very rewarding race to win.”

Red Bull’s rivals are expecting the return to a high-speed, permanent circuit at the next round in Spain to turn the tables back in favour of the championship leaders, but Red Bull is also acutely aware of the strides its competitors have made at recent rounds.

“The last couple of races have been more choppy water for us, but we have still managed to win two out of the last three races,” Horner said. “We managed to win and match the pole time here with a car that both drivers were feeling some deficiencies with, so there is a lot of focus on now to see if we can improve those areas because we know at circuits later in the year, like Singapore, that could be a factor.

“We really expect Ferrari and McLaren certainly, and Mercedes came into that window this weekend, to be competitive at every circuit, so despite the fact we have won six out of the nine races, I think we are going to have to be really at the top of our game to keep eking out a gap.”

For Verstappen, who is now 56 points clear of Leclerc in the standings, the key to victory in Montreal will also be the key to a fourth consecutive world championship at the end of the year.

“It’s definitely more challenging [now] and we were definitely on our toes,” he said. “We cannot afford to make mistakes or even tiny mistakes anymore. Every little detail matters now.”

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