Nearby sits a self-professed "hard-core Chinese/Québecois fan" named Hugh Kwok. He commands a seat with an extremely rare quality: a great sight line on the hairpin. Despite looking about thirty, Kwok tells me that he's been to every Montreal race except 1982, when Riccardo Paletti died. I covered that race. It was a sad day, indeed. Gilles Villeneuve, for whom the track is named, had died a month earlier at Zolder in Belgium. In the smoky, noisy mayhem of his second grand prix start, rookie Paletti hit the rear of Didier Pironi's Ferrari, which had stalled at the start. Shaking his head, Kwok insists, "F1 is now safe." He shifts his hands around, like cars passing. "Here, they have let off traction control. It's better racing."
Just an hour in and my adrenaline is flowing. The tonic of speed, the magnitude of the driving skills, the exotic supercars, not to mention all that dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with a love of risk, teeming in brains both on and off the track, are getting to me. This is a spectacle. Hot, overcommercialized, and crowded, but downright thrilling. It's good to be back.Alas, after the practice sessions, the thrill ebbs away, and I'm just another cow amid the masses surging toward a distant subway entrance. Cows in a good mood, however. I bump into a guy named Joe Jessen. He's here from New York, likes Toyota's Jarno Trulli, but shakes his head. "Toyota's got problems." I mention Honda's Earth Dream, dubbed "the planet's pace car."
Jessen says derisively, "Formula 1 goes green, another competitor will take over. F1 will be finished." We part in the flow before I can tell him that F1 will be going green, in limited form, in 2009. Probably with hybrid drivetrains. Getting into the twenty-first century is absolutely necessary, Mario Theissen, BMW's head of motorsport, said last night, "if F1 is to be a true technology pacesetter."
Two hours later, technology is not on this fan's mind. Rock 'n' roll is. It's blasting in front of Newtown, a club on Crescent Street owned by former F1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve, son of Gilles. The joint is austere, lots of thirty-somethings glued to their cell phones. I do have a great exchange with a guy in the head who says that this year he's watching the race on TV. Defending couch-potato fandom, he says, "I been to the race, dude; I can imagine the noise."