By: Brian J. D’Souza

In Montreal, drivers are never encouraged to open up and vault past typical velocities. In fact, all signs suggest that racing be left to the professionals. This past Sunday’s Formula One race at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on Ile Notre Dame was that chance to see the high-end of automobile performance as demonstrated by the top drivers with the weight of cutting-edge technology and serious financial backing behind them.

“Street circuits are my preferred circuits, they are the riskiest, the trickiest circuits to race on,” was fan-favourite Lewis Hamilton’s prescient statement describing the Montreal course to the press last Thursday in the lead-up to Sunday’s race.

Onlookers at the course usually only require a set of earplugs to avoid hearing damage from the noise of engines that max out at 18,000 RPM, but a torrential downpour necessitated raingear for everyone from standing room to the grandstands this year. The monsoon-like onslaught also played a role in dampening the mood on Sunday as the midday race was postponed for over two hours.

With a mix of amusement, disgust and puzzlement, fans watched Sunday as Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren Mercedes was denied passage on the eighth lap of the race by teammate Jenson Button, forcing him into the wall — and out of the competition, with a broken left-rear suspension. The drama of the accident satiated the crowd as much as Button’s brilliant manoeuvre in overtaking Sebastian Vettel on the very last lap to be crowned the Canadian Grand Prix champion. 

The prominence and prestige of the F1 event delivers more than cars that speed close to 360 km/h; the event also delivers a surge in tourism to Montreal as patio-fronts spill over into the streets, with parties, noise, excitement and bodies everywhere you look.

Headlining Friday night at the three-day Crescent Street Grand Prix Festival, held between Sherbrooke and Saint-Catherine, was Canadian indie rock outfit Sloan. Blasting out their recognizable hits like “Money City Maniacs” and “The Good in Everyone” — most of which charted successfully back in the 1990s — the energy of the band complemented F1’s presence, rather than being the focal point.

The tents that line the street during race weekend are a mix between racing-related demos, food concessions, sponsor gimmicks and other product peddling. With so many people milling about, the positive economic impact for local merchants is inevitable.

While the budget-conscious party-goers bought beer from convenience stories and brown-bagged it rather than risk police fines for drinking on the streets, other haunts drew the kind of patrons that are more than willing to pay a premium for everything. Trendy resto-bars welcomed a smattering of celebrities, as well as a slew of socialites, all drawn to the mystique of F1.

“This week practically represents all the sales of January and February,” said Max Lecas, owner of the Buona Notte supper club, a venue so busy on Saturday night that it could only be described as chaotic.

Outside on Saint-Laurent Street, a solid wall of well-dressed individuals clamoured for entry into the establishment, protesting and pleading their case to indifferent bouncers. Inside, the scene was just as tumultuous, with little elbow room between refined herds of elites dining on oysters, crab legs, lobster, shrimp, all washed down with the highest luxury brands of spirits served by a super-attractive wait staff.

Lecas points to the simple strategy behind his restaurant’s success, “We always kept it hip, young and trendy,” he said, adding that Buona Notte originally recruited from a modelling agency when the restaurant was founded in 1991.

The colourful host is quick to remind visitors that just beneath the glamorous appeal that F1 week brings to Montreal lies a city with true character that never runs dry.

“Yes, F1 is fantastic. But what goes on the rest of the year when F1 is not here is also fantastic,” explained Lecas.

After all, the uplifting victory for Jenson Button, underwritten by possible disciplinary action against the aggressive driving by Lewis Hamilton, is but a tiny footnote in the lure of Montreal.

Far from slick marketing or a Cinderella-story that evaporates past midnight, the cordiality, friendliness and genuine nature of the Quebec people continues beyond the weekend festivities.

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