This year marked my third trip to the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, a trek I seem to make every five to six years.
The first, in 2011, was the year of the infamous monsoon-level rainstorm that resulted in a long delay before McLaren driver Jenson Button stormed (no pun intended) through the field from last to first to take the win, his lone victory in Montreal. Eleven years later, it is still the longest race in the history of the event.
I had a media credential that year and wound up writing a profile on Canadian up-and-comer Robert Wickens who was the third driver that weekend – back when Formula One had third drivers, or test drivers as they were called – for Marussia Virgin Racing, a long-gone Russian-backed team.
I returned in 2016, this time as a guest of Shell, one of Ferrari’s biggest sponsors. On an unseasonably chilly weekend (around 10C for almost three days) I sat in Shell’s hospitality area and watched Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton win his fifth (of seven) Canadian Grands Prix. Much of my story focused on Shell’s technical partnership with Ferrari, which I found to be quite interesting.
Fast-forward six years and I’m back again, this time as a guest of Nissan Canada, whose involvement in the race extends to the Nissan Sentra Cup, a support series for the Grand Prix.
I was keen to attend the race this time around for a few main reasons. First, it had been six years and I was eager to see the race again in person. Second, for the first time, I was going to watch it from a grandstand. Third, and perhaps, most significantly, the Canadian Grand Prix hadn’t been staged since 2019 due to the Covid-19 pandemic and I was eager to see what the return of the race would look like.
As a late addition to Nissan’s guest list, I stayed at a hotel in Laval located about 30 minutes north of downtown Montreal with traffic. It wasn’t the same place I stayed at in 2011 – this one was nicer – but it’s in the same general vicinity.
Traveling back and forth to link up with the Nissan contingent downtown was done in a 2022 Sentra S press car which the company loaned to me for the weekend. This entry-level compact sedan serves as the basis for the Sentra Cup race car. Not to digress too much here, but the Sentra S is quite impressive. Comfortable to drive, lots of safety features, with a smooth-shifting manual transmission and good fuel consumption. I averaged 6.4 L / 100 km over 1,228 kilometres. Not bad, I’d say.
As for the drive down on Friday, it was warm and sunny with temperatures in the mid-20s Celsius, but by the time I arrived in Montreal, rain was coming down in buckets. It had stopped by the time I went for dinner around 8 p.m., but the streets were slick, and the night sky was overcast. Could be wet at the track tomorrow, I remember thinking.
I was right. Saturday’s conditions at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, the 14-turn, 4.361 km (2.71 miles) permanent road circuit on the man-made Ȋle Notre-Dame in the St. Lawrence River, were awful. The rain, which varied from steady drizzle to downpour, made for a miserable day of spectating.
Our group trudged along the back of the circuit to the Lance Stroll grandstands (named for the young Canadian F1 driver), which are located at the turn 10 hairpin, to take in some racing, including the first of two Sentra Cup races.
There, we sat in the rain to watch the Sentra Cup racers make the best of a difficult situation. Even with the full field on rain tires, the rain-soaked track produced an early race incident that led to a long full-course yellow that shortened the race significantly.
Even with umbrellas and jackets, our group got soaked, prompting us to return to Nissan vehicles in the Sentra Cup paddock to warm up between sessions. After doing this a couple of times I, along with a few others, decided to pack it in for the day following F1 free practice three. Qualifying was slated for late afternoon, but I didn’t feel like sitting in the rain for another two hours. Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen would go on to win the pole for Sunday’s race.
After enduring a cold (10C) and wet Saturday, the Montreal area was blessed with warm (21C) and sunny conditions for Sunday’s Grand Prix du Canada. The Lance Stroll grandstands were packed and gear representing dozens of teams, past and present, were proudly on display. I heard whistles piping, songs being sung, and one guy even tried to get our section to do the wave. That initiative didn’t go so well, but everyone seemed to be having a good time. As for who this crowd favoured, that’s easy: Ferrari.
It has been said that the best place to take in a race is from a grandstand, and for this event, I’d have to agree. As I was sitting there, shoulder to shoulder with thousands of other attendees, I tried to recall the last time I attended a live sporting event on this scale. I’ve watched races from grandstands before, but they were long before Covid ground events like this one to a halt more than two years ago.
As for the race, it was exciting to watch in person. I can appreciate how it might not have looked that way on television, but that’s what the medium does. It removes the viewer from the event, shatters their sense of immersion, and makes it feel like just another TV show.
In person, watching F1 cars come screaming into the hardest braking zone on the track, jump on the brakes, hit the corner apex, and get back on the throttle at the exit, while also trying to out-brake and out-manoeuvre other cars is an amazing spectacle to behold. Even when passes aren’t made, just watching these drivers manhandle incredible machines through such tight confines without pancaking the outer wall can be breathtaking.
Being there in person also makes one realize just how big of an event a Formula One race really is. The crowds, the vendors, the officials, not to mention the teams and support staff —I t’s a vast operation. Hosting a race of this scale and with so much international interest is a big deal. It really matters, and as a nation that has been staging Grands Prix since 1967, it was important for it to return.
“Being at this race adds to the visibility for Nissan Canada, Sentra Cup and our dealers. It’s a big deal. We’re very, very happy to be back,” Nissan Canada president Steve Milette told me in a brief interview at the track.
I feel the same way. This race matters, and seeing it return is another step on the road back to some sort of normal. And on top of that, the race, won by Verstappen, with a strong challenge from second-place finisher Carlos Sainz of Ferrari, was witnessed by a massive, enthusiastic crowd.
A winning combination, I’d say.