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For one weekend in the middle of June, Montreal – and Canada – was the centre of the international auto racing world. The Formula One Grand Prix of Canada had come to town after a one year absence. When the Grand Prix circus comes to Canada, everyone – at least everyone in Montreal and vicinity – is a Formula One fan. Montreal overflows with pilgrims coming to pay homage to the great Formula One God.

For once in the year it’s great to be a race fan and part of a visible mass movement. This is the one weekend in the year when we race fans – who normally lead a rather closeted life and our racing passion is ignored by friends and co-workers – take centre stage. This was the day you could wear your Ferrari cap or your Villeneuve T-shirt in public without feeling foolish.

Realistically, the Grand Prix does not compare in significance with the Olympics or the FIFA World Cup in worldwide fan interest or with the importance of the G8/G20 but, nevertheless, it was a big deal and it has to be rated as an outstanding success.

It may have cost taxpayers in Canada about $15 million in fees to Formula One Management (FOM), but that’s a mere pittance compared to the billion plus being spent on that boring G8/G20 falderal down the road in Ontario. In the wake of the first revival of the Grand Prix in Montreal it feels like money well spent.

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This year the event was a sell-out with about 115,000 fans in attendance on race day. With the bulk of the tickets sold as three-day tickets, the promoters could claim a weekend attendance of over 300,000 – that same fan base three times over. Unlike the Indy 500, which has become essentially a drive-in-from-home one-day event, the acceptance of the three-day ticket means that the hotel rooms in Montreal are filled despite the inflated room rates, the restaurants are jammed, and the city is jumping.

After the 2008 version of the Canadian Grand Prix, the rights holders FOM (personified by its mercurial CEO Bernie Ecclestone), refused to sign a renewal for 2009, claiming that there were huge outstanding debts and demanding an exorbitant fee for any future Canadian Grands Prix. In the wake of the so-called ‘sponsorship scandal’ it seemed unlikely any government would find it politically wise to be seen as doling out big chunks of public monies to overseas extortionists (the aforementioned Bernie).

But a closely averted withdrawal of the main F1 teams a year ago, followed by the ouster of Max Mosley as head of the FIA, seemed to persuade Bernie to re-enter negotiations and accept a much lower fee – a flat rate of $15 million for each year of a five-year period. The deal was completed based on a commitment of funds from the federal government, the government of Quebec and the Montreal hotel room tax.

So, one weekend a year for five years at least, Canada will – like a modern Brigadoon – emerge from the fog to bask in international accolades as the world centre of auto racing. Well, maybe not in the United States, but that’s another story isn’t it.

This was the 40th running of the Canadian Grand Prix, the first having taken place in 1967 – Canada’s Centennial year – at Mosport. That’s 43 years ago but there have been three years when there was no Grand Prix – 1975, 1987 and 2009 – all three due to disagreements over promoter fees or sponsorship.

Today, the spectators sit in massive metal grandstands or in private loges. The massive complex of structures to accommodate the teams and the VIP guests has grown to the point that it threatens to overwhelm the pit/garage area as well as the entire short pit straight. Indeed, the teams’ hospitality units are actually erected on a bridge-like structure extending well out into the former rowing basin.

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The extravagant modern facilities in Montreal are a far cry from those at Mosport in 1967. Its facilities included a small tower complex which still exists today at the entrance to pit lane. Back then it housed everything – track office, race control, timing and scoring and the media. There was the old row of pit boxes but everything else was temporary, working out of the back of trucks out in the open or under tents.

As for the race fans, they had to inch their way in by car in lines that stretched back towards the 401. Once there, they could pitch their tents for overnight accommodation and take up a spot on the grass to watch the race. I can’t remember if the two wooden grandstands that used to sit across from the pits were there in 1967 or not – they were there in 1968.

In those days, the teams showed up with the cars they planned to race. If they brought a spare, it was rented out to an aspiring young driver. In 1967 Eppie Weitzes was allocated the spare Lotus 49. After Jimmy Clark crashed his primary car on Friday, Weitzes was assigned the repaired car. The next year, Bill Brack was in the Lotus team’s spare car but after running strongly, he retired with a broken drive shaft. Later, he found out that Graham Hill had complained about a vibration and his drive shafts had been switched out for the ones from the spare (Brack) car.

That first Canadian Grand Prix was run in the rain and the wet conditions caught many of the cars and drivers out. Only two cars finished on the lead lap – winner Jack Brabham (in the underpowered Repco-Brabham) and teammate Denis Hulme. In this, the first year of the ‘three-litre’ formula, Hulme ended up the unlikely winner of the championship with Brabham a close second.

In the interests of Quebec-Canada relations (we were really optimistic about national unity and all that in the wake of the Centennial celebrations of 1967) there was a plan to alternate the Grand Prix between Mosport in Ontario and St. Jovite (now referred to a Mont-Tremblant) in Quebec, and the race was held at the Laurentian circuit in 1968 and 1970. But the facility could not support the crowds needed to make the Grand Prix a success and the road system was a terrible bottle-neck.

In 1971, the Grand Prix returned to Mosport as its ‘permanent’ site. A failure of the Mosport promoters to ante up the money demanded meant no Grand Prix in 1975. Instead they put on a ‘Grand Free’ in terribly cold, almost winter-like conditions.

By 1977, Mosport’s infrastructure – spectator fences, guard rails, communications lines – was aging and in serious need of repair. The place was the rustic setting it remains to this day with no adequate hotel accommodations nearby. A couple of scary accidents spooked the drivers and there was a growing sense that this circuit was ‘too fast’ and no amount of fixing-up was going to satisfy the vocal driver safety faction.

There had been an abortive attempt in early 1977 by Labatt’s and the Mosport promoters to move the Grand Prix to Toronto – more or less along the lines of today’s IndyCar circuit, but the Mosport interests had persuaded the locals to oppose a rival plan years before and that opposition remained. So when it became clear that a new modern venue had to be found for the Canadian Grand Prix, Exhibition Place was not an option.

Photo by LAT Photographic

Roger Peart, who was a member of the CASC national executive, spearheaded a move to convert Île Notre-Dame in Montreal – an artificial island built for Expo ‘67 and later used as the rowing basin for the 1976 Olympics – into a race circuit. Despite the Montreal reputation for construction boondoggles, this plan came together in a few short months. Work began on June 20 and a try-out event for Formula Atlantics was held there on September 24, two weeks before the 1978 Canadian Grand Prix. Peart continues to be a major player in international motorsports – he’s president of the ASN Canada and, as such, plays an active role at Grands Prix around the world.

Despite the cold and wet fall weather, the Grand Prix was a great success in its own right. Then, miraculously, hometown hero Gilles Villeneuve won in his Ferrari, his first Grand Prix win. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, wearing a buckskin coat, climbed up on the elevated podium to present the trophy and a generation of devoted fans was created on that day.

If for no other reason that the legacy of Gilles and Jacques Villeneuve – father and son – the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is the natural home for the Canadian Grand Prix forever.

I used to be a fanatic about Formula One racing. This event was my 69th Grand Prix but I had not been to one in Montreal since 1996 and 1983 before that. I was impressed by the fan support. The track was jammed all three days with Canadians, Americans and Europeans. A large portion of the fans were wearing F1 regalia despite the exorbitant prices – the t-shirts were $60 and up. The logic that an event like this has to be in a big city environment was inescapable. You need a city like this with its hotels and restaurants to accommodate the big crowds needed to make it a success. These same hotels and restaurants give the visitors some place to spend their money – and it’s that money that makes the argument that this costly Grand Prix extravaganza makes financial sense. The place – the island and the city – was overflowing with race fans and the joint was jumping. After all the doom and gloom about waning interest in auto racing, this was a great place for a race fan to be.

Unfortunately, despite the glitz of the event, the food offered to fans was no better than the stuff you would get at a peewee hockey rink – hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza slices. I remembered that the stuff in 1996 was equally pathetic.

Once I beeped my way into the paddock area, it was a different world. In the old days a race paddock was a more-or-less open field with the cars parked out in the open. Now it’s a vast complex of portable structures. The garages extend back from the permanent pit garages by 40 metres or so, followed by a narrow passageway with a solid row of team hospitality/office structures which are built on a bridge-like extension out over the former rowing basin. Of course, my ‘green’ one-event pass was not good for admission to any of these VIP enclaves. The Paddock Club extended along the top of the pits and all the way down into the first corner – with more enclosures on the other side of the pit straight. I was told that it costs about $2500 for a ticket to these VIP areas and that the food was excellent – no hot dogs for these cats.

In here it’s another world. I did see a few Canadians I knew – Roger Peart, Paul Cooke, Bill Brack – but once inside the FIA-controlled zone, I might have been at the Nürburgring or Shanghai. This circus had come to town and almost everybody here had come in on the airlift from Europe. Other than the security folks controlling access to the various restricted areas and a few token officials, this was a European show. Of course, the mentality was in keeping with the monolithic Eurocentric nature of the players. PRN’s senior photographer, Ramish Bayney, joked that it might better be called the European Grand Prix.

The media centre was another example of the Eurocentric reality inside the barriers. Aside from the Montrealers, I had trouble identifying more than a half-dozen Canadian writers. As for the United States, I could only identify one writer who had been sent up to cover this important event. John Nicholson was filing for Associated Press, so he was the single source for any newspaper or broadcast medium in the U.S. that wanted report on this event. Given his huge potential audience and the presumed interest in promoting an F1 race in the U.S. he was a bit surprised and pissed off that he was treated like a nobody by the ‘Europeans’.

Dan Knutson, our own F1 correspondent who reports for National Speed Sport News, was there but NSSN is not exactly a mass-circulation paper.

The Canadian Grand Prix is a big event. Montreal is lucky to have it and beleaguered F1 fans in North American are lucky to have a genuine F1 race on this continent. Despite the grandiose claims that there will be a Grand Prix in Texas in 2012, it seems more likely that the Montreal event will be the only F1 race here for the foreseeable future.

Despite the F1 circus being a self-contained foreign-content package, there is a sufficient fan base here to support the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal and we race fans are all the better for it. Maybe I won’t wait another 30-odd years before I ask for media credentials the next time.

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