Richland F1’s North American editor Ernie Black shares his stories of life in the paddock as Formula One travels to the circuit which bears the name of Canada’s favorite racing son, punchy Canuck Gilles Villeneuve.
All Grands Prix are special, but a home race is always extra special. The paddock is tighter than and not quite as glamorous as those of the European rounds. There are no fancy motorhomes to woo pass holders but for those of us who adore the sport, it really is irrelevant. The drivers and teams all seem to love the Canadian GP, in part because of the city’s charm and party atmosphere and in part because of the supportive and passionate fans. It is difficult for any Grand Prix venue and backdrop to follow Monaco, but Montreal seems to hold its own to a degree.
On to Montreal as it were. I left my home just north west of Toronto at 3:30am on Thursday morning for the 560km journey with a full tank of petrol and enough energy to embarrass a keg of Red Bull. At 4:15am I made the typical stop at a Tim Horton coffee shop and met up with my convoy partner and fellow Canadian journalist Jordan Irvine. A quick coffee and some brekkie, and we were on our way. We arrived in Montreal and headed directly to the newly opened ALT hotel to sign in and pick up our FIA accreditation and passes.
I left the hotel and headed just north of the city to my mate’s home to drop off my luggage and freshen up. I then headed back to the Alt hotel to catch the FIA media shuttle to the circuit to interview Caterham reserve driver, American GP racer Alexander Rossi. Upon arriving to the circuit, I made my way to the media centre, a humble structure of what appears to be white pre-fabricated panels and glass.
The skies were overcast and grey and there was an earthy smell about. The damp humid air was almost as uncomfortable as the annoying, fine drops of rain, which did nothing for my hair as it flopped like a wet rag. Nonetheless, I made it to Caterham and met with my friend, head of communications Tom Webb. We chatted briefly and then he summoned Alexander for our interview. I loved chatting with Rossi. He’s very down to earth, transparent and open. He appears to have a great attitude and personality.
I made my way back to the media centre and snapped some photos with my mobile to post on Twitter. As always, I spent the weekend posting and tweeting ‘behind the scenes’ photos for my followers as I do at my home GP every year.
Friday was another frantic day for me, however it wasn’t overly busy in the paddock. The weather was almost a carbon copy of Thursday with the odd glimmer of hope as the sun peaked through the clearing clouds by late afternoon. At 10am on Friday morning, I headed to the Lotus garage where I met with Lotus account manager Fleur Foster. She graciously escorted me into the garage where she handed me my head set and a team radio so I could follow along during FP1.
I was afforded this great opportunity through my contacts at Lotus sponsor, Burn Energy Drink. I spent an hour in the garage listening to conversations between drivers and engineers. I observed closely as mechanics investigated the left-rear quarter of both cars – but primarily Pastor’s. I watched the engineers from lubricant and fuel supplier and partner Total take samples – I assume for the FIA. It was like a very well-choreographed dance routine. Pirelli was on hand to take temperature readings on the tyres after a stint. Engineers did the same as the tyres came out of their cozy warming blankets. The tyre pressures were checked countless times and adjusted as required. Wings were adjusted and finger prints were buffed out to ensure the car and its sponsor’s logos were perfect. My mind took snapshots from each of my senses.
The sights of everything that happened, the sounds of the air guns, the starter motor and the sound of the new V6 turbo power unit being thrust into life. I remember the feel of the hairs on my neck stand as Grosjean pulled out of the garage, and I realized I had just witnessed something special. Many people do not realize that most F1 journalist can go through an entire GP weekend and only see a car through a pane of glass or as is the case in Canada, only through a TV monitor.
After ten hours at the circuit, it was time to head out get showered and changed and hit the city to soak up some atmosphere. I had an invitation for a swanky Grey Goose affair at which I made a brief appearance. There was a lovely display of the historic Martini racing stripes and very well appointed Martini bar at which I could have spent the rest of my time in Montreal with little convincing required. Off to the Buxton Bash at Hurley’s Irish Pub on Crescent Street but first, dinner at Rubens. Rubens is arguably one of the best restaurants for real Montreal Smoked meat sandwiches. It’s not a deli; let me be clear about that. Its delicious food is always fresh and the service is always quick and friendly. After dinner pints with F1 fans was next. This would be the 5th annual Tweet-up by NBC F1 reporter Will Buxton. His producer Jason Swales was present as were hundreds of fans, F1 people and racing personalities.
Since Lotus sponsor Burn was so gracious with me, I promised that I would gather some fan reaction from around the city. I took a few photos and canvassed a few fans to get their feelings on F1 and the Canadian GP. In the midst of the craziness, I set my backpack down by my feet to have the fans sign a disclaimer allowing us to use the photos, not seconds after I did so, the bag was trampled on and my camera destroyed. I suppose I should have known better. Crescent Street is barely standing room only and people walk about at a snail’s pace as though they were being herded to slaughter. It really is as crazy as it sounds but it is absolutely awe inspiring. I crossed Crescent Street and headed to Hurley’s. It was a fantastic evening of racing stories over pints and cocktails. While the event itself was a memorable success, its success might be its biggest disadvantage. It is quickly outgrowing the hallowed halls of the storied pub. The service was slow, the rooms were cramped and the heat mounted to the point everyone had beads over perspiration over their brows and sweat stained shirts. All I can say is thank goodness for good sense and deodorant.
After another night with roughly three hours of sleep, I made my way back to the hotel to catch the media shuttle. With Starbucks in hand, I boarded the vehicle and looked around to realize almost everyone on the shuttle was just a wee bit hung over. Feeling pretty good overall, I stepped lively toward the gate, grabbed a quick bite in the hospitality suite and got quickly to work. FP3 was not far away and qualifying promised to be another great shoot out between the silver arrows. Would anyone be able to challenge either Mercedes for pole? We would all soon find out. There had been a rumour circulating of a new long-term deal for Montreal, which was in the final year of its current accord, having signed up in 2010. Finally, the announcement was made that a new 10-year deal had been struck for the Canadian GP, keeping the race in Canada until at least 2024.
As excited as I might have been for qualifying, I was actually just as excited for lunch. I had received an invitation from Roberto Boccafogli at Pirelli for lunch during the qualifying session. It was a great experience to watch the session in a private room with a select few, and it was even better to do so with the incredible food served. The aroma nearly made my mouth water; the raw olive oil was sweet, velvety and almost nutty, drizzled on a slice of fresh bread which brought me back to sitting in a piazza in Tuscany. Nothing makes a better lunch than freshly prepared great food during a live F1 event. We all watched the session in silence with minimal chatter. Finally the sweet smell of espresso brewing meant lunch was over and so was qualifying. It was time to rush to the press conference and head out for more interviews. This time it was Lotus communications man Andy Stobart and logistics god Geoff Simmons. These are two great gentlemen that gave up their time to discuss the importance of social media and the massive efforts of setting up and taking down this traveling circus.
It was another day done and another big night ahead. Force India and Smirnoff put on a cocktail party at their paddock area and then off to the St. James hotel for a Ferrari cocktail event. Dinner was a brief affair and on the run as I had to do more ‘research’ for my F1 social diary duties. I’m glad I was born with an iron liver and high tolerance for the social atmosphere of a GP weekend in Montreal. I met several fans and I was actually surprised to have been recognized by many Twitter followers.
Sunday had finally come. Race day is a bittersweet experience for F1 fans and journalists, especially those of us which can’t afford to travel to each round. It means that the race weekend is coming to an end and before one blinks, it’s time to pack suitcases and head home. The Canadian GP did not disappoint. It was a great race with an incredible finish that saw Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo take his maiden victory. The young Aussie broke Mercedes’ stranglehold on the top step of the podium and destroyed their chances at the perfect season – in much the same way as Gerhard Berger ended McLaren’s winning streak in Monza in 1988. Reliability gremlins caused issues for both ‘Silver Arrows’ which eventually set the stage for the last lap overtake on Rosberg.
The media centre erupted with delight, not because a Mercedes would finally not win a race, but because Daniel is a deserving winner and a genuinely great bloke. I left the circuit a few hours after the race after having completed some articles. I bid several friends goodbye and took one last walk up and down the paddock which had transformed into a yard full of shipping containers and busy bodies. The curtain had fallen on this traveling show it was time to for the long walk to the media shuttle for the last time.
Overall, the experience was magical as it always is. You can ask any F1 journalist/reporter and they will all tell you, its bloody hard work with long hours and little sleep, but they wouldn’t trade it in for any other line of work. Being in the Lotus garage was special as was being in pit lane to watch an F1 pit stop first hand. It was perhaps more special now since only some photographers and camera crews are actually allowed in pit lane and on the starting grid. I was certainly underwhelmed by the lack of noise from the Formula One cars. The support races are louder, it’s true. It was the first time I was able to make a phone call or interview from within the paddock during an F1 session and have no problems hearing the conversation.
Nothing reinvigorates your passion for the sport like being close enough to chat with or shake hands with our F1 heroes. After 34 years, I was able to finally shake hands again with Sir Frank Williams. I met him in a little diner in Canada having breakfast in 1980 with Alan Jones and on Sunday past, I was able to thank him for his contributions to the sport and get my photo with him.
Images copyright of Richland F1/Ernie Black.