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.
It’s like you’re living inside one of those magazines you see at airports.
That carnival atmosphere is amplified at the track itself. On practice days and race day, I’m ferried to the circuit in freshly hatched Infiniti QX80s by drivers who look like they moonlight in the presidential security detail. We’re dropped off beside the track at the – of course – Montreal Casino, a structure so hideously busy – the eye doesn’t know where to focus – it’s like it was built to be seen drunk. We cross covered bridges to the Renault Suite in the F1 Paddock Club. The suites sit atop “garages” so pristine you could perform operations.
Life is sweet in the Renault Suite. Champagne, fine foods and beautiful people are everywhere. Cheers! The ambience is chill dance club cum uptown bistro. 2016 marks the first year Infiniti and Renault’s well-established strategic partnership has seen genuine collaboration. Infiniti is directly involved in the development of hybrid technology to boost the performance of the Renault F1 car. Plus they’ve expanded the Infiniti Engineering Academy, a global talent search for young engineering students to work for a year in Renault Sport F1 and ultimately apply useful new knowledge in Infiniti automotive.
Oh, yes, there’s also racing! First, more champagne.
The concept of joie de vivre was invented by the French but the Quebecois have elevated it to what Republicans would disdain as a lifestyle choice. The extra exuberance and ubiquitous bon-homie during race weekend may have something to do with the tenuous nature of the event. Dance while you can. Montrealers behave like the party will go on forever but know it could evaporate like that. It all comes down pretty much to the whims of one man.
If Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Stephen Harper had a baby, it’d be Bernie Ecclestone.
Despite its reach and clout, Formula 1 is, at least practically speaking, a family business. As with most families it is highly dysfunctional. The don, Bernie Ecclestone, apparent inspiration for Tywin Lannister, is continually screaming for more money from all quarters. Always there’s the barely veiled threat to relocate his race and surrounding carnival to some stifling emirate where the local government knows how to treat a monopolist properly.
Just last week though, current Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said that the future of the F1 in Montreal is secure, despite looming deadlines for millions. A graduate of federal politics and Canada’s former Secretary of State for Amateur Sport, Coderre knows how the game is played. “There’s no problem,” he said and added, “it’s taxpayers’ money … and it takes a few months.”
Such swagger is worthy of the great Jean Drapeau himself!
Your average partier on Crescent Street is probably less confident though. Indeed, the perennial unsteady iffy-ness of Montreal’s F1 weekends remains an apt metaphor for life. Enjoy it while you have it because, come tomorrow, all belts could be off.