A conversation last weekend with a Lotus team insider raised an interesting point. He believed that had Romain Grosjean not backed off at the first corner of the Canadian Grand Prix, he might have scored his debut win.
You can’t really blame Romain for being a little circumspect at the race start. Despite never qualifying lower than 10th all season, in three out of his six starts before Montreal he hadn’t made it beyond the opening lap.
In Melbourne, Malaysia and Monaco the Frenchman was out almost before the race began. In Montreal, Grosjean headed into the tight opening chicane in seventh place and probably rightly, left Massa and Rosberg ahead of him a little room.
Behind him Paul di Resta had no such scruples, neatly nipping down the inside of Grosjean’s Lotus and grabbing the place. The problem was that di Resta’s Force India was rapidly in tyre trouble and as the Scot defended his position, Grosjean and the pursuing pack lost vital ground to the leaders.
Once past him, of course, Grosjean drove a perfectly paced race to move ahead of Webber and Rosberg, then passed double world champions Vettel and Alonso to claim a career-best second place, so it wasn’t too bad a day in the office. But had it not been for that initial delay, the team are sure they had the pace to beat Hamilton.
So what are the black and gold cars’ prospects as we head toward the European Grand Prix? Certainly the omens look positive.
Raikkonen, on his last visit in 2009, claimed third place for Ferrari and the Valencia track, which unlike other street circuits contains some very quick corners, will suit the Lotus-Renault’s user-friendly handling. In addition, the track is tough on tyre wear, which, as Grosjean proved in Canada, is a Lotus strong point.
As tyre performance has continued to be a defining feature in this year’s world championship, it is interesting to see how the various teams are reacting to the scenario. It is notable that while the sport’s big spenders, including McLaren, Mercedes and Red Bull, seem to always grumble about it, others, including Lotus, Sauber and Williams, see this variability as an opportunity.
Achieving the narrow window of temperature and degradation of the Pirelli tyres is taxing drivers and engineers alike. McLaren are reported to have even been blowing hot air from their cars’ brakes across the wheel to aid tyre warm-up. Certainly tyre performance seems to now be even as important as the teams’ multi-million dollar aerodynamic departments.
Of course, if you have spent most of the last decade investing millions in one department, then find another area of the car’s performance becoming critical, it is probably natural to get a bit miffed. It was particularly pleasing therefore to hear Peter Sauber last week being as passionate as the rest of us race fans about what a great season it has become.
The owner of the Swiss-based team was delighted that his driver and protégé Sergio Perez had delivered another blinder of a race in Montreal, charging through the field from 15th place at the start to third at the chequered flag. Sauber now also believes that his team has a strong chance of beating either Ferrari or Mercedes to fourth place in this year’s Constructors’ Championship.
To do that he will also have to contend with Renault and maybe Williams and Force India too. It means that just outside the top four teams, we have an equally exciting battle brewing.
Meanwhile, this weekend at Valencia, it will be hard to choose the top three. Will it be an in-form Hamilton, or a third Valencia win in a row for Vettel?
Or Alonso on home ground, or his Ferrari teammate and 2008 winner Massa.
Or could it be the turn of either ‘Ice Man’ Kimi Raikkonen, or Lotus Renault’s new Romain gladiator?
(Steve Slater is an F1 race commentator on STAR Sports)