A happy, if not confident, Lewis Hamilton returned to the place where it all began on Thursday, a decade after claiming his first Formula One victory in the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix.
Speaking at a routine pre-race news conference ahead of the 50th running of the popular North American event, he revealed a flash of deeply-held emotion when he recalled seeing his father in the crowd below the podium 10 years previously.
“It was the most amazing experience,” said Hamilton, who claimed his maiden victory in his sixth outing. “I was on the podium and I looked down and I could see my dad and I could see one of the biggest smiles I have ever seen in my life on his face.”
This weekend, he seeks to claim his sixth victory at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve to add to those of 2007, 2010, 2012, 2015 and 2016, but conceded that rivals Ferrari, and not his defending champions team Mercedes, are the favourites.
“We have seen, obviously, that Ferrari are the quickest at the moment, so they’re the favourites,” he said. “But we’re working very hard to rectify the issues we had at the last race and we hope that we can attack again this weekend.
“They’ve got some unique bits on the car that I think will work well for them this weekend, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take the fight to them.”
He added that he had been to the Mercedes factory for a de-briefing following the team’s disappointing showing at the Monaco Grand Prix, won by four-time champion German Sebastian Vettel for Ferrari, but without finding a solution to their problems with tyre performance.
“We’ve definitely done some analysis, but we’ll find out whether or not there are things we can improve on this weekend,” he said.
“You push, or you drive slow, depending on the temperature, and when it comes to doing your laps, sometimes they’re ready, or not – it’s difficult. It’s a kind of numb feeling.”
Vettel leads the title race with 129 points after three wins in six races ahead of Hamilton on 124, having won twice.
After three years of unbroken supremacy, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said Monday that he relishes the idea that his champions are now underdogs in this year’s Formula One title battle.
But his team are not likely to follow Ferrari’s example and use team orders to favour one driver in the world championship.
Following Ferrari’s one-two triumph in Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix where Sebastian Vettel’s notched up victory ahead of grim-faced team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, the scarlet scuderia are on top in both the drivers and constructors championships.
“We were well beaten and so I think we are the underdog and we need to catch up,” said Wolff as the tifosi celebrated with enthusiasm all around the Mediterranen principality. “This is the new reality.”
It was a landmark win for Ferrari, their first in Monaco since 2001 and a first 1-2 since 2010.
But it was shrouded in controversy.
It was clearly apparent that four-time champion Vettel was favoured by Ferrari for victory over his Finnish team-mate, who had taken pole position and led the race comfortably from the start before being called in for an untimely early pit-stop that gave Vettel the initiative.
That was certainly the view of most observers including Mercedes’ title challenger three-time champion Briton Lewis Hamilton who, like Wolff, does not welcome the prospect of adopting a similar favouritism strategy at Mercedes.
“I haven’t spoken to the team, and I don’t really plan to,” said Hamilton, who finished seventh while team-mate Finn Valtteri Bottas was fourth.
“Valtteri’s doing a great job. I don’t currently feel that we have to favour one over the other.
“It’s really important that we work as a team, more than anything, as we have been. There might be some things along the way positioning wise which, at some stage, become valuable, but – who knows? — it might go the other way and I might need to give Valtteri the upper hand.
“I really have no idea. We’ve just got to make sure we’re ahead of them so we don’t need to be in the same scenario.”
When Kimi Raikkonen celebrated his excellent pole position for the Monaco Grand Prix, he seemed to genuinely believe he would be given the chance to race fairly with teammate Sebastian Vettel.
He diplomatically pointed out he was racing for the team while also publicly letting it be known, “we are allowed to fight but we cannot take each other off”.
At the time, the extended comments from the Finn, more renowned for keeping his counsel, were a little odd.
Either he was fed up with the questioning and wanted it done with, or else he was using the post-qualifying press conference to make a point to his employers and the wider world in case events unfolded as many suspected they would come race day.
Was it planned? Vettel: "Not really." Raikkonen: "Nothing to say. Obviously its still second place but it doesn’t feel awfully good." 1/2— Andrew Benson (@andrewbensonf1) May 28, 2017
Team orders and Formula 1 seem forever set to be indelibly linked. Arguably, the first instance dates back to 1951 and an Alfa Romeo car swap between Juan Manuel Fangio and Luigi Fagioli after Fangio’s car hit trouble.
In the intervening 66 years, each time the issue appears to have gone to bed, it merely resurfaces, and so it has here.
In contrast to after qualifying, in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s race Raikkonen decided to keep his counsel but it was a face of thunder with which he greeted the crowds gathered at the street circuit.
The question prior to race was whether team orders would come into play or not. Staunch tifosi might suggest that wasn’t the case but it was a bizarre decision by Ferrari to bring him in on lap 34 when seemingly there was no desperate need to do so.
It led to him being caught in traffic, tripping up his charge enough for Vettel to stay out for a further five laps, set the fastest lap and get the jump on his teammate.
No wonder Raikkonen looked so livid but was he really surprised? Judging by his comments from 24 hours earlier, probably not.
It has already been assumed by everyone up and down the paddock that Vettel was Ferrari’s No.1 and Raikkonen the No.2.
But this was the first acid test, the first time properly that Raikkonen had brought the fight truly to his four-time world champion teammate – and very impressively it has to be said, not just in qualifying but the launch he got off the line in the race before pulling out a slim advantage.
This early into the season – barely a third of the way through – Ferrari were effectively asked if push came to shove would they pursue team orders.
They did even if when asked if it was planned Vettel’s response was “not really”.
But there should be no surprise. It has long been the team’s mantra, most notably when Michael Schumacher ruled the roost at the Prancing Horse for so many years, again to a lesser degree when Fernando Alonso was seen as the driver to revive the Maranello glory years, and it is apparent again.
Ferrari will be criticised for it but why? Raikkonen has been given chances to prove he deserves equal billing at the team, and that has not been warranted this season.
His race results read fourth, fifth, fourth, third, retired and second. With arguably the quickest and best performing car in full race trim that simply isn’t good enough.
In contrast, Vettel has been an astonishingly consistent performer come the Sunday of a race weekend and is yet to finish outside the top two in three races this season, Monaco his third victory of the current campaign.
Last Ferrari 1-2 finish was the famous 2010 German GP "Fernando is faster than you" - Today "Seb was faster than Kimi" #F1— James Allen (@Jamesallenonf1) May 28, 2017
And Ferrari know with a Vettel hegemony and Mercedes supposedly giving equal billing to Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas – well, at least a more equal billing – this gives them their best shot of catapulting Vettel to a fifth world title with Raikkonen hopefully chipping away to give them enough for the constructors’ championship.
Sure, fans would dearly love drivers to have a fair fight within a team and all credit for Mercedes for doing so.
But Vettel is the clear No.1 at Ferrari and has been for some time, and at least it was done this time for a modicum of grace and discretion.
In the past, Ferrari have not always done so: the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix when Rubens Barrichello slowed right down for a Schumacher victory, which led to boos of derision, is arguably the worst example.
But just seven years ago in Germany Felipe Massa markedly and grumpily slowed right down to let Alonso past.
The reality is team orders are here to stay.