When Red Bull Racing began its adventures, the summer flyaway back-to-back of Montreal and Indianapolis was a brief interlude away from the European core of the season...
But with the US Grand Prix now shifted to the end-of-season run-in, and Canada bumped forward a few weeks, F1’s standalone visit to the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve should feel like more of a novelty than it actually does.
The reality is that the Canadian Grand Prix has been adopted into the European season: it’s the European race that just happens to take place in North America.
There is a (small) amount of logic behind this. It’s a mid-haul flight and not particularly arduous to get to from Motorsport Valley; it’s in a Francophonic city and, most of all, it’s a long-established grand prix with a huge and knowledgeable local following. New places are exotic and exciting – but F1 is built upon its history, and it’s very nice going somewhere that’s writing another chapter in an already pretty thick book.
Probably more than anywhere else, the city really throws itself into the Grand Prix. The circuit is built on a man-made island in the St Lawrence River, so it’s not quite downtown but in the evenings, the action moves wholesale to the city streets, with several blocks closed off for the F1 party. Via the metro, the crowd decamps from the Île Notre-Dame to Crescent Street, where the bars and restaurants spill out into the road, and live music keeps the party going from Thursday through to Sunday.
The circuit is distinctly old-school, with lots of elements that simply wouldn’t be approved for a modern track, being made predominantly of fast straights, tight corners, unyielding walls and very limited runoff. It generally brings the drama.
It always seems a little unfortunate having Montreal follow on from Monaco. Whereas it’s near impossible to pass in the Principality (though Max demonstrated otherwise), CGV presents plenty of opportunities. The textbook move is at the end of Casino Straight, into the final chicane, though there’s other opportunities at the hairpin; through Turn One; occasionally into the various chicanes – basically, there isn’t a spot where the defending driver can get a moment’s respite.
It’s a tough race for engineers too. Montreal is traditionally the hardest race of the year on the brakes – in the first half of the lap there’s a sequence of heavy stops with enough distance between them for the cars to get up to top speed – but not enough for the airflow to properly cool the discs and pads. At other circuits the response would be to get as much airflow to the brakes as possible – but that creates drag, and Montreal is all about high speed. The usual approach is to start the weekend with plenty of cooling and then gradually chip away at it as much as you dare.
Over the years we’ve accumulated some very happy memories in Montreal – but it’s not all been good: it was the scene of our first podium in North America, but also the 62nd and final one for David Coulthard, who finished third in 2008. After that it was something of a bogey track. We missed out in 2009 and 2010, but had both cars on the podium in 2011. That was the longest grand prix in history, lasting a mighty four hours and four minutes (with a rain-enforced red flag and lots of safety cars). Famously, Sebastian Vettel started on pole and managed to lead every single lap – but not win. It’s a day we’d like to forget. Fortunately, he turned things around with a victory from pole in 2013.
After that we had another double podium in 2014. That one will stay long in the memory, being Daniel Ricciardo’s first victory in Formula One. It’s difficult to imagine a more popular winner – though it’s worth remembering Daniel was thoroughly miserable before the race, having been off the pace and qualifying sixth – which goes to show what a difference a day can make. Daniel got back on the podium last year, finishing third – though most people will remember the race for Sir Patrick Stewart’s shoey. Usually people have to be pressured into drinking champagne from Daniel’s sweaty race boot, he seemed to actually be quite eager.