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F1 at Ontario Place? Why not?

Published August 9, 2012

Except for the summer Olympics and the World Cup of Soccer, no sporting event on the planet attracts as much attention as a Formula One car race.

Canada is fortunate to have one, in Montreal. But the country and the corporations that do business here have never really capitalized on it.

An F1 race has a consistently loyal audience — an estimated 150 million people watch every one. As Jackie Stewart said to me once, while talking about a Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport back in 1973: “The eyes of the world will be on Canada this Sunday.”

So why hasn’t Canada taken advantage of this incredible opportunity to promote tourism, or to sell products and services? Because with one exception in particular, very few people in this country Think Big.

The one exception — long dead — was the former mayor of Montreal, Jean Drapeau.

Nothing was too big for that guy, which is why Montreal had a Summer Olympics and a Category One World’s Fair and has a Formula One Grand Prix.

But the Grand Prix there is on shaky ground. The time is ripe, then, to move it to Toronto and the opportunity to do it is staring us right in the face.

When John Tory tabled his report on the future of Ontario Place a few weeks ago, I — along with many people — was disappointed. I really expected Tory to take a Think Big approach (and when I say Think Big, I mean Drapeau-style leadership of the “nothing-is-impossible” kind).

If I’d been Tory, I would have investigated how other cities and countries have handled iconic waterfront redevelopment and the Yas Marina project in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, would have caught my eye immediately. Why? Because, with a little imagination, you could pick it up and plop it down right on the existing Ontario Place property.

It contains a marina (one already exists here), a magnificent hotel featuring seven multicultural restaurants and all the other amenities, movie theatres (hello Cinesphere), an amusement park (hello CNE Midway), art galleries, golf driving ranges and so-on. A Formula One circuit that winds under and through the hotel is the home of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

There is no reason why a development like that, featuring a four-day, once-a-year world championship spectacular, can’t become reality on the Toronto waterfront. All it takes is leadership.

But we have to move quickly, because there is no time to waste.

There are two years remaining on the Montreal F1 contract. But the student unrest this year didn’t do that race any good and I suspect, regardless of the election results in September, that the harassment of that event will continue. So Montreal’s F1 days are numbered.

Two new U.S. Grands Prix in Texas and New Jersey will be reality two years from now, so Canada will have to do something spectacular to keep the one we have. A move to Toronto and an outstanding new setting would be hard for the series to resist.

Toronto is the corporate capital of Canada. I suggest there would be a lineup to be title sponsor, something Montreal doesn’t have. Associate sponsors could pool their resources to pay the necessary sanctioning fee.

At one time, the Molson Indy legitimately meant $50 million-plus in economic activity for Toronto. I can tell you without hesitation that an F1 race in 2015 would bring in double that amount, minimum.

As the Star has suggested, Waterfront Toronto should be put in charge of redeveloping Ontario Place. I urge them to look at the Yas Marina property, contact ASN Canada FIA President Roger Peart, who lives in Mississauga, to design a circuit involving Ontario Place and the CNE (he did it in Montreal in the winter of 1977 and he could do it for Toronto now), and have architects draw up the plans.

Yes, a casino might have to be part of the equation but the major hotel companies would jump on board to develop a property like this one and the expenditure of public money could be kept to a minimum.

Toronto lost out twice before when it came to a Formula One race — the first time in 1968 when George Eaton and John F. Bassett Jr. proposed one and then again in 1977 when Labatt wanted to move the Grand Prix from Mosport to Toronto and it wound up going to Montreal instead.

Let’s not blow it for a third time.

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