Downtown Montreal activities, race weekend
Downtown Montreal activities, race weekend. Click image to enlarge

by Paul Williams

Montreal, Quebec – Checking the sports section of most Canadian newspapers in late June, you’d think a Formula One Grand Prix was not taking place anywhere in North America, let alone in downtown Montreal. Golf, tennis, hockey (hockey?), the 2010 Olympics that haven’t even started, they’re all covered: but hardly a mention of motorsports.

Here is a Canadian mystery, at least to those living outside of Quebec, because in June, the Formula One weekend in Montreal is the country’s biggest party going. Fans arrive from around the world – Quebecers, of course participate en masse — and downtown Montreal literally closes to regular traffic. Streets fill with live music, high fashion, exotic cars, beautiful women, and men trying to catch their eye. Restaurants and bars are open at all hours, Panerais and chunky IWCs flash in the sun during the day, and at night, race drivers greet adoring crowds. The place is literally packed with people, and the scene is the equal of any street party on the planet.

Not coincidentally, Acura chose this weekend to launch its new RDX performance SUV, which was the initial occasion for our presence there, but the Thursday and Friday launch segued nicely into the weekend F1 festivities, to which Honda and Acura invited nearly 600 journalists and guests from around the world.

You may know that Honda employs two of the best drivers in Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello in its RA106 cars, and is working toward regaining its formerly unbeatable position in the sport’s premier global event.

Jacques Villeneuve was there of course, now driving for BMW. He, too, is looking to regain some lost lustre, and remains a sentimental favourite for many Canadians.

Downtown Montreal activities, race weekend
Downtown Montreal activities, race weekend. Click image to enlarge

At the racetrack, a tour of the pits gave us a glimpse inside the Honda team organization and its technology. Race strategists, engineers and technicians cooperate to field the most competitive cars and fully rested drivers. It’s a hive of activity.

I mention the drivers because these guys do a lot more than taking the wheel for 90 minutes every two weeks. Attendance at press events (ours included), “meet and greets,” practice laps, working out, interviews with the media, participation in advertising campaigns, travelling from one country to the next, planning sessions, public relations, TV shows, being deluged by fans – their schedule is micro-managed from the time they get up to the time they finally hit the sack. They’re not complaining, though.

Ferrari Challenge
Ferrari Challenge. Click image to enlarge

Honda supplied elite seating at the race for its journalist guests, where we were able to see the cars decelerate as if they were dropping out of warp speed, negotiate a tricky hairpin turn, then rocket down the main straight, in front of the grandstand.

Along with the Canadian Honda executives, we were in the company of Dave Marek, Honda and Acura’s Chief Designer in North America, who claims to own every die-cast model in every scale of every Honda racecar ever built. He estimates his total collection of model cars at something over 4,500 (not all Hondas, mind you).

Over the three days of qualifying and racing, approximately 320,000 people attended the events at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. So as you can see, it’s no small event.

Robert Watherston, Honda Marketing Manager, Honda Racing F1 Team, explains race strategy
Preparing the Honda race cars
Spare parts for Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello
Click image to enlarge

Supporting the main race were the Star Mazda series and a Ferrari Challenge, along with a parade of vintage Austin Healeys slowly lapping the track, each with a Formula 1 driver sitting on the rear deck.

The racetrack in Montreal is normally a favourite of the drivers, but due to the large amounts of rubber the tires threw off, the surface became treacherous if drivers went off the racing line. Spectators see the cars only briefly as they flash, but you sure can hear them. Truly, if you’ve never heard an F1 engine screaming by at 18,500 rpm, you don’t know what “loud” is (earplugs are de rigeur).

Unfortunately for Honda, Barrichello succumbed to mechanical problems and retired early. Jenson Button hung on for a ninth place finish in the signature red and white Honda.

It’s not that Montreal needs more people attending this event; the wonder is, that more people don’t. From what I could see, everyone was having a terrific time, even if they were just wandering around downtown Crescent Street, taking in the ambiance.

The track is not far from downtown, and it’s best to leave your car in town when attending race events, and use the subway. Getting on and off the island upon which the track is built is challenging to say the least. Fortunately, everyone seems in good spirits as they make their way to and from the track.

Action at the Canadian Grand Prix
Action at the Canadian Grand Prix. Click image to enlarge

If you like cars, fashion, music, food and partying, the Canadian Grand Prix uniquely fits the bill. As an overall spectacle, it’s pretty much unrivalled in Canada. Tickets are already available for 2007, and if you plan to go, book your hotel accommodations as soon as you can.

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