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Will it be Leclerc's time in Canada?

"Leclerc feels like someone on the tipping point of success"

By Ben Edwards,
C4F1 commentator

The Canadian Grand Prix is one of the most characterful events on the Formula 1 calendar. The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, named after the country’s greatest racing driver, is located on an island in the St Lawrence River, combining parkland and Olympic rowing lakes – and the odd building still standing from the World’s Fair Expo of 1967. Within a stone’s throw of lively Montreal, this is a great place to watch a motor race.

It has delivered plenty of drama over the past four decades and some standout performances. Eleven years after his one and only victory in F1, I wonder how Robert Kubica will feel about making his racing return to Montreal this weekend?

From the low of a huge accident in 2007 to the high of victory one year later, this venue has his signature all over it. But Kubica is such an emotionally controlled individual that I doubt he’ll want to wallow in memories. 

He was rightly proud of delivering a solid run in Monaco last time out, but the current Williams car is sadly giving neither he nor George Russell any chance to shine. All they can do is beat each other – and on this occasion, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kubica out-qualifies his teammate for the first time this year. Perhaps the magic of leading home a BMW Sauber one-two in 2008 might still linger all this time later.

Home from Home?

Kubica is not the only driver to have enjoyed his first, and so far only, win in Montreal. Jean Alesi did the same in 1995, and being a French speaker the Ferrari man always felt right at home in this part of Quebec. 

Charles Leclerc might feel the same when he gets into the weekend. A fortnight after the despair suffered in his home race in Monaco, he could well enjoy that sense of welcome, especially being a Ferrari driver. Indeed, David Coulthard mentioned in commentary that his antics of trying to get back to the pits with a flailing tyre were very much in the style of Gilles Villeneuve, Canada’s F1 hero of the 1970s and early ’80s, who took his first win for Ferrari on the Île Notre-Dame. Could the parallels continue on Sunday? 

Leclerc’s time surely has to come soon. The Bahrain race should have been his, Monaco qualifying was ruined by his Ferrari strategists, but he feels like someone on the tipping point of success, as long as he can keep his composure. 

Out of sorts

He wasn’t the one to crash in practice in Monaco; that was his team-mate Sebastian Vettel on the Saturday morning, and in many ways Vettel was fortunate that he avoided a face-off with his teammate in the last segment of qualifying. 

The Vettel we have been watching this year seems disconnected from the Vettel that won in Canada 12 months ago, from a pole position snatched by just 0.09sec from Valtteri Bottas. Where is that artful qualifier, capable of delivering a lap time that has everyone aghast? Where is that faultless precision that saw him win nine races in a row in 2013? Is he about to be upstaged once again, at the venue where Daniel Ricciardo earned his first win as Vettel’s Red Bull teammate in 2014? 

It’s beyond time for the old Vettel, unbeatable on his day, to hit back – if he’s still got it in him.

A crucial phase

There have been six races held so far this year, and all six have been won by Mercedes. Over the next eight weeks, six more will take us to Hungary at the beginning of August. 

This is a massively important phase in the season, not only from the point of view of racking up the points and solidifying positions in the championship, but also for being the time of year when teams start to plan ahead. Designers are already sketching out ideas on how to improve the cars for next year, and drivers’ performances over these races will be even more critical as contracts come up for renewal.

You would think that Bottas has done more than enough to warrant an extension to his deal at Mercedes, and surely he deserves a long-term arrangement at last rather than working from year to year. But Esteban Ocon remains in the background for the team and Russell wants a leg-up from Williams. Nothing is ever certain in F1.

Missing the point

At Racing Point, Sergio Perez has been delivering the mature performances one would expect from such an experienced campaigner, but Lance Stroll has been disappointing at his new team. He’s been eliminated from the first stage of qualifying at every event, and beaten by his teammate for single-lap pace on each occasion.

The Canadian has it all to prove over this next sequence and no doubt he’ll be under extra scrutiny from the local press this weekend. Last year he crashed out of his home race on lap one and has since joined the outfit co-owned by his father. 

Within the team, I sense there is still the belief that he can deliver and there’s a genuine desire for him to do well, as his father saved them from debt and is happy to invest for the future. But there are few hiding places in F1 and if Stroll doesn’t step up to the plate, seasoned observers will begin to take the team less seriously, and that will have its own knock-on effects. 

So join us on Sunday evening for the Canadian Grand Prix, a race we always relish. As for the favourite to win, just check the numbers: Lewis Hamilton heads to the seventh race of the season on 77 career victories, the first of which was here in 2007 – and now he seeks his seventh pole and seventh win in Montreal. 

What’s that they say about seven being a lucky number?

Tune in to Channel 4 for highlights of qualifying for the Canadian Grand Prix on Saturday 8th June at 10:50pm with the race highlights on Sunday 9th June from 11pm.