Canadian GP conclusions: Villeneuve v Ricciardo and Russell’s new nickname

Oliver Harden
Max Verstappen raises his arms in celebration in parc ferme with a conclusions banner in the centre

Max Verstappen overcame some familiar Red Bull weaknesses to triumph in Canada

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen claimed his sixth victory of the F1 2024 season in the Canadian Grand Prix at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

Verstappen emerged victorious from a wet-dry race and was joined on the podium by McLaren driver Lando Norris and George Russell of Mercedes. Here are our conclusions from Montreal…

Conclusions from the 2024 Canadian Grand Prix

Max Verstappen and Red Bull will be impossible to beat in any F1 2024 title fight

So, are Red Bull really in a title fight in F1 2024? Some seemed convinced after Monaco.

Less so now, another victory for Verstappen – his 50th in 75 races stretching back to the start of his maiden title-winning season in 2021 – restoring his points lead over Charles Leclerc to a more comfortable 56.

When the question was first posed to him before Monaco that Red Bull might not have it all their own way after all in F1 2024, Verstappen told media including that the team would be “very dangerous” and “very tough” to beat in a World Championship showdown.

Why? Because they “don’t make many mistakes”, for one, but also because of their recent experience of competing at the front.

Winning, they say, is a habit. Winning breeds winning. And the more you win, the more practiced you become at it.

Ferrari and McLaren may be two of the grandest names in F1 history, yet – both without a World Championship of any kind since 2008 – in their current state are relatively immature teams compared to a battle-hardened Red Bull.

In much the same way Leclerc and Norris, with just seven grand prix victories between them, are relatively immature (in success terms) drivers compared to Verstappen.

Norris and McLaren both conspiring to miss the pit entry when the Safety Car was deployed in Canada, having built an eight-second lead from third on the grid in the first stint?

The latest sign that those winning instincts – that gift of always, always, always making the right decision in any given split-second scenario – are yet to be fully honed by Red Bull’s main competitors.

It wasn’t long ago that Verstappen himself was in the Norris/Leclerc position too, at the foot of the mountain hoping against hope of taking the fight to an all-conquering Lewis Hamilton.

Now, as he stands as King Max III, his decisive performance across the Canadian Grand Prix weekend was a demonstration of how far he has come in relatively little time.

With Red Bull still struggling with the same vices they had over bumps and kerbs in Monaco, Verstappen’s lap for second on the grid – an absolute dead heat with Russell, Max behind only because he set his 1:12.000 a little later – was far more gutsy and impressive than it looked and perhaps flattered the RB20.

Yet it was his measured performance in the race – judging when to survive, particularly in those uncertain conditions in the early laps, and when to go in for the kill – that captured his true value to Red Bull.

Red Bull were vulnerable here, Max never quite comfortable with the car as evidenced by his radio message in the closing stages that he was having to avoid the kerbs at all costs.

Yet, as at Imola three weeks ago, in Verstappen they have the perfect driver to overcome the car’s flaws and haul a victory over the line through sheer force of will and by any means necessary.

In conditions in which errors were unavoidable, it was somehow inevitable that the combination of Max and Red Bull would make the fewest of all.

“I believe that the Verstappen factor will be decisive on tracks that are less favourable for us,” Red Bull’s Helmut Marko said recently. “He is in top form and makes the difference.

“There is no other driver who can drive at the limit on every lap of the race without making mistakes.”

Exhibit A: Canada 2024.

Daniel Ricciardo vs Jacques Villeneuve: The truth hurts

The F1 paddock is a small world. Hence why television pundits, on the whole, are far less likely to voice strident opinions compared to those in other sports.

The risk of a tap on the shoulder, followed by an uncomfortable conversation, once the cameras stop rolling is too great. Some of the current drivers are even considered close friends of those on screen.

So rather than honest and authentic views, instead we are presented with a bunch of PR people masquerading as pundits – you know the ones – who deal only in “he’ll be hoping for a good race today” platitudes.

Considered analysis? More like the bland leading the bland.

So think twice before you criticise ‘motormouths’ like Nico Rosberg and Jacques Villeneuve, men who have achieved so much that they can afford to be unconcerned about upsetting folk, whose own experiences of F1 have quite possibly seen them develop a healthy natural cynicism of the sport and the people within it.

There is not much bridge to burn here. And if there is, they don’t care anyway. That distance affords them a crucial freedom in the primary mission to serve their audiences.

Jacques Villeneuve vs Daniel Ricciardo

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Villeneuve’s first – hopefully not last – appearance as a Sky UK pundit was defined by a weekend-long back and forth with Daniel Ricciardo, whose fifth place in qualifying made him entitled to snap back at his observations.

Yet Villeneuve’s critique – in particular the assertion that Ricciardo’s image has kept him in F1 more than his results – honed in on a truth some have been thinking for years but few have been brave enough to say.

Since he returned to racing almost a year ago, Ricciardo has occasionally dropped tacit hints that deep down he knows exactly where it all went wrong following his departure from Red Bull at the end of 2018 – that he allowed himself to become distracted by the trappings of fame and the lure of building a brand and ended up becoming more Instagram influenza than racing driver.

Look no further than his first race back with AlphaTauri in Hungary last July, when he spoke revealingly to media including of the need to go back to basics, focus only on the driving and rediscover the simple joy of racing again.

Much attention has been paid to the headline quotes of Ricciardo’s response to Villeneuve – most notably his dietary advice (“eat s**t”) and the suggestion that he has “hit his head a few many times” playing ice hockey – yet far more telling was a remark from his immediate post-qualifying interview.

“Maybe 10 years ago it came easier,” Ricciardo told Sky F1.

“Maybe when you’re a kid, you just jump in and drive. And the older you get, the more things around your life are involved and can maybe interfere.”

Villeneuve’s words may have touched a nerve and Ricciardo may have even used them as fuel for arguably his best qualifying performances since his mid-2023 comeback.

But that, right there, was an admission from Daniel that the likes of JV are on to something.

There’s a great driver in George Russell just waiting to be coaxed out

Everyone knows what to expect from George Russell by now.

If there’s a bold strategy call crying out to be made, George is your man. If there’s an overtake to be tried around the outside, however unlikely it may seem, give G-RUS a call.

Better to give it a shot and die trying than sit there wondering in second or third.

He is the have-a-go hero of modern F1, looking to impose himself on each and every situation almost as a matter of principle.

Mr Saturday? That nickname is so 2021.

Instead call him Mr One-Hundred Per Cent, giving 100 per cent – full throttle, all-out attack, no guts, no glory – 100 per cent of the time.

His attacking style is a huge part of his appeal and served him particularly well at Williams, where it seemed at times that he could do no wrong, yet it may partly explain why he has not developed quite as well as hoped since joining Mercedes.

For every moment like his pole lap on Saturday – oozing confidence and bravery and spirit – there is a race like Sunday: error-ridden, scruffy to the point of desperate and guilty of pushing things a little too hard.

At their best, drivers of Russell’s front-footed temperament and spikier inputs are capable of greater heights than most, but also prone to a certain inconsistency that ultimately risks holding them back from accessing their full potential.

Mercedes’ competitive state since Russell’s arrival has not helped in that sense, resulting in him overreaching at times (see Singapore 2023) in his determination to bring success back to the team.

Yet if he is to step forward as the driver to lead Mercedes into life after Lewis over the long term, it is crucial that Russell – now in his sixth full season, the point at which Verstappen was gearing up for his first title challenge – finds a way to temper his natural aggression and achieve the kind of balance Max has found over recent years.

Do that and the sky is the limit.

New contracts for Sergio Perez and Yuki Tsunoda won’t stop the noise

Strictly speaking, Red Bull had no need to confirm at any stage last year that Sergio Perez would be staying with the team for F1 2024.

His contract – a two-year deal announced in the aftermath of his 2022 Monaco Grand Prix victory – still had a year left to run and any talk of him being replaced before this season was technically in the realms of the superfluous.

Didn’t feel that way, though.

Not when Christian Horner and Helmut Marko were being constantly asked if Perez would still – definitely, 100 per cent, just to be sure – be a Red Bull Racing driver in 2024, answering that question with varying degrees of (un)certainty on the back of his most recent (under)performance.

They gave him the stick last year, bringing back Ricciardo from the cold in a clear message to Perez that the team were prepared to consider alternatives if his mid-season slump could not be arrested – contract or no contract.

This time? They have settled on the carrot, signing him to another new two-year deal ahead of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Retaining Perez, it is said, is the stable option at a time so much instability has had potential to unsteady Red Bull, a timely and welcome boost of confidence just as his season was threatening to drift once again.

Yet as he continues to be so alarmingly off the pace of Verstappen, the new contract will only stop the noise for so long.

After failing to reach Q3 for the third race in succession – out in Q1 for the second weekend in a row – and destroyed his rear wing with a poor mistake on a drying track on race day, Perez’s season now has a distinct air of 2023.

And it has the potential to only get worse from here, with the next three races all at circuits (Barcelona, Spielberg, Silverstone) where he qualified outside the top 10 last season.

Red Bull could get away with it last year with a car so dominant and Verstappen so irresistible, yet in the face of an ever-growing threat from Ferrari and McLaren they simply cannot afford for Perez to become a passenger again.

Now, more than at any stage since 2021, they need him to be the shield to Max’s sword, performing the traditional wingman role and taking points away from the likes of Leclerc and Norris at every opportunity.

It is inconceivable that Red Bull can tolerate such patchy performances all the way until the end of 2026.

Another development in the driver market occurred at Red Bull shortly before qualifying in Montreal as RB confirmed that Yuki Tsunoda will remain with the team for F1 2025.

Tsunoda’s extension comes at a curious time after he had publicly flirted with the possibility with leaving Red Bull over recent weeks for the sake of his long-term career prospects amid reported interest from teams – including Sauber/Audi – in the bottom half of the field.

And it now creates the very real possibility of Red Bull losing Liam Lawson – potentially the most gifted of the three drivers on RB’s books – if Horner and Co. cannot bring themselves to let Ricciardo go.

So does Tsunoda’s new deal really lock him in for 2025? Or does it simply drive up the price interested teams would have to pay to sign him?

You might recall that RB (then AlphaTauri) announced a new deal for Pierre Gasly around this time two years ago, only for him join Alpine as Fernando Alonso’s replacement less than four months later.

The moral of the story? F1 contracts are made to be broken.

Far from marking the end of a conversation, then, these new deals for Perez and Tsunoda might end up being the start of one instead.

Can’t the F1 2026 rules be delayed?

How ironic that the closest qualifying session for more than 25 years – as well as the most exciting race of the season to date –  should come on the weekend that F1 offers a glimpse into its brave new world.

It wasn’t just the 1:12.000 stand-off for pole position between Russell and Verstappen that made the heart leap, but the sight of five different teams occupying the top-six positions on the grid and three represented on the podium on race day.

After convincing victories for McLaren and Ferrari in Miami and Monaco respectively over recent weeks, there is a growing sense after two-and-a-half largely timid Max-a-thon years that F1’s current rules are finally being brought to the boil.

Convergence? It’s happening right now and before our very eyes.

Almost out of nowhere, after a dreary start to 2024 during which the racing seemed to be detracting from the more exciting stuff off the track, F1 suddenly feels alive again.

So it would be so very typical of this sport to throw that all away just as the spectacle threatens to thrill once more.

The general consensus among the teams and drivers, following the presentation of the proposed F1 2026 rule changes in Canada, is that there is much work still to be done.

There is much scepticism over whether the planned weight reduction of 30 kilograms is achievable and an uncomfortable feeling that the chassis regulations have been devised primarily to make up for the shortcomings of the engine rules.

Fears have been aired that the shape-shifting cars of the future will be sorely lacking downforce, too quick on the straights and not fast enough through the corners.

And for heaven’s sake, has nobody stopped to consider what might happen if the active aerodynamics on these 2026 transformers fail on the approach to 130R at Suzuka?

Teams spoke optimistically in Montreal about ironing out the flaws in the rules as they stand, yet it seems the smartest thing of all would be to delay the changes by a year to ensure the path F1 is heading down is the correct one for its future.

If only it were that simple, however, with the regulations set to be officially ratified by the World Motor Sport Council as soon as June 28.

And try asking Audi to hold on for another 12 months, having long since committed to buying the current Sauber team, or the rest of the engine manufacturers who all had input on the form 2026 will take.

It is at times like this that you recall that 2021 – arguably the greatest season in F1 history and a significant factor behind the sport’s surge in popularity over recent times – was a happy accident, the consequences of Covid delaying the introduction of the ground-effect cars and crucially ensuring the previous rules were allowed to mature to deliver one more blockbuster year.

Don’t cry because your favourite driver was denied an eighth title by Michael Masi in Abu Dhabi.

Smile because it happened, for if Formula 1 had its own way 2021 would have been the first year of ground effect, we would have passed seamlessly from an era of Mercedes dominance to Red Bull dominance and that glorious season-long slug fest between Verstappen and Hamilton would never have even happened.

We have to remember these days, a former World Champion once said, because there is no guarantee that they will last forever. Enjoy them as long as they last.

Alas, it will not be long before 2026 arrives and those gaps between the teams – now compellingly tight, close enough for the drivers to make the difference – widen again.

F1, eh? A sport forever destined to keep getting in its own way.

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