F1 Canadian GP preview: Mercedes bids to end win drought with Russell on pole

Canadian GP preview

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MONTREAL — For the second Formula One race in a row, Max Verstappen is not starting from pole position. But what will this translate into come Sunday’s Canadian Grand Prix?

After navigating tricky conditions throughout the session, George Russell secured a surprise pole for Mercedes, his first since 2022. Russell and Verstappen set identical lap times in Q3, but because the Mercedes driver recorded his fastest lap first, Russell will line up P1 at Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve.

Ferrari, meanwhile, suffered a surprise setback just two weeks after its Monaco success as both its drivers were knocked out in Q2. Carlos Sainz could not secure a fast enough lap time, while Williams’ Alex Albon knocked out Charles Leclerc with his final Q2 lap. Yuki Tsunoda continued to threaten the top drivers but ultimately qualified P8, while RB teammate Daniel Ricciardo secured a surprising fifth-place starting spot. To round out the Red Bull camp, Sergio Pérez was knocked out in Q1 — again — days after Red Bull announced his two-year contract extension.

After a weekend filled with mixed conditions, with the sun darting in and out from behind the clouds and rain (and hail) pouring down at different moments, question marks abound ahead of Sunday’s race. Weather is expected to be a factor, and Verstappen noted that the tires have been trickier in terms of graining.

Red Bull isn’t expected to be the favorite on Sunday, but can Russell secure Mercedes’ first win since his maiden victory at São Paulo in 2022?

We dive into these storylines (and more) ahead of the Canadian Grand Prix, which goes lights out (pending rain, of course) at 2 p.m. ET (7 p.m. BST).

After breakthrough pole, can Russell end Mercedes’ win drought?

It’s been over 18 months since Mercedes last won an F1 race, courtesy of Russell at Interlagos toward the end of 2022. For a team that serially dominated for close to a decade, the gap has felt like a lifetime.

There were many false hopes and perceived breakthroughs in that time as Mercedes tried to remedy its troublesome car concept under these regulations. Fashes of pace that never sustained through to be truly competitive at the front. But with pole on Saturday, Russell gave a sign the latest updates have moved the team in the right direction.

“It’s such a buzz, it’s been a while since we’ve experienced this feeling,” Russell said. “It’s been a little while to be able to get back in the fight, and we’ve almost felt like all that hard work hasn’t been paying off.”

It has now.

It wasn’t like pole position came out of nowhere, either. Mercedes set the pace through final practice as Lewis Hamilton and Russell finished 1-3. Russell topped Q2 but felt Q3 was the worst part of his qualifying session. His lap was still good enough for P1. “It bodes well for tomorrow,” Russell said.

Managing the race at the front will be tough for Russell, particularly with Verstappen on the front row. “It doesn’t get much stronger,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said of that prospect on the run to the first corner. “If (Russell) can stay in the lead, that would be good.”

Mercedes will go into race day for the first time in a long time genuinely believing it has a chance. “We’re going to go for victory,” Russell said. “The car is genuinely really, really fast at the moment.”

Verstappen ‘not that stressed’ despite continued struggles 

It’s a rare, rare thing in 2024 not to see Verstappen holding the pole position award. But despite setting the same time as Russell, the Dutchman will line up second on Sunday.

“Being on the exact same lap time, yeah, it’s great, but in hindsight, I think when you look at their pure pace, I’ll take second,” Verstappen said. “Because after Q2, I saw (Mercedes’) lap times, I was like, ‘There is no way that I can do something like that.’”

It hasn’t been a clean weekend for Verstappen. FP1 was a washout thanks to the weather, and he endured an Energy Recovery System (ERS) issue during FP2, sidelining him for the second half of the session. Verstappen seemed to bounce back come Saturday’s practice session and finished second on the timesheets, but reported that it felt like his car was bouncing.

“I think overall, just the weekend was again a bit messy from our side,” Verstappen said after qualifying, “just too many little issues.” The team had been working on the balance of his car, and he felt “quite happy with it.” But ultimately, “we need to be able to just have cleaner weekends without issues.”

Monaco highlighted a weakness in the RB20’s design, particularly how it rides curbs and bumps. This meant that entering the Canada weekend, there were question marks about how competitive Red Bull could be. Verstappen confirmed Saturday that they’re “still struggling with the same things” as in Monaco.

“The track layout helps compared to Monaco, where Monaco has a lot more low-speed, so it’s really important to have good ride, mechanical grip,” Verstappen explained. “Here, there’s more aero involved. Of course, there are a few places still where you need to ride curbs, or you have bumpy places, but we know those limitations, so we need to work on that. But that’s why I think, in general, to be P2 here is alright.”

It begs the question: What is possible for Verstappen? When asked what the plan will be for the grand prix, Verstappen said, “I don’t know. We’ll think about it. I’m not that stressed about it.”

Ferrari in recovery mode after surprise setback

What a difference two weeks has made for Ferrari. Riding high off Leclerc’s Monaco victory (and Sainz’s third-place finish), the team was brought firmly back to earth in Montreal on Saturday as neither of its cars made it through to Q3. Leclerc and Sainz will start 11th and 12th.

The signs were there through FP3 that it could be a tricky session for Ferrari, with Leclerc saying the car felt “extremely slow.” So it proved through qualifying, where Leclerc admitted he was surprised to have been so far off the pace — to the point that six teams out-qualified Ferrari.

“I don’t have any explanations for now,” Leclerc said. “In FP3, already we felt that something was wrong. We couldn’t see what was wrong and that was exactly the same in qualifying, where it definitely felt like something was wrong but nothing we could see was wrong.‌”

It was a confusing situation for Leclerc, who struggled for grip through the opening complex of corners throughout Saturday’s sessions and then felt the issue “snowball” through the rest of the lap.

Sainz was equally puzzled. “You never expect to go from fighting for a win and pole position to being out in Q2, but this is Formula One,” he said. “I’ve seen worse things happen, and we will go back and analyze why we’re struggling around here.”

After all the buzz around Ferrari and the tentative talk of it mounting some challenge to Red Bull in the championships, this setback will be a tough pill to swallow. Sainz felt some factors could “spice up the race,” including the high levels of tire graining. But the reality is that both he and Leclerc will be in damage limitation mode at a track where it seemed before the weekend there’d be an opportunity to fight for another win.

Ricciardo wants to finish the job after hitting back at Villeneuve’s criticism

Ricciardo recorded his best Saturday qualifying result of the season with P5 in Montreal and could not have timed it better. Not only did it come just 90 minutes after his teammate, Tsunoda, had been confirmed at RB for 2025, but it also followed some scathing criticism from 1997 F1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve on Sky Sports during its Friday practice coverage.

Rarely one to shy away from speaking his mind, Villeneuve questioned why Ricciardo was still in F1 and that “his image has kept him in F1 more than his actual results.”

It meant after qualifying fifth, 10 years to the day after scoring his maiden grand prix victory here, Ricciardo was happy to clap back. “I still don’t know what he said, but I heard he’s been talking s—,” Ricciardo said. “But he always does. I think he’s hit his head a few too many times; I don’t know if he plays ice hockey or something.”

Ricciardo added that he “won’t give him the time of day” before adding a “but…” and leaning into the microphones in the media pen: “All those people can suck it! I want to say more, but it’s alright. We’ll leave him behind.”

It’s the kind of performance and result that Ricciardo has lacked this season. Besides his run to P4 in the Miami sprint qualifying and sprint race, he’s shown very little to suggest he’s still got the edge that once made him such a close competitor to Verstappen at Red Bull. He’s been open about his struggles, and after Monaco, he made an effort to work with the team and his inner circle to ask what he could be doing better. Ricciardo called it “self-therapy” after a miserable weekend on a circuit he loves.

Fifth in qualifying was a reminder of what Ricciardo can do. But the bigger task now is for him to complete the job on Sunday and bring home a tidy haul of points that can firmly dismiss Villeneuve’s smack talk.

Albon and Williams face another points-scoring opportunity

The 2023 Canadian Grand Prix weekend was special for Williams and Albon as the Thai driver secured his highest finish of the season with P7. Though he struggled with tire wear in the race, a DRS train formed behind him, and Albon maintained the position while navigating a one-stop strategy.

One year later, he’s in a position to try and repeat a point(s)-scoring finish once again after reaching Q3 in qualifying, building off the two points he brought home in Monaco.

One of the problems Williams has faced this season is that the car is overweight, but this may be less of a problem at Montreal. Albon said the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve “is the fourth least-sensitive to weight” and “we just need to make the most of these moments until the weight does come out of the car.”

The problem is that Leclerc and Sainz are starting behind Albon, and the pace of a Ferrari is very different from that of a Williams, regardless of how Albon defends. The weather has been a factor throughout the weekend thus far, and rain is expected on Sunday.

“I’m hoping (for) a wet one. I don’t think we’ll keep the Ferraris behind on pure pace, so we’ll need something going on,” Albon said Saturday. “But let’s see. It’s not an easy one. Fingers crossed for some rain.”

Top photo: Bryn Lennon – Formula 1/Formula 1, Chris Graythen/Getty Images via Getty Images

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