Stubbs: Spotlight on Mercedes drivers as F1 circus comes to town

 

 
 
 
 
Mercedes’ German driver Nico Rosberg drives ahead of teammate Lewis Hamilton of Britain at the Monaco Grand Prix last month.
 
 

Mercedes’ German driver Nico Rosberg drives ahead of teammate Lewis Hamilton of Britain at the Monaco Grand Prix last month.

Photograph by: ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT, AFP/Getty Images

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MONTREAL — So we’ve got a dandy little feud going between Mercedes Petronas teammates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, a decent spat by Formula One’s you’ll-be-hearing-from-my-lawyer standards.

The 45th Canadian Grand Prix pitches its swanky tents at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve this week, and the two drivers leading the pack say they’ve settled their differences.

Motorsport fans here — if not the purists, then those who like racing with dirt under its fingernails — hope that’s not the case.

There’s plenty at stake: Rosberg leads Hamilton on the world championship table by four slim points, and Mercedes would rather not see their pilots do anything goofy to each other here.

No, not with Mercedes leading Red Bull/Renault by a commanding 141 points on the constructors table, and with good fortunes in this sport having a way of turning into a string of bad with a single result.

This little hissing contest between the Mercedes drivers has been bubbling since the May 11 Spanish Grand Prix, when Hamilton cranked (thumbed?) his engine to full throttle, against team protocol, to hold off a charging Rosberg in the late stages of the race.

Next up was Monaco, two weeks ago, where a curious qualifying-session track exit by Rosberg brought out a yellow flag and denied Hamilton a shot at winning the pole. Rosberg won the race, leading from start to finish on a tight street circuit where it’s harder to make a pass than in a convent.

That led runner-up Hamilton to ignore his teammate on the podium and, oh my, that was poor manners.

But by all accounts, the two have patched up their differences. Last week, on his Twitter account, Hamilton said: “We’ve been friends a long time, and as friends we have our ups and downs. Today we spoke and we’re cool, still friends.”

Of course, this feud was probably settled in the scrubbed oxygen of Mercedes’s executive suites.

Now, when NASCAR ran the Nationwide Series for five summers in Montreal, its inaugural race in 2007 saw Toronto’s Ron Fellows bumped from a shot at victory to a finish of fourth in a series of final-lap fender-benders.

The stock-car boys headed next to Watkins Glen, N.Y., and Fellows, steaming post-race in the Montreal pits as badly as his radiator, was making plans for those who had dented his day.

“The good news is I’m bigger than most of them,” he said. “We’ll give them a good ol’ hockey stick to the groin. I’m going to bring an old wood one. They look a lot worse; sharp on the end and all busted up and they splinter when you hit someone with it.”

There will be no hockey sticks at the track this week for Formula One’s 35th visit to the Île Notre-Dame circuit, eight of Canada’s first 10 races held at Mosport and two more at Mont Tremblant before it relocated here in 1978.

Well, that’s not entirely true about the sticks — there will be a few media types using sawed-off shafts as improvised microphone booms for the stupid-big interview scrums that are legendary in the F1 paddock.

No doubt there will be a few Canadiens players on site, too. The gearheads among the Habs who are still in town just a week after their final game, or those who can’t resist a good party, are sure to find tickets and paddock passes.

(And imagine this: had the Canadiens knocked off the New York Rangers to advance to the Stanley Cup final against Los Angeles, Game 2 would have been this Saturday in Montreal. A hockey-crazed city would have met the huge global influx of motorsport fans in a perfect storm, hotel rooms jammed from Montreal to probably Matapédia, favourite sports argued in bars over Coors and Cristal.)

Last year’s race was easily won by Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, who led Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso to the finish by 14.4 seconds with Hamilton another second and a half back.

The result widened Vettel’s championship lead, 21 points coming in, to 36 points clear of Alonso, a title race that Vettel eventually would win for the fourth consecutive year.

(We mentioned changing fortunes? After six races this year, Vettel is buried in sixth place with 45 points, 77 off the pace of Rosberg, with just one podium and one fastest lap.)

But Vettel’s mesmerizing 2013 victory here was tragically overshadowed by the death of 38-year-old volunteer track marshal Mark Robinson, who fell beneath the wheels of a mobile crane returning the expired car of Sauber’s Esteban Guttierrez to the pits late in the race.

Robinson was transferred to Sacré-Coeur Hospital by helicopter but succumbed to massive internal injuries, his passing announced late that afternoon by devastated race president François Dumontier and Dr. Jacques Boucher, its chief medical officer.

It was the first fatality at the Villeneuve circuit since June 13, 1982, when Riccardo Paletti’s stalled car was involved in a fiery wreck in a starting-grid collision. Paletti died at Royal Victoria Hospital, to where he was airlifted.

Robinson’s death was the third of a Formula One track worker since 2000, others losing their lives when struck by airborne wheels in Italy in 2000 and Australia a year later.

“The work of marshals is not always seen,” Vettel said on his website. “But it is vital to our sport and without their commitment, time and dedication, there would be no motorsport.

“I am very, very sad to hear this news and my thoughts are with his family and friends.”

Added runner-up Alonso, on Twitter: “Today there is nothing to celebrate. Terrible news arrive with the death of a marshal this race. Very sad. RIP.”

Many will spare a thought for Robinson this week.

And a great many more will say a prayer for seven-time Canadian Grand Prix champion Michael Schumacher, the legendary racer who remains in a coma five months after having struck his head on a rock while skiing in the French Alps.

With little information coming from Schumacher’s management team the past six weeks, there are fears that the seven-time world champion could be in a vegetative state for the remainder of his days.

A sidebar to the action on the track will be the future of Montreal’s historic race, this being the final year of the city’s five-year contract to stage an F1 event.

Discussion continues to buzz around a 10-year-extension and, on several occasions in recent months, Mayor Denis Coderre has told race fans not to lose sleep about the race pulling up stakes.

That said, agreement must be reached between F1 and three levels of government to get a deal done.

“I think that in terms of atmosphere, the whole city enjoys the Formula One Grand Prix,” Vettel said last June, speaking in support of the Montreal event. “This race belongs 100 per cent to the calendar because I think for all of us drivers, we enjoy a lot seeing grandstands completely sold out, a lot of enthusiastic people, the whole town living the Grand Prix.”

Alonso added his backing, his Ferrari team enjoying the support of this city’s large Italian community.

“For the Italian people here in Montreal, they support Ferrari all the time, they enjoy Formula One,” he said. “You see the atmosphere in this race is very, very unique, not only here on the track but from the time you land at the airport, you see a very enthusiastic people about this race.

“You put the TV on, they are talking about the (weather) for the Grand Prix. They’re talking about the qualifying, the practice, the shops on the streets are full of flags, Ferrari flags, etc., so it’s very nice to race here.”

Attendance for the three days, with a full slate of support races in different leagues following Thursday’s popular open house, is usually in the neighbourhood of 300,000, organizers in recent years not divulging official attendance figures.

What island-going fans, and viewers on TV, will notice this week will be throatier engines, not the screaming dentist-drills-in-the-skull of the past. That change is due to this year’s greener 1.6-litre turbocharged V6 engines, their 15,000 rpm down from the beastly 18,000 turned by last year’s naturally aspirated 2.4-litre V8 power plants.

If a quieter car is welcome on your street at 2 a.m., that’s not the case in Formula One; fans and F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone are howling about the relative silence.

Mercedes tested a so-called “trumpet” exhaust in Barcelona last month in an FIA bid to turn up the volume. But not only did the test fail, it made the sleek cars look like they had a bugle half-stuffed up their rump or that they were prepared for a colonoscopy.

So, you’ll still need hearing protection at the Villeneuve circuit, but the growl instead of the scream will remind you more of your punctured muffler than the finest racing cars on the planet.

As usual, the worst place to be after the race will be on any Montreal thoroughfare leading from the circuit, thousands of race-drunk cowboys channelling their inner F1 pilot, lacking only the skill and experience and common sense and equipment of the racers.

At least the locals’ road rage will be spicier than that of duelling Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, who just sniff at each other with Ron Fellows’s battered Sher-Wood nowhere to be found in their tool box.

dstubbs@montrealgazette.com

Twitter: Dave_Stubbs

 
 
 
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Mercedes’ German driver Nico Rosberg drives ahead of teammate Lewis Hamilton of Britain at the Monaco Grand Prix last month.
 

Mercedes’ German driver Nico Rosberg drives ahead of teammate Lewis Hamilton of Britain at the Monaco Grand Prix last month.

Photograph by: ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT, AFP/Getty Images

 
Mercedes’ German driver Nico Rosberg drives ahead of teammate Lewis Hamilton of Britain at the Monaco Grand Prix last month.
Mercedes’ British driver Lewis Hamilton, left, and teammate Nico Rosberg of Germany are the top two drivers on the F1 circuit and have had a running feud going most of the season.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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