All eyes will be one team in Canada – and it’s not Mercedes

Oliver Harden
Start of the Spanish Grand Prix. Barcelona, June 2023. Results

Start of the Spanish Grand Prix. Barcelona, June 2023.

The first rule of working with Fernando Alonso? Fernando gets what Fernando wants.

This weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix, then, has the potential to mark the end of the honeymoon between Alonso and his new team Aston Martin, poised to welcome a much-needed upgrade package at Montreal.

They have come so far already – finding two seconds in six months with a car that’s “half ours,” as Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team boss, so memorably put it back in Bahrain – but how much further can they go, at least in 2023, as they manage the transition to a new factory?

Will the necessity to put the pieces in place for the team’s long-term prosperity inevitably come at the cost of the here and now? Or is the AMR23, on the podium at all but two of the first seven races, built to last?

Aston Martin’s least competitive performance of the season had the misfortune of coming at Alonso’s home round in Barcelona, but may not have been quite so tough to take had Fernando not sounded the alarm in the build-up to the weekend.

With Mercedes and Ferrari making very visible changes to their cars in recent weeks, finally reversing out of the developmental cul de sacs of their winter’s work, Alonso spoke of the need for Aston Martin to react – and with some degree of urgency – or risk being left behind.

At first glance, the layout of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve does not appear to suit a car that has struggled for straight-line speed so far this season, but with pretty much half the lap covered by DRS zones these days, teams can afford to run with more raw downforce here than in the past.

Might that, combined with the upgrade and a little luck, be enough to put Alonso in a position to spring a surprise against the dominant Red Bull of Max Verstappen?

A reminder that it was here in 2014 that Daniel Ricciardo – in a chronically underpowered, eternally unreliable and heavily unfancied Red Bull-Renault – ended Mercedes’ 100 per cent start to the season, albeit only after Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg ran into reliability trouble.

And what of Alonso’s team-mate and local boy Lance Stroll?

He, with great predictably, came in for criticism after a troubling couple of races in Miami and Monaco, but sixth in Spain last time out had the feel of a stabilising, restorative result ahead of his home race.

In all likelihood, though, Verstappen and Red Bull – winners here in 2022 – will reassume their role as the ones to beat.

If the RB19 at times seemed almost specifically designed for the high-speed corners of Barcelona, just how much will Max’s raging Red Bull revel in the extreme emphasis on DRS in Canada given the car’s well-documented advantage on the straights?

Realistically, all roads lead to win number six of 2023 for Verstappen at a circuit where the numerous traction episodes should offer team-mate Sergio Perez – strangely missing in action in Montreal 12 months ago – an opportunity to pull himself out of his recent crisis of confidence.

With a first two-car podium finish of 2023 achieved in Barcelona, where George Russell made a weirdly routine recovery to third from 12th on the grid, Mercedes were as quick as ever to announce they were back in business.

Yet with Alonso among the first to point out that the competitive order behind Red Bull – upgrades pending – is highly likely to fluctuate from race to race, which Mercedes will turn up in Canada?

This, remember, was one of Merc’s more bruising races of 2022 and the scene of Mr Wolff’s rant in the team principals’ meeting made famous by Drive to Survive.

And while the Spanish GP weekend finished happily ever after, lest we forget that Hamilton openly doubted his own chances of even making Q3 at the end of the first day of running. recommends

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“The car feels like the car,” Lewis shrugged in the way that has become all too familiar over the last 18 months after Friday practice in Barcelona.

At this stage, and with such a small sample size, only a fool – or, maybe, an F1 team increasingly desperate to continue to be regarded as a major force – would declare Mercedes to be indisputably on the right track.

The same can be said of Ferrari, who at last hauled themselves out of the bathtub sidepod concept in Barcelona with, at best, inconclusive results.

Carlos Sainz may have started on the front row in Spain, but that was more a function of his unmatched ability to generate tyre temperature on a cold tyres and the hardest of tyre compounds than a sign of a Ferrari breakthrough, while Charles Leclerc was anchorless adrift all weekend long.

Sainz finished within a second of Verstappen in Canada last year and after the Scuderia’s success at Le Mans, with a complete and self-assured all-round team performance that put the F1 operation to shame, Ferrari would surely settle for a similar result on this occasion.

Having spent so much of this season seemingly in a state of crisis, meanwhile, are Alpine set to intrude on the Aston Martin/Mercedes/Ferrari battle?

Any thought that the team would revert to their normal level after Esteban Ocon’s podium in Monaco was blown apart when the Alpines qualified fourth and seventh – and then added more valuable points to their tally – at a wildly different track in Spain.

At a circuit where a certain F. Alonso started from the front row last year, there is more gold to be had potentially if Ocon and Pierre Gasly can stay out of the wars.

That, regrettably, is something Lando Norris was unable to do on the opening lap in Spain, his collision with Hamilton at Turn 2 condemning him to a lonely race at the back and torturing thoughts of what could have been.

The great tragedy here? That almost certainly spared him from the even grimmer fate of sinking without trace down the order to reveal the true extent of McLaren’s current woes.

With drag a clear and unshifting weakness of the existing McLaren package, Norris and Oscar Piastri could quite conceivably be Q1 fodder in Canada. A repeat of Miami, where they lined up 16th and 19th, is not out of the question.

A repeat of Miami, meanwhile, would come in handy down at Haas, who haven’t scored a point since Kevin Magnussen’s P10 in Florida. Romain Grosjean’s 10th place in 2017 remains the only point the American team have ever scored in Canada in five previous visits.

For fellow Ferrari customers Alfa Romeo, the Canadian GP marked a pivotal point in their 2022 season.

After getting both cars in the top 10 in Montreal, Alfa went six races without scoring as the team lagged behind in the development race.

Their strong start to the season – with only two non-scores from the first nine races – was still good enough for Alfa to secure their best finish in the Constructors’ Championship in years with sixth place.

Yet with just eight points so far this year – notwithstanding Zhou Guanyu’s gritty drive to ninth in Spain where Valtteri Bottas was again anonymous – a repeat of their 2022 feat feels increasingly unlikely.

Yuki Tsunoda didn’t exactly cover himself in glory upon his first visit to Canada last year, driving out of the pit lane and straight into the wall to trigger the late Safety Car that threatened Verstappen’s victory.

He is a different driver this season, though, with AlphaTauri team-mate Nyck de Vries also showing signs of life in the more familiar surroundings of Monaco and Barcelona – yet might a trip to Montreal herald a return of De Vries’ early season struggles?

On the podium here as recently as 2016, it has been difficult to take Williams seriously since photographs from the various Monaco crash sites exposed the floor of their car – the absolute key to performance in this modern ground-effect era – as positively pre-historic.

The lack of technical sophistication may not hurt them quite so much on the flat-out blasts in Canada, where the emphasis will be on Alex Albon and Logan Sargeant – occasionally fast but infuriatingly erratic – to keep it clean in the pursuit of rare points.

Can’t help but think, though, that if this weekend plays out true to form there is a spot on the Wall of Champions – or, for that matter, every other wall that lines this grand old circuit – with their names on it…