How bold Lewis Hamilton plan could deny George Russell Canadian GP win

The Mercedes driver starts on pole but Hamilton could wreck his chances of winning in Montreal with his pit strategy

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George Russell starts from pole position after his incredible dead-heat with Max Verstappen in qualifying for the Formula 1 Canadian Grand Prix on Saturday, and that will only enhance the importance of Mercedes nailing their pit strategy in Sunday’s race.

The Briton clinched his second career pole with a 1:12.000 on the soft tyre – as did Red Bull star Verstappen – and for only the second time in history, two drivers set the same time for first spot on the grid. However, as Russell set his time first, he gets priority as Verstappen didn’t beat his time and the Dutchman will therefore line up alongside him on the front row.

Lando Norris was only 0.021 seconds adrift of the pair and will be one to watch in third place, with his McLaren team-mate Oscar Piastri occupying fourth. Behind them are Daniel Ricciardo and Fernando Alonso, with Lewis Hamilton surely disappointed to start seventh after matching Russell for pace throughout the entirety of all three practice sessions.

Max Verstappen and George Russell of Mercedes after qualifying for the 2024 Canadian Grand Prix | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool
Max Verstappen and George Russell of Mercedes after qualifying for the 2024 Canadian Grand Prix | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

With 70 laps to navigate in Canada around the 4.361-kilometre Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, the teams will have a tough task on their hands to find the right strategy, particularly if the rain comes into the equation.

Hamilton may suffer for long-term gain

Hamilton sprung a huge surprise when he went four tenths second quicker than the rest of the field in FP3, including Verstappen in P2. However, his time was a 1:12.579, and Russell’s fastest lap in qualifying was half a second quicker, so it was clear they hadn’t unlocked its true potential at that point. Russell even set a storming time of 1:11.750 in Q2, showing their pace at the front.

But the fact the Mercedes has looked capable of competing for victory is encouraging enough for Hamilton and Russell, with team principal Toto Wolff also revealing they hadn’t been running their upgraded front wing in Montreal. The only issue for Hamilton is finding optimum grip, which he struggled with in the Q3 shootout.

“The car’s been feeling great throughout the weekend. Obviously congrats to George. Had plenty of pace in it, obviously, in FP3. And then, soon as qualifying started, that just a bit felt like the grip was not there,” Hamilton told the written press in Canada, including Total-Motorsport.com.

Lewis Hamilton during practice for the 2024 Canadian GP | Mercedes
Lewis Hamilton during practice for the 2024 Canadian GP | Mercedes

“Conditions were perfect. Just for some reason, tyres weren’t working the whole session. I just didn’t have grip. I had, like, easily half a second advantage in FP3 and that was gone.”

His thirst for grip is understandable, but as he is starting down in P7, Hamilton may be convinced to go a different way to Russell on strategy and opt for a one-stop, prolonging the first stint to try and hoping for the rain to arrive halfway through or for a safety car.

What’s the best race strategy for the Canadian GP?

Pirelli chose to bring to Montreal the three softest compounds: C3 as P Zero White hard, C4 as P Zero Yellow medium, and C5 as P Zero Red soft. That’s because average speed is relatively low, thanks to the frequent changes of direction caused by the close succession of corners, with continuous braking. And that makes traction key, meaning the two-stop could be favoured by the drivers.

If they start on the medium, expect drivers to stop in between Lap 15-21 for the first stop, changing to the hard tyre for the long middle stint, and then swapping for another set of hards for the final stint between Lap 41-50. This could be the case of Russell, Hamilton, Verstappen, Sergio Perez, Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc – all of whom possess two new sets of hard tyres.

Pirelli’s tyre strategies for the Canadian GP. | Pirelli Motorsport

The alternative two-stop plan could be to stretch out the medium stint to Lap 17 at least, or even as far as Lap 23, take the hard tyre until Lap 43-52, and finish on the medium tyre to hunt down those on one-stop strategies.

Of course, fuel and tyre degradation must be taken into account as well, but with low track temperatures expected between 25 and 30 degrees, it could be the optimum plan for a one-stop – but only if it stays dry – and that would include some pain at the start on cold tyres with the least amount of grip.

Why hard tyre may be better than medium

There is only a limited amount of data regarding dry tyres for the teams to analyse due to the rain, but the fastest times set in all four sessions across Friday and Saturday are indicative of which tyres they could plump for.

Ricciardo set the quickest time on the medium compound, a 1:14.445, but Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso – on the hard tyre – was only three tenths shy of the RB driver on a 1:14.780.

There is enough confidence that the medium tyre could last until around Lap 26 before the pit window opens, leaving around 44-45 laps for the hard tyre to rubber into the track and give some longer life.

There is only three tenths between the medium and hard tyres. | Pirelli Motorsport

If is only three tenths a lap slower on average, lap projections would suggest it would take a long time for drivers on a more aggressive strategy – let’s say medium, hard, medium – to catch them. Only the soft tyre would make those finishing on hards feel vulnerable.

How will the rain interfere?

We’ve seen before just how difficult conditions can be when the rain falls at a heavy and rapid rate in Canada – and that’s not taking into the account the newly-laid track surface.

The official Formula 1 website warning there is a “genuine threat” of a downpour in Montreal, strategists will need to be quick on their toes to pull out a plan for the intermediates and potentially full wets.

For that reason, a one-stop strategy does look to be the safer approach because the rain could force the drivers to make a stop at any moment during the race, meaning the less time spent in the pits before the rain, the better.

Joe Krishnan
Joe Krishnan
Joe Krishnan is an NCTJ-qualified journalist who has worked for a number of media organisations, including the Daily Express, The Mirror, Evening Standard, The Independent and Bleacher Report. Joe has been following F1 since when he watched Mika Hakkinen clinch the 1999 drivers' championship, and his first taste of real-life racing action was watching David Coulthard spin off into the gravel at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in 2001.
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