MONTREAL – A heavy downpour and a drying track has been a box office combination at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve before and it proved to be so again Saturday.
Max Verstappen claimed a dominant pole position, Fernando Alonso made a popular return to the front row of the grid and Lewis Hamilton delivered an impressive result just six days after he was barely able to climb out of the cockpit of his car in Baku.
Here’s a run down of some of the main talking points from qualifying for the first Canadian Grand Prix since 2019.
Vintage Alonso shows what all the fuss is about
The only disappointing thing about Alonso qualifying second – his first front row start since the 2012 German Grand Prix – was that he wasn’t on pole.
F1 has welcomed a legion of new fans over the past few years and performances like this are helpful in conveying just how good Alonso is. There are many in the paddock who still consider the Spaniard the now complete driver of this modern era, even if they haven’t won a grand prix since 2013.
It is remarkable that a career which included ending Michael Schumacher’s run of five straight championships in the mid-2000s also had a 10 year gap between front row starts, but that is one of the many quirks which has made Alonso such a compelling and, at times, frustrating driver to follow for all these years.
Alonso has delivered plenty of impressive performances in F1 since returning to the grid last year with the Alpine team formerly known as Renault, but this might be the best of the bunch.
The French team’s car has been slowing steady improvements in recent races and Alonso was delivering strong times throughout practice this week.
Alonso, world champion in 2005 and 2006, clearly wants to have some fun at the start of the race.
After stepping out of the car, they flashed a grin and said “I think we’ll attack Max on the first corner!”, A statement he repeated more seriously in the press conference which followed.
In an ordinary race Alonso has little chance of hanging out with Verstappen and Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, who starts from third, but he has put himself in a perfect position to capitalize on any major drama out in front.
Joy for Hamilton, Russell’s gamble backfires
Qualifying flipped what has been the usual narrative at Mercedes for much of this season, with Hamilton on form and George Russell left wondering what might have been after failing to utilize the potential of his car and the situation.
Some of the greatest performances of Hamilton’s career have been in wet or drying conditions and he rose to the occasion again Saturday, qualifying fourth.
Hamilton was in a jubilee fashion after the session, smiling and pumping his fist as they got to the interview area for the written media.
“Ah, I can’t tell you how happy I am,” a beaming Hamilton said as he arrived before referencing the work he and trainer Angela Cullen have done this week to ensure he is fully healthy to race this weekend.
Hamilton suffered severe back pain from the violent bouncing his car was doing at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix last week.
“Me and Ange had the biggest hug at the back of the garage because we’ve both been working so hard. This past week was a real challenge and I’m real grateful to have her with me to work through the pain and to get my body right. “
Like Alonso, Hamilton does not expect to challenge Verstappen in normal circumstances but it was clear how much the qualifying result meant to him.
“To come here with the car … we’re still struggling, in the dry we’re still a long way off, but to get top four in qualifying in these conditions is awesome.”
He added: “Feels very, very similar to doing my first qualifying in Australia in 2007, in terms of excitement.”
Remarkably for a man with more pole positions than anyone in the history of the sport, fourth on the grid is Hamilton’s best qualifying performance in nine races.
While Hamilton’s form has been up and down all year, teammate George Russell has been Mr. Consistent all year but they will start from eighth on Sunday.
Russell deserves credit for rolling the dice in the final minutes as the only driver to risk switching to dry tires, which was a classic ‘win-it-or-bin-it’ kind of decision. Ultimately, it didn’t work, with the standing water at Turn 1 catching him out, but it was clear a dry line had formed around the rest of the circuit.
“It’s high risk, high reward,” Russell said later. “I think it was literally just Turn 1. Had that been as dry as the other corners, we could have been in a really good place.
“I am surprised that we are still only half a second away from P4. We showed some really strong place today but as I said on the radio, I am not here to settle here for P4, P5, we need to try things. Points are tomorrow and I tried something different. “
Russell confirmed he had made the call.
When asked if he had considered the same switch, Hamilton said he felt the ideal crossover point was still another 10 minutes away. Max Verstappen referenced the standing water at Turn 1 when explaining why he opted against making the same decision.
A return to form for Haas
Haas needed this.
After a fairytale start to the season with a handful of points, Haas encountered some setbacks in recent races. It still has not scored a point since the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix but with Kevin Magnussen and Mick Schumacher starting the fifth and sixth Sunday’s race is a perfect opportunity to end that drought.
The performance is especially encouraging for Schumacher, who’s habit of racking up very expensive repair bills this season has put him under increasing pressure to deliver results. It is Schumacher’s best ever qualifying performance and the team will hope the son of a seven-time world champion Michael can finally score a first F1 point Sunday at the 30th time of asking.
Can anyone stop Max Verstappen?
The final word goes to the man on pole position. With no rain forecast for Sunday, if Verstappen keeps himself out of trouble at the start it’s difficult to imagine any other outcome than a very easy win for the man in the No. 1 car.
Recent races have shown Red Bull has a stronger race day package than Ferrari and Verstappen’s two main title rivals, teammate Sergio Perez and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, face a fight through the field from starting positions in the lower half of the order.
Perez was not kicking himself after the session after sliding off the track in Q2 and going straight on at Turn 3. Despite being talked through the procedure by his race engineer, Perez was not able to get his car to reverse out of the wall and he will start in 14th.
Leclerc will be the 19th after Ferrari made wholescale changes to his engine following his retirement in Baku.
Leclerc’s teammate Sainz might fancy his chances at challenging from third but the Spanish driver hasn’t looked completely comfortable with his car this year. The same cannot be said for Verstappen, who has been almost untouchable at every race they have finished this year bar the Monaco Grand Prix.
After eight seasons, it’s easy to start taking Verstappen’s immense talent for granted but he was in a different league to the rest on Saturday. For the sake of the season and the title fight neutral fans should probably root against Verstappen winning on Sunday and extending an already healthy championship lead further, but the Dutchman doing just that feels like the most logical outcome for the Canadian Grand Prix.