It was the roar of the fans that Lewis Hamilton remembered, and so it was fitting that when he needed the most boost, he heard it from the largest crowd in Canadian Grand Prix history.
Montreal is, after all, the site of Hamilton’s first Formula One podium. That was 15 years, 103 victories and seven world championships first – practically another lifetime, considering the grueling starts from Hamilton and Mercedes this season.
The new Mercedes built to F1’s 2022 specifications is pathetic to drive; Hamilton’s back hurts from all the jumps, partly because Mercedes lowers it to the ground for maximum performance. That finding of downforce has created a “porpoizing” effect that is, at least, dangerous to the long-term health of drivers.
Hamilton admitted to suffering from more headaches than usual over the past few months, but didn’t know if they were micro-shocks. He uses his personal physiotherapist, takes pain relievers and, along with new teammate George Russell, drives whatever car Mercedes gives them.
But it felt like rock bottom in Baku a week ago, when the 37-year-old Azerbaijani was still struggling to climb out of his car after bouncing 190 miles through the streets. F1’s governing body stepped up last Thursday with a technical directive issued by the FIA to address porpoising.
The directive embroiled the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve paddock in backroom politics, and rivals found it strange that Mercedes reacted so quickly to a late notification for Friday’s opening practice.
In the end, Mercedes used technical instruction on Friday to try out the new setup, but it made their cars look even worse. So come Saturday, the team did what their rivals had suggested all along: Mercedes raised the ride height and Hamilton’s fourth-place qualifying effort was their best of the year. Then he finished on the third Sunday and earned his second podium in nine races this season.
When he got into the car it was Sir Lewis Hamilton, not the veteran struggling to hold on to his young teammates and keep the leaders in sight. Hamilton listened to the crowd – F1 said the series’ return after a two-year pandemic break drew a record 338,000 spectators in three days – and immediately addressed fans.
“How are you going, Montreal?” He asked. He later reflected on what Sunday’s finish – his first podium since the season-opener in March – meant for him in this terrifying season.
“I haven’t been on the podium for a long time,” he said. “So, especially when I had my first here 15 years ago, to come back there and feel the energy from the crowd was reminiscent of that first year here. I am very, very happy with it.”
Will Hamilton now be competitive enough to defend his British Grand Prix victory when F1 next races in two weeks? Maybe not. Mercedes still didn’t have the pace of Red Bull and Ferrari, and even after raising the ride height in Montreal, the cars boomed.
“We’re still bouncing, it’s not going away,” Hamilton said. “And I really hope, going to Silverstone, it’s such an important race for us and for me, I just want to be in a fight with these guys. We’ll get there in the end.”
Russell, who has beaten Hamilton in seven of nine races this season, didn’t look upbeat after finishing fourth. He said porpoising was “less extreme” than in Baku due to Montreal’s smoother surface, but Mercedes “is still breaking up and down on the ground.”
“The overall underlying issues of these 2022 cars are far from resolved,” Russell said.
He was also critical of Mercedes’ speed and said qualifying and race results were misleading because the reduction in speed for Red Bull and Ferrari was “still quite substantial.”
“We’re still a long way from where we need to be,” Russell said, adding, “Yeah, we haven’t made much progress yet.”
His rivals will tell you that Mercedes has waived wildly on its 2022 car manufacturing and is calling on the FIA to change the rules, raising driver health concerns.
Although other drivers, including Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez, have acknowledged parroting, no team has struggled as much as Mercedes. And, if Mercedes is so concerned, rival teams openly pondered, why doesn’t it increase its ride height to give better comfort to its drivers? (Answer: The lower to the ground, the faster the car).
“It’s a Formula One car. It’s not a Rolls-Royce. And drivers need to be aware of that,” said Franz Tost, former Alfatori driver-turned-head. “If the cars are too tough, or it’s too much for them difficult, so maybe they should stay at home, in the living room, sit in a chair, and then they can run on TV or wherever. I don’t know.”
Alpine principal Otmar Szafnauer was downright blunt: “We tend to drive the car at a ride height that still gets the performance we need, but that doesn’t injure or injure drivers or destroy the car.
“We run it safely. And I believe every team has a chance to do that.”