MONTREAL — Lewis Hamilton was clearly glad to welcome the Canadian Grand Prix back to Formula One.
The former world champion won his first pole position and first race at Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve in 2007. He completed that double again on Sunday as he led in a 1-2 McLaren-Mercedes finish with fellow Englishman Jenson Button.
That gave the 25-year-old two wins in three visits to the tight, often treacherous track, which was put back on the schedule after skipping last year due to a financial dispute between F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone and the former promoter.
“I don’t know why I do well here,” Hamilton said. “It’s a great track, a fantastic city, great food, great people, amazing support — and the weather was great today as well.
“For me, this is one of the best races of the whole season. Again, I don’t know why I’m able to dial my car in and feel the car a little better here than other places, but we have a long season ahead of us. We’ll have good races and bad races. I just hope there’s more good ones than bad ones.”
Despite missing a year, the street party was back downtown and the huge crowds returned for the eighth stop on the 19-race F1 tour, with more than 110,000 spectators on race day and more than 300,000 overall for the three-day event.
They saw Hamilton build on his victory two weeks ago in Turkey and leap into the lead in drivers standings with 109 points. Button, also second in Turkey, now has 106 and also jumped in front of former leader and Red Bull Racing rival Mark Webber, who has 103.
The lead has been changing hands from the start of the season between the McLarens, the Red Bulls and Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari, and Hamilton warned it is likely to continue, starting with the next event June 27 in Valencia, Spain.
‘Whether it’s due to the new points system, but the field is so close,” the 2008 world champion said of a system that now awards 25 points for a win instead of 10. “All the best drivers are on the top teams, they’re all competitive, so it’s the ultimate challenge that I’ve experienced in Formula One, perhaps in F1 history.
“There’s so many of us pushing right to the wire and that means the championship will remain close.”
Alonso, who began the year with a win in Bahrain, was heartened by third place. Ferrari had arrived with low expectations.
“In Turkey, we were not competitive — too slow,” said the two-time world champion from Spain.
“We were 50 seconds behind the McLaren and here, we were fighting them, so it was a step forward.
“We took this opportunity to be on the podium, finish ahead of Red Bull and fight for the win, so it was a very positive weekend for us. We’re looking forward now.”
It was a second disappointing race for Red Bull, whose drivers Webber and Sebastian Vettel were cruising to a 1-2 finish in Turkey when they accidentally ran into one another. This time, Vettel was fourth and Webber fifth, with Nico Rosberg of Mercedes GP sixth.
“We shouldn’t be disappointed with fourth and fifth,” said Red Bull team boss Christian Horner. “They are still valuable points in both championships (drivers and constructors) and they have been gained at a circuit that we always knew we would be exposed at.”
It didn’t help that Webber was penalized five spots on the starting grid — dropping from the first to the fourth row — for an unauthorized gearbox change.
Still, the talk before the race was about tire strategies.
Hamilton had won pole position on the softer of two compounds offered by Bridgestone while the Red Bulls were on the harder tire, which was thought to hold up better on the track. Hamilton was banking on an early incident that would bring out the safety car and give him time to stop in the pits for a tire change.
But the usual pile-up at the tight first turn didn’t happen — there was only one tie-up between Felipe Massa and Vitantonio Liuzzi — and Hamilton was barely able to stay in front of Vettel’s charging Red Bull through the first few laps.
He pitted and gave up the lead, got it back on the 21st lap, pitted again on the 27th, then finally passed Webber for the lead on the 50th just before the Australian, his hard tires peeling badly, went into the pits. Button passed Alonso on the 56th lap and the McLarens sailed home.
”We thought Red Bull took the gamble, not us,” said Button.
Still, Hamilton said his nerves were on edge all the way to the checkered flag.
”It was difficult to know how much to save your tires and how much to push, how much longer you had to go, how far behind you they were,” he said. ”It was very challenging — the ultimate challenge for me this year so far.”
”Whenever I caught traffic they would close the gap. Traffic was almost as bad as at Monaco, but we managed to deal with it.”
Among the changes in F1 since the race was last in Montreal is that there are 23 cars in the field instead of 20, but surprisingly, there were few crashes. Only five cars failed to finish, and only one of them, Kamui Kobayashi in a BMW Sauber, smacked into the Wall of Champions — the concrete barrier off the last chicane that had claimed a number of top drivers over the years.
Robert Kubica made a dangerous move while heading into pit lane, but only got a reprimand and kept his seventh place for Renault.
And perhaps the second happiest man at the track was Sebastien Buemi of the underdog Scuderia Toro Rossi. The Swiss driver actually held the lead for a lap when others pitted early on and he made a smart pass of seven-time world champ Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes GP to finish eighth.
His team’s post-race news release said: “In case you didn’t notice, we led for a lap.”