In Montreal, the natives call the event "the formula." The red lights go off, adrenaline kicks in, streets downtown are closed off to party, and Ferraris appear as though spawning. Fans from everywhere flock to the cathedral of noise, the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, on an island in the Saint Lawrence River, drawn there by the high-decibel song that always makes me think of Odysseus and his men lured by the Sirens in The Odyssey. It's a sound both intoxicating and dangerous, one you simply can't ignore. For Montreal's thirtieth Canadian Grand Prix last June, the song of the Sirens was not exclusive to the track. Downtown was rocking, too.
My first night on the scene I wandered around and savored the let-it-all-hang-out spirit of Quebec.
"Sex bomb, sex bomb; you're my sex bomb," a singer belted out from a bandstand on Drummond Street, which was roped off and throbbing. Real sex bombs paraded by, arm-in-arm, Québecois-style. There were guys chatting up women on bikes with flowers in their baskets. French, English, Spanish, and Italian were being spoken. Three leggy brunettes, arms waving, trooped past, mouthing the music: sex bomb, sex bomb. "For those who want to keep on partying," the singer announced, "keep on coming. We'll be partying like Russians 'til Sunday."
It was only Thursday, quarter to midnight.
I'd returned after years of disinterest. Formula 1 has always been about excess: fast cars, leggy babes, big egos, globe-trotting teams, a carbon footprint the size of a small country's air force. But lately, for me, its soul - if motorsport can be granted such a thing - had slipped into hiding. There was too much money, a monopoly mentality imposed from the top down, drivers often so remote or inscrutable that they put me to sleep. Being an F1 fan struck me as an exercise in dissonance: a love of racing lost in a cascade of cash that glorified control and made the races themselves, apart from the wonderful noise, exercises in tedium. But I'd decided to give the premier motorsport another try.
What any disgruntled fan needs, of course, is a new hero to cheer for. For me, that meant a flesh-and-blood driver who connects with the masses, not a robot behind a wheel or a CEO-type who wins race after race. Earlier this night, I'd been pleasantly surprised to find that just such a driver might have, as one veteran Formula 1 fan put it, "dropped out of the sky."
Robert Kubica may not be "the best thing that has happened to Poland since the Pope," as the same fan said. But he is Kraków-born, rather geeky, not afraid to smile, and one of the new generation of F1 stars, along with Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. At a prerace press shindig, Kubica acted loose, even joked about his bad accident here last year. He'd ricocheted off a wall going about 130 mph and rolled the car. "Instead of being on podium, I was in the hospital," he said. As we walked down René Lévesque Boulevard on the way to a BMW team banquet, I asked him a few questions.
There is no racing scene in Poland, Kubica said. And no, he is not a culture hero. "I am racing driver," he said bluntly. "You are hero when you are on top, and when you are not - " His voice trailed off and he smiled, a lanky twenty-three-year-old who knew the ropes. He possessed a certain je ne sais quoi and was hard not to like.
It's sticky hot. Rained some late last night. I come up out of the subway into the human circus, pass scalpers doing well (all tickets are sold out), hawkers waving programs, and join fans flowing toward the noise. Having opted to rejoin the fan base - those without seats - I revisit some former great sight lines along straights and chicanes. Most are boarded up or covered with grandstands. Eventually, I reach the hairpin at the tip of the 2.7-mile circuit. It's still an exciting spot for the rabble, a Ferrari fan hangout (prancing-horse pennants and large Italian flags droop from the top of the stands in the muggy heat), and where Kubica almost bought it last June.
The F1 drivers are shrieking past: Kimi Räikkönen in a Ferrari, Alonso in a Renault, Hamilton in a McLaren. Twenty drivers in all. Between practice sessions, I look around and waylay a few tifosi.
One character in full Ferrari regalia is Alessandro Spaziani, a house painter from Calgary. Here for the tenth time, he's finally brought along his daughter Natasha, 18. "I brainwashed her," he says. "She's been watching F1 since she was five." Shyly, Natasha pulls out a bright yellow Ferrari T-shirt to affirm their allegiance. Then they make two confessions: he wants Kubica to win and she, on first hearing the cars today, burst into tears.
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."
In the street, I run into Alessandro and Natasha. He's got his Ferrari cap on backward; she wears a big, happy grin. Having connected at the hairpin, we exchange greetings like old buddies. I duck into the F1 Emporium, a shop filled with racing shirts, jackets, and a Ferrari motorbike that a customer wants to buy for his grandson. "He's six," says Gerry from New York. "My daughter will probably hate me." Gerry says he left his Ferrari, which he'd bought in Maranello, at home, and got the terrorist going-over while crossing the border into Canada. "Still, I love Montreal! They go all out! I like Massa. The one thing I don't like is Bernie Ecclestone. Oh . . . and Max Mosley."
Don't get me started. For the record, Mad Max, the president of Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, F1's ruling body, just got let off the hook. Caught getting his puppy wet with five prostitutes dressed like Nazi nurses in a London sex dungeon in March, Mosley has been ostracized by the royal pooh-bahs of Bahrain, brushed off by the Prince of Monaco, and pilloried by the automotive press. But money talks. And Mosley has made lots of money for F1 and has been rescued from receiving a pink slip, at least for now. But I agree with Gerry that Mosley and F1 Boss Ecclestone should go. A new era's dawning. Or so I hope.
High noon at the track: the sun's merciless. I find shade behind the hairpin bleachers, lie down, look up through drooping leaves, doze off to the grumble of a nearby Penske truck.
It's been hectic. More F1 practice sessions. Qualifications for driver development teams run by Ferrari and BMW. Fans I've talked with have been all over the map. Some know racing, others know zip. Montrealer Carolyn Archambault, here for the third time and selling T-shirts at a stand, was stumped when I posed a difficult question: "Who's your favorite driver?" Then she gushed, "The cutest one!" In contrast, Jack Kennedy, licking at a fast-melting ice-cream cone, ticked off races he'd attended: eleven here, one in Hockenheim, U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen back in the day. "I saw Jackie Stewart race Jimmy Clark there in '67. My favorite driver? Clark - the guy never did anything wrong. Today I like Kimi. He's braver than Superman; nobody intimidates him."
Then there were the rowdy, cooler-encircling fans from Lachine, a city suburb. They threw their arms over my shoulders and raised beers to the sun. A dozen working-class folks, both genders, they'd staked out a spot on the cement with a prison-window-sized view of the hairpin. "We're only here for the fun," boasted Pascal Turcotte. "And the drinking!"
But it was the Polish princess, Anna Niedzwiecka, a factory worker from Kraków, who blew me away. Here in Montreal with her husband, Grzegorz, Anna wore a huge, floppy crown emblazoned POLSKA. Despite the blistering heat, over her shoulders hung a heavy cape. She whipped out a Robert Kubica fan club banner, which stretched thirty feet, and said, "This year our first in Montreal," sounding like they'd be back.
Waking from my revitalizing snooze, I find a spot to watch the F1 qualifications. The cars are on soft-compound tires, lap times faster, cars better-tuned than yesterday. Then there's a problem. Drivers are spinning onto the grass, just missing walls. I watch some of this scattered action on a large screen hanging over the track, an announcer babbling. Evidently, the surface is breaking up in the heat. Bits of asphalt are coming free and forming ball bearings. High-speed cornering on marbles sounds dicey. The cars go into the pits, and maintenance guys with brooms appear, doing their best to sweep clear the ball bearings. But this is F1. Drivers must deal with marbles if conditions so dictate, just as they must deal with rain, the great equalizer, when it falls. In some ways, the sport does remain true to its original intent, which was to be a road circuit race in whatever conditions nature and the road threw up.
Once qualifications resume, I'm moving through a motley mass of humanity. Primarily male, primarily in shorts. All sweaty. Going with the flow, I'm steered along through the smells of roasting hot dogs, fried dough, beef. Nobody can see the track, only hear the shrill keening of the 700-hp engines that can rev to 19,000 rpm. Fans shove a little, politely overtake. I notice more father/daughter duos bonding in the great, steamy cattle car of general admission. The movement is wonderfully directionless. Everyone seems in a good, stinky mood.
Leaving, my straw hat bobs in a sea of red Ferrari caps all the way to the glutted Métro entrance. In the subway car, a local asks me who took the pole.
Sounding apologetic, he says that he wasn't at the track today. He nods down at his girlfriend and her daughter, sitting knee-to-knee. Crosses dangle between their cleavages. They're dressed to kill. The threesome is bound for the F1 party on Crescent Street, the guy says. For the dancing.
I'm soon there myself, looking at custom cars with TV screens in the headrests and gull-wing doors. A speed painter is knocking off artsy versions of F1 cars. Revelers, hangers-on, the drunk, and the sober all blend in one impenetrable mass in front of Newtown, rock blasting and gawkers gawking from the upper deck. Roy Ritchie, the Detroit-based photographer who has joined me, holds his camera high overhead and snaps away.
Rip Martin is a fan's fan. He raced in Europe, used to follow the whole Grand Prix circuit, and this year will attend four races. Speaking through a drooping gray moustache, eyes hidden by big shades, Rip says his wife, Debra, loves F1, too. "On our first date, to impress her, I took her to Monte Carlo." Did it work? "Of course!"
Kim Reimer is a hoot. A Ferrari appears to have landed on his head. He made it himself, one of six, a different head-topping model each year to stay current. "They keep changing the car," he laments, with a painful squint. Reaching up and feeling around, he says, "They changed the nose this year." He aims an arm, carefully, so he doesn't drop the car off his head, toward the bleachers. "My daughter's in the stands. She usually wears last year's model. This year, she refused."
I don't wonder why.
Fans pass us quickly, purposefully, intent on reaching seats, if they have seats. I talk to two F1 virgins: first race, wired, expectant. When I ask Haifa Saadaoui and Ines Ben Mokhtar, both from Tunisia, what they like best, they say in unison, like they've rehearsed this, arms around each other's shoulders, "The ambience!"
Then the Snowbirds from Canada's Air Force bank around in tight formation, buzz the track, the national anthem plays, and it's time to start your engines, gentlemen.
After the start, which reaches my ears from a great distance, I'm unable to even see the hairpin, so I throw in the general admission towel. I retreat to the BMW hospitality tent, a tad embarrassed to abandon my fellow fans in the trenches but curious to actually see a little of the action.
I glue myself to a flat screen. It's all too predictable at first: Hamilton, Kubica, Räikkönen - 1, 2, 3. Some skillful passing further back, thankfully. The surface is OK (midnight rush paving did the trick), speeds are high. Then there's a quirky accident, something common in a parking lot. Exiting the pits, Kubica and Räikkönen stop at a red light, but Hamilton doesn't see it. He bashes into the Ferrari. Both cars are out. Later, revealing his irrepressible humor and one of the reasons fans are taking to him, Kubica will thank Hamilton for hitting the Finn instead of him.
After that, there's gutsy driving back in the pack, but Kubica gets the checkered flag. Fist pumping, like an alien in a huge helmet (it occurs to me: wouldn't it be cool if he slapped a Dalai Lama sticker on it for the Chinese Grand Prix?), Kubica hugs Theissen. Given the circumstances, it's a tarnished win, but a win nevertheless. Kubica's first, it puts him in front in the drivers' championship standings.
Now, to get out of here. It takes a while. Most memorable moment? Two fans talking, their cooler bumping the back of my legs.
"Hell of a race. Storybook ending."
"You never know."
Well, I know. Next year, I'm getting grandstand seats. You can't see squat for $75, the general admission tab just for today. The ambience was great, my driver won, and next year I hope to see new, fast, pacesetting technology, find Max Mosley retired, and Kubica defending his 2008 championship crown. The Sirens got me.
Until then, vive le Québec!
Formula BMW Americas
BMW runs a young-driver development program called Formula BMW Americas as part of a global effort to put winners into single-seaters. In Montreal, the future prospects had three days of practice, qualifications, and racing - just like the F1 guys - honing skills and competing in racing's minor leagues on a world-class circuit. They drove entry-level FB2 cars with four-cylinder engines derived from a BMW production motorcycle, the K1200RS. An FB02 has full safety features and accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in less than four seconds. A typical F1 car, in comparison, can go from 0 to 100 mph and back to a stop in about five seconds.
Two of the drivers, Mikaël Grenier, 15, and Maxime Pelletier, 17, are from Quebec. In Saturday's race, Pelletier placed second, and Grenier third, in a field of sixteen. "It was nice to do the podium on my own track," Grenier said. But Sunday's race was dispiriting. "I was in the game; I was fast," said Pelletier. "Then I had a collision." As for Grenier, he said, "The car was perfect; I had the fastest lap. Then I broke a wing." Both finished well back in the pack. Later, a ruling came down from the race stewards about a violation on Saturday. Dismayed, the two teenage racers learned they had both been disqualified.
From such experiences may come the complex alchemy to forge a winner. The Formula BMW Americas series culminates at the Brazilian Grand Prix in early November. Follow Grenier, Pelletier, and other talented young drivers at www.formulabmw.com.