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Grand Prix 10-year-deal isn’t what it seems to be

Published June 13, 2014

That “announcement” last Saturday of a new contract between Montreal and Formula One — the one that will see a Grand Prix promoted every year for the next 10, thanks to gobs of public money — seems to have taken on a life of its own.

Everybody — and by everybody, I mean every body — has accepted at face value a very calculated, staged, public-relations exercise about something that hasn’t happened and might never happen.

It reminded me of Wayne Gretzky’s meltdown at the Salt Lake City Olympics in which he invented a crisis in order to rally the troops. Canadian Grand Prix organizers, I’m convinced, made an announcement to pacify Montreal and Quebec interests about the future of the race, knowing full well there might not be one.

And talk is cheap. We know that — having just survived a provincial election campaign. And if the Grand Prix goes away, for a year or two, or forever, there will always be someone else, or some thing elsewhere, to blame. Meantime, happy days are here again in Montreal, thanks to this 10-year deal.

By the way, before I go into details, think about that last sentence for just one second: what lasts 10 years in this modern world? Marriages? Nope. Hockey or baseball contracts? Nope. Governments? Nope. Life? Some, but life is the exception because literally nothing lasts 10 years today and yet we are being asked to believe that Bernie Ecclestone and Formula One have entered into an agreement for an F1 race to be held in Montreal each and every year for the next decade.

What was announced last Saturday was an “agreement in principle” to continue holding the three-day event in Montreal. I suggest this “agreement in principle” was between the promoter, the city of Montreal and the provincial and federal governments and really had nothing to do with Formula One.

Translation: We have agreed to hold a Grand Prix in Montreal (now we just have to get F1 to agree to come).

Here are the details, as announced last Saturday: the federal government will contribute $62.4 million — that’s $62.4 million, folks — as will Tourism Montreal. The province will contribute $49.9 million over the 10 years and Montreal itself will contribute $12.4 million. On its own, Montreal will pay for improvements to the paddock and the infrastructure, estimated to cost about $32-million.

All for 30 days of activity.

The person at the centre of the media conference was new Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre. He was obviously the person in charge because he has the most to lose: the future of his city’s biggest festival and tourist attraction is up in the air. If anybody’s going to do the talking, make the hard choices and negotiate any and all deals, it’s going to be him.

The promoter, Francois Dumontier, was also on stage but appeared marginalized. In fact, when my colleague, Toronto Sun reporter Dean McNulty, tried to ask Dumontier a question, Coderre interrupted. “I’ll answer that,” he said.

Interestingly, there were no English-language TV stations inside the media conference (that I saw) and with the exception of a sentence or two, the announcement and all the asides, comments and jokes were made entirely in French. Which means the press conference was not intended for a national audience; it was playing to local interests and the message was: “Don’t worry, we won’t lose our Grand Prix.”

It will be interesting to see the reaction going forward. The federal government has said flat out that it won’t subsidize most professional sports. The federal cabinet minister who was present went on about how the “investment“ was all about jobs and the economy but anybody who’s ever been in Montreal for the GP knows it’s really just one, great big, three-day party.

Which is fine – to an extent. Ottawa subsidizes the Canadian Open, but the golf tournament moves around the country. Ditto the Grey Cup, which also goes from community to community. The GP used to move — between Ontario and Quebec — but for the last 35 years, its been a fixture in Montreal.

In fact, hardly anyone in F1 talks about “Canada.” It’s all about “Montreal,” and “the city.” Google Canadian Grand Prix and what you get is link after link to the Montreal Grand Prix.

Ottawa won`t talk to Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment in Toronto about forming a “partnership“ to enlarge BMO Stadium (that, I would think, would also provide employment and be good for the economy). I wonder what the MLSE folks are going to think after they read the details of the Grand Prix commitment.

Now, I enjoyed a late supper last Saturday night with someone you could call an influential figure in Formula One. I asked him about the “deal” that had been announced earlier that day.

“Was that a negotiating tactic,” he wondered?

Wow. To say I was taken aback would be an understatement. My friend`s reaction, though, illustrated perfectly that inside F1, this is not considered a deal. Maybe there will be one at some point, but there isn’t one now.

We’ll know what the real story is when the FIA and F1 issue the 2015 preliminary schedule. If “Canada” has an asterisk beside it, that will tell you just about everything.

nmcdonald@thestar.ca

The Toronto Star for Wheels.ca

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