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Nowhere to hide for Verstappen and Red Bull before Canadian Grand Prix | Giles Richards

Much as Max Verstappen enjoys virtual racing in his spare time, for the past two weeks the world champion has had an altogether more serious task in putting in the hours on the Red Bull simulator, as the team pursues a solution to the weakness in their car which has revitalised the 2024 Formula One world championship.

Verstappen, all but untouchable in 2022 and 2023 on his way to dominant world championships, has a far narrower advantage this season and of late has been on the back foot to McLaren and Ferrari at some tracks, another of which is likely to be the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve at this weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix.

Over the past three races Verstappen has been well beaten by McLaren’s Lando Norris in Miami; then at the next round in Imola he scraped home for victory in a race that might well have been won by a charging Norris with just a little more time; while in Monaco Red Bull were flailing over the kerbs and through the slow corners of the street circuit, where Verstappen could manage only sixth in a race won comfortably by Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.

Montreal’s street circuit on the Île Notre-Dame is no Monaco but a quick lap is still very much dependent on the ability of a car to ride the kerbs at the chicanes that interrupt the high-speed straights that define the track. Pace and stability through them makes for time and it is there where Red Bull struggle.

Verstappen still leads the drivers’ championship by 31 points from Leclerc, a margin that has been decreasing but nonetheless Verstappen still holds the whip hand. On the tracks that are smooth, with fast corners that put high energy through the tyres, such as Spain or Silverstone, the Red Bull will still be on top. However it is a design philosophy of pursuing excellence on these tracks that is now costing them.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc won in Monaco to move closer to Max Verstappen in the title race. Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA

Their car works best with a very low ride height, to generate maximum downforce from the ground-effect aero. But at tracks where this must be raised to cope with kerbs and bumps, the aero efficiency of the floor is reduced, making the car unsettled, harder to drive and down on pace as was clear with Verstappen’s unhappiness with its handling in Monaco, which he said was a “wake-up call” for the team.

Notably Red Bull’s only defeat in 2023 was at Singapore, a circuit with similarly high kerbs and slow corners. However, generally over the previous two years this weakness was masked by the scale of their advantage. Now Ferrari and McLaren have come close to catching them and do not suffer the same issues, Verstappen knows there is nowhere to hide.

“The limitations we have at the moment with the car over kerbs and bumps, we’ve had it for a long time so it’s nothing new,” he said in Canada. “But naturally when people around us are catching up, these problems are a bit more apparent.”

Unsurprisingly, solving this has become the team’s main aim as the championship fight intensifies, with their lead over Ferrari now cut to just 24 points but a quick fix remains unlikely. Whether they are any closer to a fix may be evident in Montreal.

“We know that we have to improve it, we had a very constructive week after Monaco to look into details of why it’s not so good,” Verstappen said. “We have to just work step by step to solve it, but it’s not something you can fix within one or two weeks.”

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Red Bull will likely be competitive in Canada but, naturally, Ferrari and McLaren are hungrily eyeing this as another opportunity to make hay. Norris, while on a roll, has been circumspect of late, cautious of making predictions but both the McLaren and the Ferrari, more comfortable with the higher ride height and able to really attack the kerbs and take pace on the exit of the chicanes, should be better suited to the track.

Leclerc has insisted he believes he is genuinely in the title fight with Verstappen, not a claim that anyone has been able to make realistically for at least 18 months but which has an air of legitimacy going into Montreal.

“The last two races have not been the tracks that favour Red Bull or show their strengths,” the man from Monaco said. “I don’t think that this one is a track that will show their strength either, so it might be an opportunity again for us.”

Fingers crossed then and, assuming that Verstappen has not pulled out a miracle from his time on the sim rig, there should be a real battle again this weekend – just what is needed to fan the flames of a title fight reignited in the nick of time.

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