Lewis Hamilton was missed by the roar of the audience. So when he needed a voice of encouragement most, he got it from the largest crowd ever recorded in Canadian Grand Prix history.
Montreal is, after all, the site of Hamilton’s first Formula One podium finish. That was 15 years ago, 103 wins and seven world championships – practically an eternity when you consider Hamilton and Mercedes’ disappointing start to the season.
The new Mercedes which he has designed for 2022 to meet F1 specifications has been a disaster. Hamilton’s back has been damaged by the car’s relentless bouncing, causing Mercedes to run too close to the surface to generate maximum performance. This focus on downforce has created a so-called ‘porpoising’ effect that is dangerous to the long-term health of drivers.
Hamilton admitted he has had more headaches than usual in recent months. He doesn’t know if they were really subtle traumas. He has his own physiotherapist, takes painkillers and, together with his new partner, George Russell, drives the car that Mercedes provides.
But the torture reached its worst moment in Baku a week ago, when the 37-year-old Briton struggled to get out of a car after driving down the streets of Azerbaijan’s capital. The International Automobile Federation intervened last Thursday by announcing a technical directive banning the rebound effect.
The FIA’s intervention sparked a misunderstanding in the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve paddock, with rivals warning it was strange that Mercedes was able to react so quickly to the change ahead of first practice on Friday.
In the end, Mercedes took advantage of the technical instruction to test the new configuration, but the situation worsened. The next day, the team did what their rivals suggested: Mercedes raised the car height and Hamilton finished fourth in the standings, his best result of the year. And on Sunday he was third in nine races this season for his second podium finish.
When he got out of the car it was once again the stately Lewis Hamilton, not the veteran who was fighting to keep his young teammate at bay and who watched the championship leaders from afar.
Hamilton was also able to listen to the crowd – F1 clocked a record 338,000 spectator attendance within three days of returning to Canada after a two-year absence due to the pandemic – and addressed them.
“Montreal, how are you?” He asked. Hamilton later on Sunday reflected on his result – his first podium finish since his first race in March – and its importance in this deadly season.
“I haven’t been on the podium for a long time,” he said. “So it was something special. That’s where I got my first podium 15 years ago. Going back on a podium and enjoying the energy of the masses reminded me of that first year here.
Can Hamilton be competitive to retain his British Grand Prix victory when F1 resumes the championship in two weeks? Maybe not. Mercedes is one step behind the might of Red Bull and Ferrari. And, despite climbing in height in Montreal, the single-seater boom continued.
“We still have the rebound, it’s not gone,” Hamilton said. “I’m hopeful, in a race like Silverstone that is so important to us and me, that I can be in a fight against them. We’re getting closer.”
Russell, who has been ahead of Hamilton in seven of nine races this season, seemed less optimistic after finishing fourth. He said the rebound was “less extreme” than in Baku because Montreal’s surface was smoother.
“The issues with these 2022 cars are unresolved,” Russell said.
He also criticized Mercedes’ pace, saying the weekend’s results were misleading as the lack of Red Bull and Ferrari “still remains substantial”.
His rivals will argue that Mercedes was wrong in the design of its 2022 model and that it exaggerated the health of the drivers to force the FIA to revise the rules.
Although other drivers, such as Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez, have recognized that the rebound effect exists, none were as bad as Mercedes. And if Mercedes is so concerned, rivals wonder why it is better not to increase height and thus benefit their drivers. (Answer: The more it is connected to the ground, the faster the car).
“It’s a Formula One car. Not a Rolls-Royce. And the pilots will need to know that,” said former pilot Franz Tost, who now serves as director of AlphaTauri. “If they find cars too uncomfortable or difficult, it’s probably best to stay home, in their living room, curl up on the couch and watch the race on TV, or whatever.”