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Hamilton's the lucky seventh winner of 2012

10 June 2012

Just about everyone got something wrong in Montreal in the 2012 Canadian Grand Prix. McLaren misread the race strategies of their chief rivals and had yet another pit stop fumble or two; Red Bull and Ferrari gambled on a pit stop strategy that backfired spectacularly in the closing laps.

In the end, up was down and left was right: just 24 hours earlier, pole sitter Sebastian Vettel had declared Canada to be a "crazy place" that delivered "crazy races", and it turned out he was spot on. It just came down to raw driving ability of the various contenders to decide the outcome, with some unexpected faces delivering the goods and duly claiming podium positions as a result.

The race had started soberly enough, with Vettel leading into the first corner and Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso dutifully slotting into line behind him. Mark Webber had a tougher time of it fending off Nico Rosberg through the first corners but he finally made it stick, leaving Rosberg to try - and fail - to hold off first Felipe Massa and Paul di Resta through successive runs through the DRS activation zone into the final chicane.

Unfortunately Massa blotted his copybook soon after and spun through turn 1 on lap 6, dropping him down to 12th and also flat-spotting his tyres in the process which doomed him to an early first pit stop. Paul di Resta was also on an early stop strategy, and that backfired for the Scot when it stuck him in the middle of traffic and as a result neither he nor Massa featured strongly for the rest of the day, Massa ultimately just pipping di Resta for the final championship point in 10th place.

Not much was happening at the front of the field in the early stages, with the biggest moment being a lovely DRS-aided move by Kimi Raikkonen on a struggling Jenson Button to claim seventh place on lap 15. Button pitted next time around for a change to the supersoft tyres, having been one of the few to start on the prime tyres off the grid; but the new tyres did little to help alleviate his ongoing dismal form in Canada and he continued his slide backwards for the rest of the afternoon, finally finishing down in 16th place and a lap off the lead, having been told to make way for his team mate at the most embarrassing lowpoint of the entire weekend for the 2011 race winner.

Sebastian Vettel was also in early, his stop on lap 16 surely ruling out the possibility that he could be planning on running the next 54 laps on a single set of harder prime tyres. Hamilton was in two laps later having pumped in some fast laps in the interim, but a problem with the anti-stall kicking in as he tried to get away nearly frustrated the plan to jump in front of Vettel on the exit. In the end he'd done just enough, and now they just had to wait and see what happened when it came to Alonso's stop.

He was in next time around - and as he came out, he was just in front of the McLaren, making that slight anti-stall fumble look potentially very costly. But Hamilton had other ideas about that and wasn't about to settle for second spot quite yet: aware that Alonso would be having to work to get his new tyres to their optimum temperature, he realised he had maybe one lap to take advantage through the DRS activation zone into the final chicane. He gambled, and he won: he made the move and Alonso had no reply.

Hamilton wasn't in the lead at this stage, Romain Grosjean still having to pit which he did at the end of lap 21, thereby handing the top spot back to Hamilton. Now Hamilton had clear space in front of him and he promptly drove it like he'd stolen it, pulling out an impressive margin over his pursuers. The McLaren team - confident in their assessment that everyone would be following the same two-stop strategy as they were - were relaxed enough to advise Hamilton to ease off a bit and not push the car or the tyres too hard. Hamilton duly obliged, not too worried as Alonso started to sneak back ever closer on the back of the McLaren.

Behind Hamilton, Alonso and Vettel came the interesting scenario of three cars that had still not come in to stop: Kimi Raikkonen, Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez. It started to dawn on everyone that these drivers were actually going to attempt a one-stopper. According to McLaren's analysis, this was never going to work - was it? Behind them were three cars that had stopped and looked on course for two stoppers (Webber, Rosberg and Grosjean) and they were followed by Pastor Maldonado rounding out the top ten.

Kobayashi and Maldonado stopped on laps 25 and 30, still looking too far off productively making it on one stop after all; but Raikkonen stretched his first stint to lap 40 and Perez a lap further still. Whether that would work out for them, only time would tell - just as it would for the race leaders.

Although he was out in front, Lewis Hamilton has getting a nasty feeling about how this was looking. He'd backed out of the fastest laps for a time and Alonso and Vettel had duly closed up to him, and now he was getting a bad case of paranoia: what if neither of them pitted, as he was planning to do? How badly would this leave him in terms of track position?

McLaren reassured him: of course Alonso and Vettel would pit again. It was the only sensible strategy. Hamilton was still on edge and started to pull out some fast laps again, but his tyres were suffering and he soon realised that there was no way he could make it to the end of the race without a second stop come what may, so in he came on lap 50. Once again there was a glitch in the pit stop, an issue getting the right rear wheel tightened up that cost potentially crucial time.

Now McLaren waited for Ferrari and Red Bull to respond to their lead and bring in their own drivers: and it didn't happen. They delayed and delayed until the moment was past, the de facto decision made for them: Hamilton's worst fears were realised, as it became clear that Alonso and Vettel were going to tough it out and try a single stop strategy. Now there was nothing for it except for Hamilton to go all banzai on them and move Heaven and earth to chase them down and try passing them on the track instead - do it the old fashioned way after all.

McLaren had got it wrong in second-guessing their opponents' strategies; but it soon became clear that they had also been spot on about a one-stop strategy being suicidal late in the race, at least as far as Ferrari and Red Bull were concerned. Hamilton was flying, but Alonso and Vettel were grinding slower and slower with every passing minute. A seemingly insurmountable lead soon became a possible one, and then a likely one, and then child's play for Hamilton to dispense with. When he caught up to the back of Vettel in the DRS activation zone on lap 61, the Red Bull practically shrugged and waved Hamilton past.

Alonso was less obliging when caught and tried to stay ahead for a lap or two, but the writing was on the wall and finally even the hardest racer on the track - with no love lost in the past with Hamilton - conceded the inevitable and Hamilton was finally back in the lead entirely on his own merits on lap 65. Job well and truly done, and a victory well deserved for the Englishman, making him the seventh different driver to win a Grand Prix in seven races so far in 2012.

Now it was a matter of who would be joining him on the podium. Having committed to the single-stop strategy, Alonso and Vettel seemed doomed to slog on to the end. But Vettel didn't like that plan and dived into the pits for a late stop, even though it meant rejoining the race down in fifth place behind Sergio Perez, one of the very few to make the single stop strategy work in Montreal - but he has past form on pulling off outstanding results by somehow having better tyre management skills than the average racer, so perhaps that could be expected.

Far more unlikely was Romain Grosjean in the Lotus: he'd pitted only a couple of laps later than Alonso and hadn't been in again since, and yet somehow his tyres were in much better shape than those of the Spaniard. He tore chunks out of the Ferrari's lead and then coasted past on the run through the DRS activation zone on lap 67 to claim second place. It was a strange, logic defying moment: Alonso's collapse in form proving McLaren's assertion that the single-stop strategy couldn't possibly work; and Grosjean's flying pace proving the exact opposite at the exact same time.

Alonso's misery was completed on the final lap when Sergio Perez demoted him off the podium on the final lap; and then just to rub salt in the wound, Sebastian Vettel arrived at the scene - sparking off the Wall of Champions in his rush - to put that late new set of tyres to good use to claim fourth place from the Ferrari as well.

Nico Rosberg recovered from early traction issues to come home in sixth place ahead of Mark Webber after fairly quiet but nonetheless productive races. Kimi Raikkonen's single-stop strategy didn't pay off nearly as well as that of his podium-bound team mate but he still finished in the points in eighth ahead of Kamui Kobayashi who had been on a similar strategy to the Finn. Felipe Massa held off di Resta for the final point in the top ten.

There were relatively few serious spins or incidents during the race, and - amazingly - no sighting of the Canada safety car, practically a shoe-in for "most laps led" on many occasions in the past. Only four drivers failed to make it to the chequered flag: Narain Karthikeyan spun in turn 1 on lap 23 and crawled to a permanent halt on the grass verge a couple of corners further; his team mate Pedro de la Rosa disappeared in a cloud of carbon fibre brake dust two laps later.

Michael Schumacher had a curious DRS failure which left the rear wing flap of his Mercedes locked in the open position. The technology is supposed to ensure that if it fails, it fails in the shut position, since otherwise the car is shown the black and orange flag for running the DRS illegally - and that's just what happened to Schumacher here on lap 34.

The final retirement was for Marussia's Timo Glock, who was reported as having spun out on the track in the closing stages but who made it back to the pits to retire in the garage on lap 57.

It had been a strange, topsy-turvy, wild and erratic race in Montreal - another crazy Canadian contest, with the sort of wholly unexpected podium result that you'd never have expected in a million years - and of course the seventh race winner of the season, which propels Hamilton to the top of the drivers championship by just 2pts over Alonso, and just 3pts ahead of Vettel.

It surely couldn't be any closer, or any more thrilling. Or any more unlikely, puzzling or flat-out unpredictable.

Full race results available.


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