What fuels Montreal’s love affair with the Grand Prix? It’s complicated


The Canadian Grand Prix ignites June 17-19 with amazing sights and parties. But the relationship between Montreal and F1 is noisy.

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A version of this article was initially published in June 2016 and updated in 2017 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Grand Prix racing in Canada. Now, with the return of Formula One to Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve after a two-year pandemic pause, it has been updated once more.      

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For a time, the official website of Formula One racing published a destination guide for each of the events held around the world, in such far-flung and exotic venues as Monaco, Singapore and Abu Dhabi.

“Few places,” it said, “embrace their Grand Prix as enthusiastically as Montreal.”

Tell us about it.

Everyone knows Grand Prix weekend marks the unofficial start of summer in this city, when the sun-deprived shake off their winter blahs and layers of clothing to hit downtown streets and terrasses.

This time around, as F1 returns to Montreal after a two-year pandemic pause, the urge to let loose seems stronger than ever.

Knowledge of racing is optional. If there’s a party, Montrealers are there, enjoying the sights and sounds on Crescent and Peel Sts., or in Little Italy — wherever they spot the live bands, displays of sleek cars and parades of beautiful people.

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Meanwhile, jammed bars, restaurants and hotels rake in the jet-set tourist dollars.

Of course, it’s mostly about the Grand Prix, on Île Notre-Dame. This year’s edition takes place June 17-19, covering Friday practice, Saturday qualifying and the race on Sunday. It’s the ninth stop of 22 in the planet’s premier racing series.

Champagne is the drink of the day during Grand Prix — for drivers, for partiers, for anyone who can afford it. And there are plenty of F1 fans who can. Above, race winner Lewis Hamilton gets a splash on the podium in 2019.
Champagne is the drink of the day during Grand Prix — for drivers, for partiers, for anyone who can afford it. And there are plenty of F1 fans who can. Above, race winner Lewis Hamilton gets a splash on the podium in 2019. Photo by Allen McInnis /Montreal Gazette

It’s our country’s biggest tourist event in terms of economic impact and international media coverage. Every year, the packed grandstands draw the admiration of visiting drivers and teams and the envy of other host nations that have sometimes struggled to fill seats.

And, yet, Montreal’s love affair with its Grand Prix, like all relationships, has had its share of rough patches. There have even been a couple of brief breakups along the way. Fair to say, some people would like a permanent parting of ways.

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A longstanding complaint is the use of millions of taxpayer dollars to cover hosting fees, no matter how much we’re told the payback is worth the investment.

There is also growing unease about celebrating a sport that belches pollution at a time when our planet is facing an urgent environmental crisis.

So, what exactly fuels our romance with the Grand Prix? How do we even describe it? Is it some sort of love-hate relationship?

Let’s just say it’s complicated.

Formula One was born in Europe, so it’s not surprising it has found a welcome and mostly stable home in North America’s most European city.

Montreal’s event remains the only Canadian stop on the calendar, and though the U.S. plays host to two races this year, F1 traditionally has struggled to establish a firm footing south of the border.

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Of course, it’s helpful when a sport produces local heroes. Gilles Villeneuve, who was born in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu and died in a 1982 crash in Belgium, remains among the most-revered F1 racers of all time — anywhere.

His son, Jacques, became a national sensation in his own right as the first — and still only — Canadian to have won an F1 championship, in 1997, though his career largely sputtered from there.

Today, there are two Canadians in the lineup of drivers, both Montreal-born. To put it politely, though, neither Lance Stroll, 23, nor Nicholas Latifi, 26, have managed to win the hearts of local fans with their performances so far.

But F1 is not just about drivers; it’s also about teams. And if there’s a sentimental home favourite, it’s Ferrari, which enjoys a passionate following among Montreal’s large Italian community, among others.

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Ferrari has enjoyed many successes here. Michael Schumacher, among the all-time F1 greats, rode the Prancing Horse to a record seven victories at the island track between 1994 and 2004.

“Montreal is a great city,” Schumacher has said. “It feels like the whole city gets involved and creates a really nice atmosphere.”

The German, an avid outdoorsman, was known to extend his sojourn by a few days to enjoy the Laurentians. Tragically, a ski accident in France in December 2013 left him with severe head injuries. Today, details of his condition are known only to a tight circle of family and friends as his rehabilitation continues at home.

F1 also has a rich British tradition, and the stratospheric success of Lewis Hamilton, who has surpassed Schumacher as the all-time winningest driver, has given many of this city’s pub patrons reason to celebrate (though he and his Mercedes team have hit a rough patch this season).

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As a Black driver, Hamilton has helped break down barriers in the largely white, male world of top-tier racing, helping to bring F1 to wider audiences and greater attention to Black Lives Matter and other causes through his outspokenness.

“The support is incredible,” Hamilton said after his win here in 2015, surveying the crowd. “Lots of British flags, people from out here in Canada … Grenadian flags, Barbados flags.”

Personalities aside, there is enthusiasm, too, for the show itself.

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A common criticism about F1 is that races are too often processional, led by the same top drivers in the same best cars. But Montreal is known for having delivered more than its fair share of drama over the years.

That goes back to the very beginning, in 1978, when, in a fairy-tale script, Gilles Villeneuve won the inaugural event at the circuit that would eventually carry his name.

To boot, it was his first career win — in a Ferrari, no less.

Hamilton, too, scored his maiden win here in 2007, putting Montreal in the history books as the place where the first Black driver won an F1 race. He went on to win six more times here, sharing that record with Schumacher.

It’s also where the longest Grand Prix was held in 2011, clocking in at more than four hours after being suspended midway because of torrential rain. Afterward, drivers marvelled that much of the soggy crowd had chosen to sit through the entire thing.

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That race is still considered among the most chaotic of all time, as drivers struggled to keep their cars pointed in the right direction on the drenched pavement, and Britain’s Jenson Button — in last place before the restart — skillfully picked through the pack to score an unlikely victory.

“This wasn’t just a Grand Prix,” a senior Mercedes official said at the time. “It was like an action movie.”

The track is often cited as a favourite among drivers, who enjoy the challenges posed by its singular design. Super-slow bends give way to high-speed straights where cars hit 330 km/h, and the proximity of concrete barriers and shortage of runoff areas leave little room for error.

Eyes on the prize. Montreal-native Lance Stroll, then with the Racing Point team, focuses on the task ahead in 2019. He and fellow Canadian Nicholas Latifi have failed to deliver hoped-for results in their F1 careers so far.
Eyes on the prize. Montreal-native Lance Stroll, then with the Racing Point team, focuses on the task ahead in 2019. He and fellow Canadian Nicholas Latifi have failed to deliver hoped-for results in their F1 careers so far. Photo by Allen McInnis /Montreal Gazette

Not unlike Montreal’s public roads, however, trying to overcome the obstacles can end in frustration.

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In 2008, the track surface began to crumble from stress and neglect soon after the cars hit the track. By the end of the weekend, it looked like the Metropolitan Expressway after a spring thaw, prompting Brazil’s Felipe Massa to threaten never to return.

“You’ve obviously got a culture of s–t roads out here,” driver-turned-commentator David Coulthard once noted, the Scot expressing what every road-weary Montrealer already knows.

Then there is the so-called Wall of Champions, at the final turn before the stretch to the finish line. That concrete barrier earned its nickname in mock honour of those who’ve crashed into it, including Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve — twice.

To add insult to injury and scattered car parts, the wall also became known for the slogan it used to carry: Bienvenue au Québec.

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In every other way, though, the welcome is warm and generous — and appreciated. Drivers, teams and the rest of F1’s travelling entourage, which in normal times numbers 1,000 or more, are sincere when they say they love coming to Montreal. And they say it a lot.

One big reason is the proximity of the circuit to downtown, allowing them to stay in the city and soak up the party atmosphere. At venues where tracks are farther afield, drivers feel cut off from the vibe — if it even exists.

Germany’s Nico Rosberg, another driver-turned-commentator, counted Montreal among his favourite F1 stops, and summed up its essence nicely: “It’s a beautiful but also crazy city where there is always a lot happening, particularly in the evenings.”

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Good luck squeezing through. The crowds descend on Crescent St. during Grand Prix festivities.
Good luck squeezing through. The crowds descend on Crescent St. during Grand Prix festivities. Photo by JOHN KENNEY /Montreal Gazette

Or, as one St-Laurent Blvd. restaurateur has put it, it’s the one weekend of the year Montreal gets to “act like a New York, like a Paris, like a London.”

That means high-end restaurants get to stock up on caviar and truffles, pricey wine and even more pricey Champagne, to satisfy the wants of F1’s travelling glamour crowd and the expense accounts of executives trying to woo clients.

It means downtown hotels fill up to more than 90 per cent occupancy, with rooms fetching twice the usual rates or more.

It means extra bookings as visitors — about half from outside Quebec — extend their weekend visit into a full vacation, while conventions jostle to schedule activities around the Grand Prix.

It means 500,000 in attendance at the Crescent St. festival alone — good luck trying to squeeze through — and 300,000 pushes of the turnstiles at the race track.

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It means a financial windfall for the local economy that’s been estimated as high as $90 million by some measures (and about half that by others).

Sure, outlandish displays of out-there excess can be grating, but the large infusion of euros and greenbacks certainly is not.

Hollywood legend Al Pacino drops in at Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve in 2015.
Hollywood legend Al Pacino drops in at Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve in 2015. Photo by Mark Thompson /Getty Images

It also means, for Montrealers who like car racing and even for those who do not, an opportunity to feel good about a city that many feel has lost much of its lustre over the decades.

No other local event draws the same kind of attention. Grand Prix racing is one of the highest-viewed sporting spectacles, up there with the Olympics and World Cup soccer.

The Montreal International Jazz Festival attracts large crowds, but not a global spotlight on the scale of F1, whose races are broadcast around the world — with a cumulative TV audience of 1.55 billion in 2021, if official numbers are to be believed.

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Montreal’s race consistently scores high TV ratings, helped in large part by the mid-afternoon start — prime time in Europe. More than 400 media members have been accredited to cover this weekend’s event, organizers say.

Granted, the installations at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve can’t compete with Monaco’s shimmering glitz, Singapore’s high-tech gloss or Bahrain’s exotic desert setting, where the sand is glued down to prevent it from blowing onto the track.

Still, it’s hard not to be impressed by the stunning overhead images of Circuit Gilles Villeneuve amid the lush greenery of Île Notre-Dame, whether you’re a TV viewer in another country or a Montrealer watching at home or with the bar crowds.

Montrealers are justifiably proud, too, of their celebrated savoir faire when it comes to putting on a world-class sporting event that draws high praise and large crowds year after year.

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So what’s the problem?

‘It’s starting to feel icky,” is how one F1 fan put it.

Or maybe former fan. This was 2016. The Montrealer admitted he had stopped watching races on TV, and wasn’t even sure for which team his favourite driver — Spain’s Fernando Alonso — was now racing.

(For the record, Alonso, F1’s elder statesman who turns 41 this summer, drives for Alpine. He’s a two-time champion who so far has managed to avoid intimate contact with the infamous Wall.)

Truth is, the ick factor is not new and, for some, has been quietly growing.

There has always been a measure of indifference toward the Grand Prix among some Montrealers, and downright hostility, too. Just ask South Shore residents who’ve had to put up with the noise of screaming engines from the track.

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There are those who can do without the added congestion on roads and bridges that is already intolerable during roadwork season. Or the downtown hordes crowding streets and sidewalks.

For some, Grand Prix weekend is their cue to head for the cottage.

Topless protesters crash a Grand Prix event in Montreal in 2014. The body writing reads: Sex Slavery.
Topless protesters crash a Grand Prix event in Montreal in 2014. The body writing reads: Sex Slavery. Photo by Dario Ayala /Montreal Gazette

Of greater concern is the issue of prostitution and child exploitation. An international study in 2016 cited Montreal as a destination for sex tourism and referred to increased prostitution — some of it involving minors — around the Grand Prix.

Since then, ad campaigns during race week have served to raise awareness about the issue. This time around, the ads take direct aim at potential customers with the stark warning that “paying for sex is illegal in Canada.”

There are concerns, too, about human-rights abuses in some of the countries F1 goes racing as the series continues to expand to markets outside its traditional European base. Russia has been removed from the calendar because of its actions in Ukraine, but Saudi Arabia, for example, remains.

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At the same time, heightened awareness about environmental issues has put into question the continued relevance of traditional motor sport, especially with the emergence of alternatives like Formula E, a globe-trotting series featuring all-electric cars sanctioned by the same governing body as F1 (and which had one ill-fated run in Montreal in 2017).

It’s not just erstwhile fans who are feeling uneasy; some drivers are, too — and have begun to speak out.

Veteran Sebastian Vettel, who like Hamilton has been especially vocal about issues he cares about, turned up at the recent Grand Prix in Miami wearing a T-shirt with the message: “Miami 2060 — 1st Grand Prix Under Water; Act Now Or Swim Later.”

To be fair, F1 has veered into greener territory in recent years, with a sustainability strategy announced in 2019 whose motto boasts: “Net Zero Carbon emissions from factory to flag by 2030.”

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Under the plan, F1 cars are to run on 100 per cent sustainable fuels by 2026, while host venues will be obliged to eliminate single-use plastics and reuse, recycle or compost all waste by 2025, among other Earth-friendly measures.

F1 has long served as a laboratory of sorts, and proponents say any conversation about sustainability must take into account how the sport’s innovations might transfer from the racetrack to the driveway and beyond, sometimes in unexpected ways.

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For example, one British hospital looked at how pit stop techniques might apply to time-pressed procedures used in the resuscitation of newborn babies. The thinking was there might be something to learn about efficiency from pit crews who can change all four wheels on a race car in 2.5 seconds or less.

The dilemma for F1 is that, in trying to answer to its critics, it risks alienating the purists for whom the smell of exhaust is perfume and the noise of engines music.

When F1 switched to gas-electric hybrid power units in 2014, organizers of the Australian Grand Prix threatened legal action, arguing noise is an integral part of the spectacle, and the quieter cars short-changed spectators.

No doubt, this sort of thing does nothing to endear F1 to its detractors.

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At least, whatever the complaints, the worthwhile economic impact of staging a Grand Prix — the money spent, taxes collected and jobs created — is clear and undisputed.

Or is it?

The question is worth asking, given the wide range of figures provided by various levels of government and other stakeholders over the years.

There was a time when Ottawa estimated the annual spinoffs of the Grand Prix at $71 million, while Quebec put it at $89 million. You can drive a truck through that gap, or several sleek racing cars.

Finally, in 2016, a study commissioned by the city of Montreal, Tourism Montreal, Tourism Quebec and local promoter Octane Racing Group came up with a new, purportedly definitive number: $42.4 million.

But here again, caution is advised. Experts have used words like “prudent” and “restrictive” to describe the study’s methodology. For example, it calculated estimated spinoffs generated by Grand Prix ticket-holders only. Locals and tourists who come for the party — but not the race — were excluded.

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Even then, only ticket-holders from outside the Montreal area were counted. That’s because the survey sought to measure the amount of “new” money being generated. The assumption — arguably shaky — is that Montrealers spend the same amount of cash here whether or not they attend the Grand Prix.

Nor did the study attempt to put a dollar value on the immense international exposure the event brings to the city, province and country.

A-list actors Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz walk the starting grid before the start of the 2016 Canadian Grand Prix on Île Notre-Dame.
A-list actors Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz walk the starting grid before the start of the 2016 Canadian Grand Prix on Île Notre-Dame. Photo by Dario Ayala /Montreal Gazette

And yet, even an annual windfall of $42.4 million would seem to justify what it costs for the right to host the Grand Prix — around $19 million a year under a long-term contract that was set to expire in 2029.

The bill is shared by the federal and provincial governments, plus the city of Montreal and its tourism bureau.

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In 2021, a two-year extension to that deal was announced to compensate for the pair of races not held due to the pandemic, at a cost of $25 million and $26 million, respectively, for the 2030 and 2031 editions.

That’s considered a relative bargain compared with most other F1 venues around the world, with average hosting fees estimated at around $40 million.

Canada, like other “historic” races, gets a break because of its long association with F1 that spans over five decades, with races held at Mosport Park in Bowmanville, Ont., and Mont-Tremblant before moving to Île Notre-Dame in 1978.

Since then, and until the pandemic hit, the Grand Prix has been held at the island circuit every year except 1987, when it was cancelled because of a sponsorship dispute, and 2009, over money and track upgrades.

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And every year, the fans turn out in droves.

Interest in F1 only seems to be growing, fuelled in no small measure by the wildly popular Netflix series Formula 1: Drive to Survive, which has been renewed for a fifth and sixth season.

This weekend’s Grand Prix at Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve has long been sold out, and attendance is expected to top 300,000 over the three days with the addition of two grandstands and expansion of VIP lodges.

Despite everything, the love affair, it seems, still burns.

‘The city grinds to a halt over the race weekend as fans from around the world descend on Quebec for a non-stop party,” says the F1 destination guide, and it’s not wrong.

However, it could have added: For better or for worse.

[email protected]

twitter.com/walterb F1

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