Tensions mount between Verstappen, Hamilton ahead of Canadian GP

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MONTREAL — Practice is usually not that exciting an event. It can be interesting to watch a hockey team go through its drills or a basketball team work on new plays, but there’s a reason they do not sell tickets to this stuff.

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Allen Iverson had a point: It is just practice.

And yet, there was an undeniable buzz at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on Friday afternoon. Three years have passed since the last Canadian Grand Prix, and so Formula 1 fans — and, almost certainly, fans of just getting out and doing something different after years of pandemic-induced boredom — came out to the island in throngs to watch practice. The grandstands were full, the walkways were teeming, the bridges to the island had onlookers several rows deep craning for a view. Even the groundhogs were keen, one of the little devils dashing out on to the track in what seemed for a moment like it might be a very gnarly bit of natural selection.

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The critter managed to survive his sprint between the cars of Carlos Sainz and Fernando Alonso, though, so the return of Formula 1 to Montreal at least avoided its first roadkill.

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The drivers declared themselves pleased to finally be back in Canada, the fans declared themselves thrilled to be able to watch them tear around the island at ridiculous speeds while creating absurd sounds, and across the river the displays of chequered flags and people wearing F1 merchandise in Old Montreal only added to the party vibe. After an afternoon of heavy rain on Thursday, the weather even managed to cooperate on Friday. Happy vibes all around.

Except for, you know, with the competition. Among some of the rival teams, there are distinctly grumpy vibes.

The latest contretemps began on Thursday night with news that the FIA would introduce new regulations to combat “porpoising,” a fun-sounding word that is used to describe the distinctly non-fun phenomenon of race cars that are bumping up and down because of the way air flows underneath them at tremendous speeds. The mighty Mercedes team has struggled mightily with porpoising issues this season, knocking it well off the pace of championship leaders Red Bull, and the bouncing was so bad last weekend in Azerbaijan that Lewis Hamilton could barely get out of his car after the race and his teammate George Russell called the 90-minute drive “excruciating” because of the way the floor of the car repeatedly rattled off the ground. Hamilton said before Friday’s practice that he has serious concerns about his long-term health should all the jarring continue, while Alpha Tauri’s Pierre Gasly said drivers will need a cane by the time they are 30 years old if this keeps up.

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You can see the need for a fix there.

Or, maybe not.

The Red Bull team has been skeptical about the imposition of new rules mid-season just because certain teams are having problems under the regulations that were set when the season began. Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, said earlier in the week that teams with cars that kept hitting the ground could simply raise their cars. New regulations for the 2022 season forced total car redesigns, to varying degrees of success.

“It would seem unfair to penalize the ones that have done a decent job, versus the ones that have perhaps missed the target slightly,” Horner said.

Max Verstappen, the defending champion who is leading the standings this season, was more blunt: “If you can’t design the car properly for that, then that’s your fault.”

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Such appeals were ignored, and the new regulations put a limit on the degree to which “vertical oscillations” are allowed.

Whether this will be a benefit to teams like Mercedes is unclear, since if their only way to limit the bumping is to raise the car, that would come with a corresponding drop in speed.

Russell said in Montreal that driver safety needed to take precedence over competition concerns, although that raises the question of why it took an FIA rule change to force changes that the team could have made on its own.

In the background of all this is the bitterness that developed between Red Bull and Mercedes generally, and Verstappen and Hamilton specifically, as the two fought for a world title last season that included metaphorical and literal collisions and a final-race duel with some questionable officiating. In that instance, on-the-fly rule changes worked to Verstappen’s advantage — and add a note of irony to Red Bull’s grumbling this time around.

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Despite all the drama, the evidence of the first practice session suggests no serious reshuffling of the grid in Montreal. Verstappen turned in the quickest time on Friday afternoon, with teammate Sergio Perez in fourth. Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc were second and fifth, with only Fernando Alonso of Alpine sneaking in among the two teams that have dominated the podiums through eight races. Russell and Hamilton were sixth and eighth, not unfamiliar spots for either of them in 2022.

The business on the track will get more serious with Saturday’s qualifying session. The controversy off it will no doubt continue for some time after that.

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