The weekend of the Canadian Grand Prix was always a huge race weekend for me, from attending my first race as a spectator in 1984, to my first working race in 1985 as a mechanic for the Spenard-David Pro F2000 team, to my first, and so far only, race there in 1988 when I was competing in the Honda-Michelin series.
Walking into the grounds for the first time in 1984 is an image so etched in my memory, it could have been yesterday. We left Toronto just after 3 o'clock Sunday morning in order to get to Montreal in time for morning practice. Being young, impetuous and in a hurry we ended up missing a turn off the highway, and driving around in circles for about a half an hour, hearing the Formula 1 cars echoing in the distance. As the echoing got closer and the crowds got bigger, we opted for the next available parking space, and followed the crowd in.
In 1984, the Grand Prix wasn't the commercial beast it is today, and I have no idea what gate we ended up at, but we finally made our way trackside with about 35 minutes left in the morning warm up, on a hill overlooking the hairpin, no grandstands, just people sitting on blankets and watching the action at the hairpin. (A corner that 4 years year later, I might add, I would take more than 2 dozen times, never the same way twice, but that's a story for another day...)
The first two Formula 1 cars I saw, in person, were the 2 Data General Tyrell's on a warm up lap, coming out the hairpin, both team cars running nose-to-tail, slow and loud. 1984 was the turbo era, and while most teams had switched by then, the Tyrell's hadn't. They were still running the atmospheric Cosworth, the only team in the series that would still be running the Cosworth at season's end, powering around the track with all their glorious sound. Myself and long-time RaceCanada photographer Perry Blocher turned and looked at each other and couldn't stop smiling. 18 years old, school was over, we had just driven, by ourselves, 6 hours to Montreal and had now just seen, and heard, our first Formula 1 cars. But, as it turns out, that was nothing.
A moment or two later, the air and ground was shaken by Nelson Piquet in the turbo-powered Brabham-BMW, at full song, heading into the hairpin. The speed was unbelievable, there was no way he was going to make the corner. Less than 5 minutes at our first Grand Prix and we were about to see our first accident.
Then, in an instant, Piquet jumped on the brakes, ran through the gearbox, down four or five gears in an impossibly short time, bumped the throttle a few time to balance the car through the corner, then up the gears as fast as he went down them, a bang and burst of flame on every up-shift, and he was gone. It was absolutely spectacular.
I had always wanted to race cars, but right then and there I made up my mind that nothing was going to stop me, and less than a year later I was sitting behind the wheel of a Formula 2000 race car and working for a top race team a year later for the 1985 event.
Some of my best racing memories come from Montreal. Working in the pits for the first time in 1985, my first race at the track in my Honda-Michelin days, having to spend the last half of the race swerving around a Ferrari umbrella on the new pit straight a member of their F1 team dropped during the race, standing on the pit wall, watching them cut a good friend of mine out of his Honda after he hit the Wall of Champions long before it got it's name, when none other than Jackie Stewart jumped up on the wall asking what happened, with genuine concern in his voice.
The access we had through out the 80's and 90's was incredible. Perry still has a much-cherished up-close picture of Ayrton Senna from no more than 8 or 10 feet away, with no entourage, just a great picture. Standing at the edge of the Ligier pit stall after the team had just installed a new Lamborghini engine, listening as they warmed the new engine up but repeatedly by revving it over and over again to more than 12,000 rpm.
Memories as a spectator too, watching Nigel Mansell shut his car off right in front of us on the last lap, seeing Jean Alesi win his only race, in a #27 Ferrari no less, watching Aryton Senna carve completely different lines on a very wet track, going visibly faster than anyone else. The memories are almost endless.
But something's changed. Somehow the Grand Prix weekend isn't what it used to be. I was always a bit of an outlier when we went to Montreal. I was there for the racing, I really had no interest in the night life of Montreal, no interest in going to the bars. I wanted to be there when the gates opened in the morning and I wasn't leaving until the last race of the day was done.
Through the rest of the 80's and well into the 90's, Grand Prix weekend was about racing. The gates opened at 7am (with the inevitable vendor just outside the gates with his cooler, "Bière froide, Cold Beer... and the ones selling ear plugs in the Metro station that I still don't understand to this day) while not leaving until the end of the the Motorola Cup race, or whatever was ending the show, which often ran as late as 7:00 or 7:30.
The crowds were different as well. Big crowds on race day, always, but Fridays and Saturday's were always sparse crowds, there was room to stretch out and relax, without being packed in. Different places and seats you could move to in order to get a different view.
But that all changed with the arrival of Jacques Villeneuve in F1. Suddenly the track was packed every day of the weekend, grandstands filled every available piece of land so there was no where else to watch, other than your seat.
And the racing had really declined. The last year I was there, and it's been a while so I'm not sure how much has changed, there was only 4 races during the entire event. The F1 race was good, and the F1600 race was exciting as always. The Ferrari Challenge race that year may have been the dullest race I have ever witnessed, and this was followed by a vintage Can-Am race, which are among the coolest cars ever raced, but in the rain that year, it was merely a procession of cars. The racing each day was done and over with long before 5:00 each day. Considering the continually escalating cost of tickets, the complete lack of action on track, I decided fairly early on that weekend that this would be my last trip for a while.
It's been well over a decade since I last travelled to Montreal for a Grand Prix race, despite now having a cousin living in Montreal that will make the experience less expensive than before. Formula One has lost a lot it's glow for me. Canadian companies aren't stepping up to support Canadian drivers and, despite his immense talent, his DTM connections with Mercedes and Blackberry being on the Mercedes F1 car, Robert Wickens never got a fair shot at F1, and if Wickens can't get in, who can?
Luke Chudleigh is certainly doing everything in his power to get there, and Lance Stroll is turning some heads in Europe, but reaching Formula One, especially for a Canadian, is very difficult and both of these drivers will need a ton of luck to go with their talent if they are to have a shot of making it to F1.
Formula One cars have become dumbed down and ugly. They pale in comparison in both departments to the sports cars running a weekend later at Le Mans, and in many ways there is more technology in the street cars driving to the track than the Grand Prix cars driving on it. If the only Canadian content in the Canadian Grand Prix for the foreseeable future is going to be my tax dollars, then I won't be back anytime soon, although I'm hopeful that Chudleigh or Stroll can break through in the next four or five years and I'll find a good excuse to get back to Montreal and make some new memories.
Grand Prix weekend this year? No thanks, I'll be in Barrie for Formula North.