Max Verstappen and Red Bull, once more utterly unperturbed by the rain, delivered through the spray for pole position at the Canadian Grand Prix. If the final shootout proved to be a damp squib, nullified by the looming grey clouds and the downpour they delivered in the final moments, Mercedes at least will take heart in the blue skies ahead indicated by their performance at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
Verstappen, somewhat inevitably, had the best pace in a qualifying session that had opened shortly after rain had hit the circuit and then returned again as it progressed. Whether he might have been challenged remains moot as the final running was scuppered by the conditions but realistically, on every lap he put in, the world champion still looked to enjoy a comfortable advantage over the rest of the field.
With the rain still peppering the circuit and growing in intensity, the crucial laps were defined by the earliest runs in Q3. Verstappen, out first, set the benchmark on his second lap with a time of 1min 25.858sec, shortly after which running was stopped when Oscar Piastri put his McLaren in the wall, a decisive moment that ended the fight for pole. When they resumed qualifying the rain had only intensified, leaving no chance to improve times.
Behind him the Haas of Nico Hülkenberg had put in an early good run, second to Verstappen, and it paid off, securing Haas’s first front-row start in a GP until he was penalised three places for going too fast under a red flag, with the Aston Martin of Fernando Alonso third.
Lewis Hamilton and George Russell were in fourth and fifth for Mercedes but that they too looked competitive in cold, wet conditions not expected to suit the car will be of cause for further optimism at the team on a weekend where there has been an unmistakable air that a corner has been turned for the Silver Arrows.
That Mercedes have a new found belief is clear after a torrid 2022, when they struggled with a recalcitrant car that was off the pace throughout, and start to the 2023 season that had more woes.
After the season-opener an immediate decision to change the design concept of their car ensued and the relentless labour at the factory in Brackley is now clearly bearing fruit beyond what might have been expected.
In Canada Hamilton, who will start third, was explicit in what a difference it had made. “We’ve all been buzzing back at the factory,” he said. “The whole team has this new energy and it feels like we’ve kind of got a North Star, we know where we’re going and we know how to get there.”
The Mercedes technical director, James Allison, reflected this view at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, expressing his belief in the potential of the car that was perhaps unthinkable immediately after the season began.
Red Bull and Verstappen are still running away with the championship, with the Dutchman 53 points in front of his teammate, Sergio Pérez, but nonetheless Allison gave as positive an assessment as any from Mercedes in suggesting the world champion could yet be challenged for race victories.
“Can this car become competitive enough to win a race this year? I would say with a following wind, yes it can,” he said. “If we do the right things over the remainder of this year, can we be in the championship fight for the following year? Even more, yes.”
Allison’s opinion carries real weight. He has been at the heart of turning the Mercedes W14 around. The 55-year-old led Mercedes’s charge with no little immediacy and not only has it has paid off but he insists it has been a task that has been quite exhilarating.
“It is thrilling in its own way to be fighting back,” Allison said in Montreal. “To be improving our car week-on-week and to hold clear in our heads the target. Red Bull don’t have a God-given right to be in the lead, they’re there by merit and if we can do as good or better job we’ll be there and that is actually a lot of fun. It’s a very, very exhilarating thought, once you frame it correctly in your head.”
The race, however, is still in Verstappen’s hands and with it further milestones for him and his team. If the 25-year-old should secure his 41st victory he will match Ayrton Senna’s wins, while Red Bull, who remain unbeaten from seven meetings this season, would take their 100th victory since the team entered its first race in 2005.
Alpine’s Esteban Ocon was sixth and McLaren’s Lando Norris in seventh. Carlos Sainz placed eighth for Ferrari but was later given a three-place grid penalty for impeding Alpine’s Pierre Gasly. Piastri was ninth and Alex Albon in 10th for Williams.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez were caught out on the wrong tyres in Q2, not setting a good enough time before the rain returned and they finished in 11th and 12th respectively. Lance Stroll was 13th for Aston Martin but penalised three places for impeding Ocon, Kevin Magnussen was in 14th for Haas and Valtteri Bottas 15th for Alfa Romeo.
Yuki Tsunoda and Nyck de Vries were in 16th and 18th for AlphaTauri, but the former had a three-place penalty for interfering with Hülkenberg. Pierre was 17th, Logan Sargeant was in 19th for Williams and Guanyu Zhou 20th for Alfa Romeo.