Lewis Hamilton's campaign to become Formula One's seventh winner in this year's seventh grand prix got off to a strong start yesterday on the circuit that brought him his first triumph back in 2007. The Englishman set the fastest time for McLaren in the first practice session to fend off Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel by 0.118sec.
"Montreal is one of my favourite races of the season," Hamilton said. "The contrasts between Monaco and here couldn't be greater. The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is a fantastic track – it's super-fast in places, which means it requires finesse and precision, but you can also end up racing wheel-to-wheel with people at 200 mph too, which is an incredible sensation."
Hamilton, who needs a win to keep up his championship momentum, added: "We are still very much in the hunt for this world championship. We showed in Spain that we're very good in high-speed corners, but we were also quick in the final sector there, which is slower and more technical. I'm focusing on another clean weekend where I can score more points."
He set the pace on Pirelli's soft-compound tyres until the session was delayed with 40 minutes to go when Heikki Kovalainen crashed his Caterham heavily into the wall at Turn Nine. The Finn was unharmed, but the action was halted for 13 minutes while debris was cleared away. When the running resumed, Hamilton lowered his time to 1min 15.564sec on the faster supersoft compound.
For a long time his primary opposition came from Chinese GP winner Nico Rosberg, who lapped his Mercedes in 1m 15.782s, but in the closing stages a series of quick laps lifted Vettel to second with 1m 15.682sec. That was a fillip for the Milton Keynes ream, who have been angered by suggestions of impropriety even after they were forced to change the floor of their car following Mark Webber's victory in the Monaco GP. That followed a clarification by the FIA's technical department following the threat of protests, concerning the location of downforce-enhancing holes in the floor just ahead of the rear wheels.
Rosberg, the highest scoring driver over the last four races who finished second in Monaco, said he is confident that Mercedes are close to understanding how to consistently find the tyres' "sweet" spot, something that has frustrated every team thus far in an unusually intense season.
We have very clever people in the team looking at that and coming up with ideas," Rosberg said. "I think we can do really well in that area and get the most out of it soon. Of course there are still question marks on things because it's really complex, but I think we can understand it quickly.
"Monaco last season was one of our worst races, this year it was one of our best. We've learned."
Fernando Alonso was fourth fastest for Ferrari, with Webber close behind in fifth as, yet again, the top 11 cars were separated by less than a second.
Michael Schumacher was only ninth fastest after setting his best time on the slower soft-compound tyres, while Jenson Button completed the top 10 in the second McLaren despite losing a lot of running time as his mechanics had to deal with an oil leak.
Though there have been few signs of student protest on the Ile Notre-Dame, there were clashes with police as the more militant students threw rocks and disrupted traffic in downtown Montreal, causing several of the drivers to miss an official dinner. Elsewhere, others caused disruption of a different kind when the students staged a semi-naked protest.
FIA Formula 1 Grand Prix Du Canada 2012, Montreal. Practice: 1 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1min 15.564secs2 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull-Renault 1:15.6823 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:15.7824 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:15.8425 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull-Renault 1:15.8976 N Hulkenberg (Ger) Force India-Mercedes 1:15.9867 K Kobayashi (Japan) Sauber 1:16.0008 S Perez (Mex) Sauber 1:16.2499 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:16.26410 J Button (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:16.34711 P Di Resta (GB) Force India-Mercedes 1:16.46012 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:16.61913 P Maldonado (Ven) Wil liams-Renault 1:16.85914 R Grosjean (Swit) Lotus-Renault 1:16.89015 K Raikkonen (Fin) Lotus-Renault 1:17.01416 J-E Vergne (Fr) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:17.35217 D Ricciardo (Aus) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:17.58018 V Petrov (Rus) Caterham-Renault 1:17.93519 H Kovalainen (Fin) Caterham-Renault 1:18.17720 P de la Rosa (Sp) HRT-Cosworth 1:18.18221 B Senna (Br) Williams-Renault 1:18.76222 N Karthikeyan (India) HRT-Cosworth 1:19.35423 T Glock (Ger) Marussia-Cosworth 1:20.00424 C Pic (Fr) Marussia-Cosworth 1:20.067