5:50am June 9, 2012, Montréal – A naked young man struts across the exotically labeled Circuit barré, effectively blocking my morning run. Surreal doesn’t begin to describe the scene but it comes close. Instantly re-routing, I turn 180 degrees and sprint.
Montreal is always fun and exuberantly youthful. But during Grand Prix weekends all bets – and belts – are off.Then it hits me! Adam back there must be one of those student protestors, or maybe he just forgot to get dressed after some after-after-party. This is race weekend in Montreal. In 2012, 2013 and again this year, I am here as a guest of Infiniti for the length of the event and its many such surreal moments.
Home to four universities in its centre-ville, Montreal is always fun and exuberantly youthful. But during Grand Prix weekends all bets – and belts – are off.
In 1978, F1 found a permanent-ish home in Montreal.
Formula 1 is almost as big as the World Cup. And like the World Cup, most North Americans don’t know or care that the whole world watches it. Montrealers are different. Indeed, it’s hard to describe how well this town suits the cachet and attitude of the F1 Grand Prix circuit. It has the essential style and swagger. And for decades, when the world comes to town, they’ve put on le chien.
Earlier, in the ’60s and ’70s, Quebec and Ontario tracks traded opportunities to host the Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport and Mont-Tremblant. However, it was like the two venues were continually competing for which could provide poorer driving conditions. Then in 1978, Montreal’s legendary Mayor Jean Drapeau (which karmically means flag) proudly accepted the challenge to stage the event here. Speaking of swagger, Drapeau had almost single-handedly brought Expo to Montreal in 1967 and the Olympics in 1976, then shafted the rest of us with the bills.
Unlike so many other tracks 50 km out into the country, Montreal Circuit Jacques Villeneuve is actually located on the city’s doorstep. Historically an important trading stop, Montreal lives by the St. Lawrence River. Its racetrack sits on a man-made island, created for Expo and repurposed for the Olympics, a mere subway stop away from the heart of town. When drivers practice or race, the palpable noise gallops across the water and slams back from against the glass and stone buildings and Mount Royal. Or that might be the noise of the revelers on the streets.
To understand joie de vivre, visit Montreal during race weekend.
Montrealers take their role as hosts to international race fans very seriously. The town’s normally casual drinking laws almost evaporate in vodka fumes. You have to be truly anti-social to get noticed by police, many of whom spent this past year dressing in pink pajama bottoms and other colouful non-uniforms to protest government cutbacks. Somehow they manage to control the mayhem without serious incident. The last time Toronto hosted the world our police kettled and arrested it.
Montreal’s normally falling-apart roads become less noticeable during the Grand Prix weekend because so many get pedestrianized. So it’s hard to tell what is actually construction (okay, demolition). The centre of town becomes a string of European piazzas. Yes, during this massive three-day celebration of the pinnacle of auto-technology, the pedestrian is king.
In Pictures: Canadian Grand Prix Weekend
Speaking of continentals, the carnival scene also gets full-on Eurotrash! Expensive brands ‘activate’ (versus plain old promotion) offering merrymakers photo opportunities beside models with cheekbones so sharp they could cut cocaine. Pornographic streams of Bugattis, Porsches, Jags and top-end Japanese supercars whose names sounds like chemical compounds line the fronts of major hotels – not so much parked as waiting to pounce. Alpha males in sunglasses, reeking of cologne and looking like they oozed off the front page of Satin Shirt Monthly lurk by these cars all night, occasionally checking their phones to verify on Instagram how much fun they must be having.