A wet Canadian GP qualifying session delivered a very familiar result but a few surprises along the way as Red Bull’s Max Verstappen clinched his fifth pole position of the F1 2023 season.
Verstappen will start Sunday’s race from the front row alongside Fernando Alonso after Nico Hulkenberg, who shone on a rainy day in the Haas, saw his P2 demoted to P5.
The Haas man was handed a three-place grid penalty by the stewards for going too slowly under red flag conditions.
Here are the main winners and losers from Montreal qualifying…
There was once a time when rain was regarded as Formula 1’s great leveller. Not anymore.
If anything, these days it makes the advantage of the leading driver – be it Lewis Hamilton in a Mercedes a few years ago or Max Verstappen in the Red Bull now – over the opposition, normally considerable, seem borderline unfair.
Verstappen’s gap to the driver in second spot on this occasion? Just 1.2 seconds.
Red Bull had been concerned about the pace of their rivals – in particular Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari – after an underwhelming showing in Friday practice, but Red Bull are Red Bull and Max is Max.
There was just no way the state of play would remain the same on Saturday, not with time overnight to identify and implement solutions.
Verstappen’s table-topping FP3 performance felt like the resumption of normal service and that was carried into qualifying, Max’s natural touch and feel for the racing car – and grip in these conditions – making Red Bull’s Friday worries fade away.
Positioned at the front of the queue by Red Bull at the start of Q3, fully aware this was likely to be his one and only shot at pole, Verstappen delivered. As ever.
And, as if to illustrate his advantage over the rest, he was the only driver to dip into the 1m25s during Q3 as those behind dabbled in the 27s.
He starts from the prime position to bring home Red Bull’s 100th grand prix victory on Sunday.
This is why Haas brought Nico Hulkenberg back to Formula 1.
Other drivers may be more adept as seizing opportunities – hence his unwanted record of never having set foot on an F1 podium – but few drivers are better at creating and manufacturing them.
When it comes to the very act of driving The Lap in mixed conditions – being a racing driver, feeling the grip, instinctively knowing the precise rates of input through the hands and feet – there are few you’d want more in your car than Hulkenberg.
You trust him, even at 35, to extract the maximum from his car in a way others (sorry, Mick…) cannot be relied upon.
This was a good venue for Haas last year, the team locking out the third row of the grid in the wet, but comparisons to that weekend undersell a lap by Hulkenberg that was every inch as good as team-mate Kevin Magnussen’s pole in Brazil.
Even sweeter that the Hulk crossed the line for P2 just moments before the red flags came out for Oscar Piastri’s crash.
His subsequent penalty should not take anything away from the quality of his performance.
It sounds like the simple thing, but it is remarkable how so few of sport’s no-hopers dare to try something different.
If you are happen to be carrying a fundamental weakness compared to the opposition – in this case an F1 car with a painfully basic floor design lacking raw downforce – it makes sense to think out of the box, to make aggressive decisions, to do something different almost for the very sake of being different.
Better to try and fail than die wondering.
The cognoscenti will point to the influence of team principal and former Mercedes strategist James Vowles, but in reality Williams have sought to be bold for quite some time now stretching back to George Russell’s top-three starts at Spa/Sochi 2021.
That mindset delivered again – albeit not to the same extent – here as Alex Albon became the first driver to try the soft tyres on a drying track in Q2.
The result? P1 and only a second Q3 appearance of 2023.
Albon, who continues to toe the line between triumph and disaster, did not record a time in the top 10 after cutting the chicane on what proved to be his only attempt in Q3.
Yet for the briefest moment, Williams were back on top in F1 and all was well with the world again.
Red Bull are Red Bull, Max is Max… and Ferrari are Ferrari.
Helmut Marko is not one to freely hand out compliments to Red Bull’s rivals but F1’s answer to Dr Evil appeared to be quaking in his boots after Friday practice, so alarmed by a Leclerc long run just 0.15s slower than Verstappen’s that he mentioned it twice in the same interview.
Yet Leclerc – now very much at the stage of hoping for the best while fully expecting the worst from Ferrari – was prescient in his calls for calm after FP2.
Yes, he said, it was a good Friday – Ferrari’s best of 2023 to date in fact – but tomorrow would bring different conditions and new challenges.
It was almost as though he knew exactly what was coming.
It has been clear for some time – amid reports of assurances being sought from the Ferrari president – that Leclerc is reaching the end of his patience with the team, the decision to deny him a slick-tyre run in Q2 the latest in a long line of obtuse calls from the pit wall under a vast array of team principals.
If Fred Vasseur was brought in to do anything, surely it was to put an end to days like this.
And what of Leclerc’s team-mate Carlos Sainz? From his inelegant crash in FP3 to the numerous impeding offences – only a three-place grid penalty? – he was a lost cause all day.
Just one of many at Ferrari right now…
At this point, it’s all becoming quite predictable.
If conditions are anything but perfect for qualifying, the chances are that Sergio Perez will find some way to trip himself up.
He wasn’t entirely at fault on this occasion, of course – Red Bull committing a Ferrari-esque mistake of getting the tyre choice wrong for the conditions, while simultaneously always managing to make the correct calls with Verstappen – but it comes amid a broader period of severe underachievement by Perez.
In what is increasingly regarded as one of the most brilliant cars in the history of Formula 1, it is unacceptable for him to have made Q3 at only half of the opening eight rounds of 2023.
Following his high-profile mistakes in Monaco and Spain in recent weeks this will only intensify the scrutiny on him but, from Red Bull’s perspective, has the welcome effect of making Max’s life considerably more straightforward – a challenging circle to square for those whose natural reaction to an underperforming driver is to question his future.
At least 12th in qualifying for Perez is an improvement on last year’s P13 in Montreal – and didn’t require a trudge through the local greenery in order to make it back to the pits.
Does Lance Stroll have a touch of the Sergio Perezs? Or does Sergio Perez have a nasty bout of the Lance Strolls?
Either way, it doesn’t take a huge amount to knock Stroll off his axis too.
The difference? More people expect it of Lance than they do of Checo.
Having failed to reach Q3 at three of the last four races, Stroll is now performing how most would have expected Lance Stroll to perform alongside Fernando Alonso in 2023 – sometimes right there, usually not, occasionally looking like he’s free to do as he pleases as Alonso gets on with the serious business of leading Aston Martin forward.
Stroll’s father and Aston Martin team owner Lawrence had targeted two cars on the podium for his home race this weekend – an ambition that seemed awfully bold when he said it and ludicrous when his son parked up in P13 in qualifying.
Stroll’s performances are not the only worry, with early indications in Montreal that Aston’s major upgrade package – designed to reduce the car’s drag – has brought only a marginal improvement in straight-line performance.
The other similarity Stroll shares with Perez? His lacklustre form will almost certainly have no consequences on his future with the team.
More’s the pity.
Our third and final entry into the ‘Why Always Me?’ club, Pierre Gasly shares Perez and Strolls capacity to find – and occasionally go looking for – trouble.
Gasly was very much the unlucky one of the trio in Canada – encountering a slow-moving Sainz at the final chicane in the closing moments of Q1, his lap ruined through no fault of his own – and doubtless there will be some aghast by his presence in the losers section. It really wasn’t his fault, after all…
But again, why always him?
This was the third time in eight races that Gasly has fallen in Q1, in an improving Alpine good enough for the podium in the hands of Esteban Ocon in Monaco last month.
And if it’s not a slow-moving Sainz, as was the case here, it’s a slow-moving Gasly – as was the case in Barcelona, where he lost a brilliant P4 on the grid after picking up two three-place grid penalties for two separate impeding incidents, one of which involved Sainz!
In that context, his call over team radio in the heat of the moment for Sainz to receive a race ban was a bit rich.
Gasly is destined to be a driver to whom something always happens. And when that something does happen, it often snowballs.