MONTREAL — After spending the first six races of the Formula One season chasing Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton is ready to compete on a track where he is widely considered the favourite.
In three visits to Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, the 23-year-old McLaren Mercedes driver has started from pole position three times and won the Canadian Grand Prix twice, in 2007 and 2010.
Vettel has won five of six races thus far, with Hamilton taking the other in China on April 17, but now the F1 circus has arrived at the tight track known for its concrete barriers, nasty curbs and long straightaways that has always suited Hamilton, much as it fit seven-winner Michael Schumacher in his heyday.
“I never like to go into the race as favourite and I don’t like to be too upbeat,” said Hamilton. “I’m not Muhammad Ali.
“I’m not going to come here and say I’m going to have the best weekend ever. I’m coming off a tough week where I had good pace. I’m racing against some very talented drivers who are going to be quick as well. I’d rather do my talking on the track, so I hope our car works well here. I feel like I’m in a good head space, so hopefully that will add up to a good result.”
Vettel and Red Bull teammate Mark Webber have had clearly the fastest cars on the grid this season, but they excel on tracks with long, sweeping turns, while Circuit Gilles Villeneuve’s has drivers hurtling down straightaways into tight chicanes that require well-timed braking.
Brakes, engines and suspensions take a beating. Spinouts and crashes are frequent on the bumpy, slippery asphalt, and the crowds that always total more than 300,000 for the three days of racing roar for every manoeuvre.
“It’s a fantastic place,” said Hamilton. “I really don’t have an answer to why we’ve been so successful here, but I’m sure it’s the atmosphere — the fans are fantastic.
“It’s one of the top Grand Prix of the year, where you have the city packed full of people. The track has great history with (1978 winner) Gilles Villeneuve. I regard it as a street circuit. It’s quite bumpy. It’s a little bit like a go-kart track where you have to take the curbs. I’m looking forward to this weekend.”
Racing begins Friday with two practice sessions. Qualifying is on Saturday.
A new twist in F1 this season is DRS, or Drag Reduction System, a movable rear wing that when activated gives a driver 10 to 12 kilometre an hour more power to try to overtake. It can only be used in designated areas of the track by drivers who are within one second of the car they are chasing.
While other tracks have one DRS zone, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve will have two. The first is on a long straightaway after a hairpin turn. That leads into a chicane followed by the second DRS zone on another straightaway past the pits, the team garages and the start-finish line.
The goal was to make F1 racing more entertaining by allowing more overtaking. There was already a fair amount of passing in Montreal, and the drivers are curious to see what will happen with two DRS zones.
“You could actually lose two places (on one lap),” said Hamilton’s teammate Jenson Button. “If you’re the lead car and there are two cars behind you, one of them can overtake on the first straight and the next can overtake you down the pit straight.
“But maybe that will help us in the race. It could be fun.”
The track’s peculiarities should close the speed gap between Red Bull and McLaren, and with cool temperatures and rain forecast for the race on Sunday, perhaps Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, the 2006 Canadian Grand Prix winner with Renault, will be in the picture.
Of course, the street circuit in Monaco two weeks ago was supposed to favour McLaren, but Button lost the lead to Vettel while taking an extra pit stop and wasn’t able to catch the defending F1 champ from Germany.
Hamilton had a race to forget as the Briton was slapped with a drive-through penalty after giving Felipe Massa’s Ferrari a knock and then got a 20-second penalty for a collision with Pastor Maldonado’s Williams. He finished sixth.
He made it worse when, after being summoned by the race stewards, he blasted the officials in an angry BBC interview, saying: ”Out of six races, I’ve been to the stewards five times. It’s a joke.”
Then he added, likely in jest: “Maybe it’s because I’m black. That’s what Ali G says, I don’t now.”
Ali G is a character played by comedian Sasha Baron Cohen.
There were reports that the sports governing body may suspend Hamilton for the remarks for bringing F1 into disrepute, but he said he wrote an apology to FIA and spoke to Massa and Maldonado by phone.
“I had time to reflect on my behaviour,” he said. “I wrote a letter to the FIA to apologize and I spoke to the drivers.
“I just felt it was necessary to do, the right thing to do, to be able to put everything behind me. I think the stewards are doing a great job. Since I’ve been in F1 it’s been improving, the consistency of the rules, the approach of the stewards with a new racing driver. Whilst I’d prefer not to be up at the stewards office so often, trust me I’m trying my hardest to stay out of there. I just try to learn from the situations I get myself into.”
Monaco was also marked by two crashes that sent drivers to hospital, but both Vitaly Petrov of Lotus Renault and Sergio Perez of Sauber will race.
Perez was examined at the track Thursday morning and was cleared to drive.