MONTREAL – The Canadian Grand Prix may be just what Lewis Hamilton needs to fix a disappointing start to the Formula One season.
Two of the McLaren Mercedes driver’s 17 career victories have come on the tightly cornered Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and he won pole position in three of his four previous visits.
On Friday, the Englishman was quickest again during two 90-minute practice sessions, a good omen for the 2008 world champion who is seeking his first victory in a season in which it seems that everyone else is getting wins.
”It’s a circuit I do enjoy,” said Hamilton, whose best results this year are third place finishes in the first three races. ”The crowd is incredible every time I come here.
”As soon as I leave the pits I see the crowd stand up and wave and I try to show them acknowledgment. It’s been that way every time I’ve been here. They really do give me a great boost. I hope that continues.”
There have been six different winners in six races this year and Hamilton hopes to extend that record to seven.
He certainly had the pace on one of the unique tracks in the series, a 4.361-kilometre layout that features long straightaways leading to tight turns that can play havoc with brakes and engines.
He led the morning session with a best lap of one minute 15.564 seconds, then bettered that on super-soft tires in the second at 1:15.259, just ahead of championship leader Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari at 1:15.313.
There will be one more practice on Saturday before qualifying, where he will attempt to take pole position for a fourth time, two short of German star Michael Schumacher’s race record.
”I feel positive for the weekend,” the 27-year-old said. ”I try not to come into weekends with confidence or anything like that.
”I come in as best prepared as I can possibly be and make sure my head is down and I just continue to improve with the car and the track.”
Hamilton will no doubt also wish to erase the memory of last year’s Canadian Grand Prix, when he was bumped off the track and out of the race in the opening minutes by teammate Jenson Button, who went on to win a wild, rain-soaked the race.
Rain threatened again on Friday, but held off just long enough to get the two sessions in before it came down in a deluge of thunder and lightning. Sunny skies are forecast for qualifying and for the race on Sunday afternoon.
Practice is more about testing tires, finding the right engine set-up and getting used to the track, so fast speeds don’t always tell who will win.
Alonso said Ferrari spent the morning evaluating new tweaks to the car and the afternoon comparing performance with different fuel loads and the two tire compounds teams are allotted by Pirelli.
”Now we must prepare as much as well as possible for the weekend,” said the 2005 and 2006 world champion. ”The circuit is very similar to a street circuit, with the walls very close to what are normal roads.
”It therefore becomes very important to find the right reference points, especially in terms of braking points and how far one is from the walls, in order both to put together a quick lap and drive smoothly over a long distance.”
Alonso’s teammate Felipe Massa, whose job is reportedly in jeopardy as he languishes in 14th place in driver standings, was third fastest.
He was followed by two-time defending F1 champion Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull racing, who is gunning for a first win in Canada after being passed by Button on the final lap a year ago.
A sign of how unpredictable the 2012 season has been was that Paul Di Resta of the Force India team, who is in 11th place, was fifth fastest while Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi was sixth, just ahead of Schumacher’s AMG Petronas Mercedes.
It was a difficult day for Button, who got in only 12 laps in the morning before developing gear box trouble. The Briton did not get out again until late in the second session, but managed to place ninth, just behind Chinese GP winner Nico Rosberg’s AMG Petronas Mercedes.
Vettel’s teammate Mark Webber also struggled in 12th place.
Race officials issued a reprimand to Vettel for causing a collision with Bruno Senna’s Williams on the final chicane before the start-finish line. And Sergio Perez of Sauber was fined 1,200 Euros ($1,545) for speeding in pit lane.
The slippery track saw Caterham’s Heikki Kovalainen slide into a wall at turn-8 in the morning practice, scattering debris across the track and forcing a 12-minute delay. The Finnish driver was unhurt. The Renault-powered car was badly damaged on the right side, but was fixed in time to return partway through the afternoon run.
Senna put his Williams into the infamous Wall of Champions, the final turn on the track, forcing a 13-minute delay in the afternoon session. He was unhurt.
There were no signs of the protesters who tried to disrupt a Grand Prix charity cocktail event on Thursday night that led to several arrests. The city has seen nightly demonstrations for several weeks by students and others opposed to university tuition hikes.
Instead, the mischief came from animals that live near the track, which is in a island park across from the downtown area. A fox ran onto the asphalt, but managed to duck under a barrier in time to avoid any cars. Later, a squirrel jumped a barrier ahead of Kimi Raikkonen’s onrushing Lotus and a groundhog made it across the track safely.