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Formula 1

What penalised Hulkenberg’s actual Canadian GP aim must be

by Edd Straw
4 min read

Nico Hulkenberg’s suggestion that “I’m going for fame into Turn 1” at the start of the Canadian Grand Prix is longer on the cards in quite the same way given his first front-row Formula 1 start since 2016 has turned into fifth on the grid thanks to a penalty for speeding under the red flags.

But it doesn’t fundamentally change the nature of a race that was always destined to be a battle to hang onto points rather than a serious opportunity to end his podium jinx and finally get the top-three finish he never has in his F1 career so far.

The Haas has shown a good turn of pace at times in 2023, but suffered with tyre degradation. Hulkenberg started seventh in Spain two weeks ago and faded to 15th despite producing a decent race drive. The tyre drop-off was just too rapid at a demanding track for the Pirellis.

Being hard on tyres is something that appears baked into the DNA of the Haas. That’s likely because of the similarity to the Ferrari in terms of aerodynamic concept and the fact that, mechanically, the Haas VF-23 comprises largely of parts supplied by Maranello through its technical partnership.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Canadian Grand Prix Practice Day Montreal, Canada

Haas is unsure exactly where the problem arises from, with team principal Guenther Steiner suggesting on Thursday that it could be down to the aerodynamic characteristics given that running in traffic accelerates the problems. But Hulkenberg suggested the problem could lie on the mechanical side. It is likely to be a combination of factors but not one that’s necessarily easily solved.

The team is working hard to ameliorate the situation, but it’s safe to assume the Haas is not going to be the gentlest on the rubber in Sunday’s race.

“Realistically, we’ve qualified out of position for normal dry running or dry pace,” said Hulkenberg.

“Yesterday [Friday] was tricky. Also, I didn’t really get much dry running. Whatever happens, we’ll take the moment, enjoy it and fight as hard and do what we can do tomorrow.”

However, this race isn’t quite the same tyre challenge as Barcelona was and Haas has already finished in the points three times this year with Hulkenberg’s seventh place in Australia – a low-deg race – the high point.

So it’s no lame duck when the circumstances are right. While Barcelona was probably the worst set of circumstances given the downforce demands and the tyre behaviour, Montreal is at least a better opportunity.

So what is possible? As Hulkenberg mentioned, Friday pace was inconclusive in terms of long-run pace (for him especially as he was stopped by an engine failure) but the Haas will certainly be slower than Red Bull, Mercedes, Ferrari and Aston Martin. The Alpine has also shown promising pace, while the Alfa Romeos qualified disappointingly but showed promising speed on the Friday long-runs.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Canadian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Montreal, Canada

With many cars starting out of position, that means there are plenty of faster cars behind to swallow up Hulkenberg if the race plays out in a straightforward fashion. As he puts it, “there’s going to be a lot of heat from the back, there’s a lot of faster cars that will come through”. However, there are also plenty of quick cars that could have their speed contained and therefore will take time to get to him.

But a high grid position confers certain advantages. Provided Hulkenberg can avoid squandering resources battling with cars he has no chance of beating and avoid accelerating his own fall backwards, that will help him to minimise the race time. This is what it is all about, keeping out of range of relevant pursuers for as long as possible rather than mounting a heroic rearguard action to hang onto places. That kind of thing will have to wait for later on in the race.

The Canadian Grand Prix is also a race where even in these days of supreme reliability there are retirements, on average over the past six runnings of the Montreal race three cars fail to finish. Incidents are common – just ask Hulkenberg’s team-mate Kevin Magnussen who picked up wing damage and a race-wrecking black and orange flag here last year from fifth on the grid – and there is also the threat of bad weather that could create opportunities, although it could also play against Hulkenberg if he is in a good position.

Being realistic, Hulkenberg and Haas would likely sign on the dotted line for a 10th place ahead of the race if offered to them. It could go better, or worse, but all Hulkenberg and Haas can do is execute the race well and hope that a few of those in faster machinery are kept behind.

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