@WillWood attended his first grand prix as a representative of RaceFans as Formula 1 made its long-awaited return to Canada last weekend.
The air around Montreal is as thick with anticipation as it is moisture. Almost every team is represented by baseball caps on the heads of the metro commuters heading to Parc Jean-Drapeau station. By the time many have climbed the steep staircase and out of the station exit to the park, they’re greeted by a queue to the circuit that stretches over a kilometre – an absurd demand for entry on a day where the only vehicles on the track will be buses, tractors and the odd course car.
The figurative cobwebs are being blown off the race’s organisation after three years away. But this is Canada, so while the event stewards and Quebecois police officers may be struggling slightly to manage the masses, they are, naturally, impeccably polite about it. A group of children younger than F1’s V6 turbo power units play a game of ‘spot the team personnel’, peeking through tinted windows of cars driving by the snake of fans, excitedly pointing out the various team uniforms that pass.
Walking by the Olympic rowing basin that runs parallel to the long back straight on the circuit, a family of geese rest on the bank. One adult goose rudely declines a request for a photo. Once in the paddock, a gaggle of young people nervously ask Carlos Onoro – Carlos Sainz Jnr’s manager and cousin – for a selfie. He’s far more accommodating than the wildlife.
In the media centre – revamped for the sport’s 2019 visit – news filters through that the FIA will intervene in the porpoising problem in the interest of driver safety. At the first driver sit-down sessions of the weekend, Pierre Gasly welcomes the news. So does Yuki Tsunoda. Haas team principal Guenther Steiner is concerned that interference could affect the order. Gasly isn’t convinced.
After the sessions, the media centre is suddenly struck by ear-splitting sirens ringing out from phones around the room. The Quebec government has issued an emergency broadcast for an impeding thunderstorm. A trusted local source suggests it will strike in two hours’ time. The circuit is saturated 15 minutes later.
Many opt for an early exit in an effort to beat the worst of the red flag-worthy deluge. Any attempt to avoid getting drenched leaving the paddock is as successful as a Canadiens’ Stanley Cup campaign. Back in the city, rivers flow down the streets. Streams fall freely from church roofs. Every step is into a puddle.
In the traffic near Dorchester Square, some comical commuter blasts Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ at maximum volume. Thoughts turn violent.
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Last night’s clothes are still soaked. Fresh socks squelch into yesterday’s shoes. Reaching the paddock on the media shuttle bus, the blazing sun over the circuit soaks up the excess damp in no time.
A throng of fans wait by the gates to the paddock, watching drivers and mechanics wobble across the pontoon bridge over the rowing basin. A ticketholder tells a friend Esteban Ocon is taller than they realised. Mick Schumacher is cheered by the Paddock Club balcony as he appears.
In the drivers’ press conference, talk of porpoising and the FIA wading into the matter dominates proceedings. The sentiments are thus: Vettel is happy, Russell and Hamilton are happier, Verstappen is not happy.
Asking Hamilton how he would assess his season’s performance so far, the seven-time world champion is fairly candid. He never breaks eye contact while replying. He discusses buying a Sega Mega Drive in a Montreal game shop before ‘correcting’ himself to say Sega Genesis – its North American market name.
The first F1 track action of the weekend is remarkable for how unremarkable it is. Someone has set the media centre speakers to play all team radio clips at a volume even Spinal Tap would wince at. A man with a remote is sent in reduce the decibels for the grateful journalists. A moment of horror watching a local groundhog YOLO its way across the track in front of Sainz is the most excitable the press room gets all afternoon.
Once the chequered flag flies, the murky clouds over Montreal dump their contents again. The poor public leaving the circuit are punished by the precipitation. Only two brave the journey to Haas to speak with Schumacher, to get his thoughts on an unfamiliar venue. A later date with Kevin Magnussen is cancelled due to his appointment with the stewards.
The last call of the day is a trip to Pirelli to talk tyres. Mario Isola says the rarely-used Canadian circuit is in almost identical condition to its last race in 2019, despite close to three years of nearly no use. He insists the FIA’s technical directive will cause no challenges for them.
Walking back Hamilton, Vettel, Schumacher and Sainz are huddled together like school kids in the playground sharing notes on the exam paper they just sat. Hamilton laughs, relaxed, clearly among friends. These are colleagues talking shop after a day’s work.
Leaving the circuit at 9pm, the last shuttle arrives after half an hour of waiting in the rain. The one-way road along the rowing basin is blocked by a large vehicle unable to manage the tight turn at the road’s end. The shuttle and other cars containing countless weary mechanics simply trying to get to bed are log-jammed. Denis, the shuttle driver, reverses for two kilometres back up the road to escape, snaking around the parked cars on the bank. Denis is early favourite for Driver of the Weekend.
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Qualifying day starts with a bang. A Ferrari Challenge driver stacks his 488 exiting the hairpin in front of around 300 fans already sat in the stands before the clock has even ticked over to 9am.
Montreal offers no false promises of clear and warm weather today. A steady stream of low-intensity drizzle keeps the track slick and slippery, despite the best efforts of the Ferraris, Nissan Sentras and Formula 1600 support series cars to dry out the racing line.
Third practice comes and goes thankfully without major incident despite the conditions. Taking in lunch before qualifying, Romain Grosjean sneaks into the media centre canteen to fuel up. Presumably the Andretti IndyCar driver is here to say hello to his former Haas colleagues – or possibly lobby on behalf of his team owner’s F1 ambitions.
Qualifying is a nervous watch. Eyes flicker between the many screens as the lap times fall and the log of drivers missing corners rise. After the end of Q1, the warmth and dry of the media centre is abandoned for the cold and damp of the media pen.
Despite reaching Q2 comfortably, Charles Leclerc is out of his racing suit and already talking with TV – understandable given his result today will have no bearing on where he’ll start tomorrow. Unlike recent disappointments, at least he knew this one was coming. Asking if his team mate Sainz can win his first grand prix at a track where many have done before, Leclerc chirps “I hope so”.
As Valtteri Bottas broods over his Q2 exit, he cranes his neck behind him every few seconds to watch how team mate Zhou Guanyu is getting on in his first Q3 appearance. “It’s good to see,” says the fraternal Finn. “He needs it for his confidence”. Leaving the pen, Alex Albon gets a shock when someone begins to slam the garage shutter door as he attempts to enter. Unlike in Q2, however, Albon avoids the shunt.
After pole position is awarded, the surprise arrival of front-row starter Fernando Alonso earns cheers from paddock dwellers but double-takes from the media pen when he appears. He’s meant to be upstairs in the FIA press conference – a coveted privilege awarded exclusively to the top three starters. He grins sheepishly. In his defence, he last ended a qualifying session among the top three in 2013.
Hamilton is visibly relieved with fourth. Which is good, because it’s hard to make out what the Mercedes driver is saying from arm’s distance away. Zhou presents no such problems – hardly a surprise given how pumped he is at his first Q3 appearance.
Later in the evening, the only other appointment is at McLaren. A sleep-deprived Ricciardo – by his own admission – is asked how much time he left on the table in qualifying. “About 1.8 seconds,” he replies, deadpan. After his power unit problems left him 14th, Norris looks like he just wants to go back to the hotel and listen to Linkin Park.
Back in the city, downtown Montreal appears to be observing the Festival of Car Horns & Police Sirens. The festivities last until sunrise.
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Following three days of commuting through miserable Montreal weather, the reward is stunning sunshine on Sunday. Any additional layers needed for the previous days can be safely left at home.
It’s a long wait until lights out at 2pm. The support races at least offer some entertainment until then, although a nasty crash at the chicane sees a Ferrari leak litres of fluid around the Tarmac run-off and pit entry.
The media centre overlooks not the track but the water behind it. Thankfully, an unused commentary box is opened, allowing a direct view of the bustling grid ahead of the main event. Walking through the paddock one final time before lights out, Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto can be spotted chatting with Aston Martin chairman and local billionaire Lawrence Stroll.
In the media centre, the cars on the grid may not be audible as they take the start but the groans of disappointment when Verstappen comfortably beats Alonso to turn one certainly are. A few laps later, the sight of a slowing Red Bull sends a jolt around the room, until it’s quickly apparent it isn’t the leader who’s retired.
Tsunoda has little to say after his embarrassing race-ended crash. Catching him on his way back to the AlphaTauri hospitality feels a lot like cornering a child caught stealing sweets and demanding an explanation.
The rest of the race feels like a forgone conclusion with Verstappen out ahead, but at least the Safety Car offers an illusion of tension. Shouts of “come on, Carlos” betray the loyalties of some, but at the chequered flag, they’re left disappointed.
The press pen is not the happiest it’s been after the race. Not just due to the fans loudly cheering each new driver who arrives, drowning out the responses of those already there, but from all the missed opportunities that have gone begging throughout the field during the race.
Alonso is the most pointed. He explains how his ERS failed him 20 laps in and laments the lack of reliability for “car number 14”. Norris’s grief has progressed from depression to acceptance surprisingly quickly – he can only laugh at his pit stop mishap.
The narrow paddock is always busiest immediately after a race but especially so now. A hoard of mechanics are congregated outside the Red Bull garage. Two beautiful German Shepherd sniffer dogs are being let loose around the hospitality suite. If you’re a paddock rookie, you assume it’s routine. But the unusual scene quickly sets social media rumbling with rumours.
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The last assignment of the day it at Aston Martin with Mike Krack. The sport’s newest team principal is only nine races into his Formula 1 role and freely admits he still has so much to learn about his new position. Krack says juicy rumours of a flare-up at the team principals’ meeting are true and confirms there were cameras recording – but doesn’t confirm whether they belong to Netflix.
Taking care of some business back at the media centre, a large flock of fans can be seen at the end of the pontoon bridge leaving the paddock. Any notable name is mobbed by fans hunting for a photo, making the journey out of the circuit just a bit more awkward for everyone trying who’s simply trying to get by.
Walking through the paddock for the final time, it’s remarkable how much has already been packed away. For all the fanfare over F1’s return to Canada, it’s as if the sport can’t wait to leave. Understandable, given two back-to-back weekends outside of its European heartland.
Even if the race itself did not add more intrigue to the championship picture, it had been worth the effort to see the sport back at Montreal where it belongs. Without fail, the Canadians had been enthusiastic, welcoming and unwaveringly polite. Except for the geese.
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