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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Enjoying the revived Canadian GP

by Gordon Kirby
Formula One and Montreal celebrated each other last weekend as the Canadian Grand Prix enjoyed a fierce race and full house with more than 300,000 spectators thronging the grandstands over three days. It was as if the lost year of 2009 never happened as race fever filled downtown Montreal and we were treated to a fine race as Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button scored their second one-two sweep for McLaren in as many races.

Over more than thirty years going back to Gilles Villeneueve's inspirational victory in the inaugural race on Ile Notre Dame in 1978 Montreal's Canadian GP rapidly developed a tradition of passion and enthusiasm. The track is a permanent circuit built in a park in the middle of the St. Lawrence River and it provides both character and considerable visual appeal. There are no fast corners but plenty of tight turns and long straightaways rewarding cars with good braking and low-speed turning ability rather than straightline speed or high downforce.

Thus were the pair of Red Bulls--this year's pacesetters--somewhat handicapped in Montreal. Sebastien Vettel and Mark Webber were quick but not quite the equal of the McLarens or Fernando Alonso's Ferrari. The Red Bulls make tremendous downforce but that quality reduces their straightline speed so that Vettel and Webber were a dozen kph slower than the fastest cars in Montreal and barely quicker down the straght than the backfield cars from HRT and Virgin Racing. But in the end the abrasive surface in Montreal and Bridgestone's adventurous super soft compond meant the race turned into a game of tire management.

"It was a difficult to know how much to save the tires, how much to push and how much longer you had to go and how much fuel you had to save," commented winner Hamilton. "It was very, very challenging."

© Gary Gold
Hamilton and Button's resounding one-two sweep in Montreal means they are now one-two in world championship points ahead of Webber, Alonso and Vettel.

"We've been doing everything we can to close the gap to the Red Bulls," Hamilton remarked. "I have no doubts that we can close the gap. The team has done a great job here and I hope we can continue that. This is a special day for me because I won my first Grand Prix here and it's good to come back three years later and win it again."

Following a few weak races Alonso was delighted to finish third in Montreal. His Ferrari wasn't a match for the McLarens or Red Bulls but excellent tire strategy and pitstops meant the Spaniard was able to split Hamilton and Button for a while and hang onto them for much of the race until traffic worked against him. Vettel and Webber were more than half a minute behind in fourth and fifth while Nico Rosberg drove a great race to finish sixth after falling to near the back of the field as a result of a first lap, first turn collision between Felipe Massa and Vitantonio Liuzzi.

Meanwhile, the revival of the race at le Circuit Gilles Villeneuve could not have gone better. The place was sold-out by mid-week and the grandstands were more than eighty percent full on Friday and jam-packed for Saturday's qualifying. All track owners/promoters in the United States are struggling to sell tickets these days and last weekend's TV pictures from Montreal must have sparked plenty of envy for the massive crowds and roaring enthusiasm for F1 in Canada.

Of course, there were many unanswered questions last weekend about the newly-announced plans to stage a United States Grand Prix at a new purpose-built track outside Austin, Texas. Austin promoter Tavo Helmund was not in Montreal. Helmund was in South Africa watching the World Cup but plans to be at Silverstone for next month's British GP where he is expected to announce details of his plan to bring F1 to Texas.

"We hope to create the same enthusiasm they have here in Montreal in Austin," Bernie Ecclestone remarked.

Ecclestone has been guaranteed US$25 million per year for ten years by the state of Texas. But with governor Rick Perry facing a tough re-election campaign and the state contending with a $20 million budget shortfall there are questions about the financial viability of building an F1-style track in Texas. It's said, by the way, that the Barber Motorsports Park circuit outside Birmingham, Alabama is Ecclestone's back-up venue should the Austin dream fail to materialize. The Barber track is a nice place but hardly a realistic option to recreate the United States GP.

Ecclestone and the FIA must appreciate that much work needs to be done in the USA to make F1 successful in America. For example, not a single US newspaper or magazine sent any writers to Montreal. This sad fact must change if F1 is to gain any traction in the United States.

© Gary Gold
All of F1's team owners want a pair of races run together in North America to make sense of the travel and transportation costs. Most team owners would also love to see two races in the United States, but that's extremely unlikely. The first mission is to get a successful race up and running and there's no doubt that it will take a massive, inspired effort to make that happen. Can Montreal's roaring crowds and rampant enthusiasm be recreated south of the border? Your guess is as good as mine.

America's disconnect with F1 can also be measured in the lack of young American drivers working the paddock in Montreal. Young Canadian drivers Robert Wickens and James Hinchcliffer were there. The talented Wickens, 21, is racing in the GP3 series this year for Teddy Yip Jr's team while Hinchcliffe is competing in the Indy Lights series.

But the only young American racer to visit Montreal was Conor Daly,18, winner of three Star-Mazda races so far this year. Conor is focused on making a career move to Europe later this year and he and his father Derek spent the entire weekend in Montreal talking to F1's team owners and power brokers about the best way for young Daly to make the move.

"We heard a lot of advice from a lot of people," Daly said. "There's quite a lot of interest in Conor because he's winning races and clearly that's the most important thing. Conor's got to keep winning races because the people in F1 are interested only in performance.

"So we've got to decide which is the best formula to race in over there. There are a lot of different options these days. It's not like it was when there was a clear ladder from Formula Ford through F3 to F2 and then F1. So we've got to be careful to make the right move. But we want to get over for the last part of this year and make the move full-time next year."

As many people say, the American media will only get interested in F1 if there's a US contender in the field. More than thirty years have passed since Mario Andretti scored the last Grand Prix win by an American driver and it's fair to say that the US has had zero impact on F1 since Mario's days. Also, American talent has been struggling to emerge in all forms of open-wheel and road racing--Indy cars included--and there's no doubt that the only way any young American is going to break into F1 is to race in the UK and Europe.

© Gary Gold
Thanks to Jeremy Shaw's Team USA Josef Newgarden and others have been trying hard at the lower levels in Europe and it will be good to see Daly soon join them. But what's really needed is a sponsorship program to carry our young drivers up the ladder from their Team USA beginnings. More than ten years ago Ron Dennis made the sage decision for McLaren to support Lewis Hamilton's rise from karts. Dennis and McLaren have been well-rewarded for their vision and this kind of financial commitment is what's required for America to produce a Formula 1 star. Without it, we will continue to founder on the international stage.

Finally, one of the pleasures of visiting Montreal for the Canadian GP is spending an evening with Jackie Stewart and friends. Stewart's birthday coincides with the Montreal weekend and many years ago Jackie inaugurated a small birthday dinner. It began at a now-departed burger joint called 'The Tramway' where Jackie hosted a handful of his racing writer friends--Alan Henry, Eoin Young, David Tremayne, Nigel Roebuck and Maurice Hamilton--and was good enough to add me to the group. There were years when I couldn't attend because I was busy elswhere, covering a CART race, but the tradition continued and was moved to different restaurants over the years.

A few weeks ago I got an email from Jackie confirming that his birthday dinner would be a part of the Canadian GP revival. This year's dinner was a litle more grand than our early days at 'The Tramway', but still very informal and comfortable, filled as you might imagine with many tales and colorful stories. A table of about sixteen of us--Brit newspaper reporters and TV journalists, some of Jackie's friends and the aforementioned Robeuck, Hamilton and Tremayne--gathered on Friday night for steak and salad and a piece of JYS's birthday cake.

We talked of many things during the evening and Stewart as you might expect is among those who hopes to see F1 return to and thrive in the USA. Back in the early seventies Jackie was as big a racing star in America as any NASCAR or Indy car driver because he raced well at the Indy 500 and in the Can-Am series and was always at the front in the Canadian and United States GPs run respectively in those days at Mosport, St. Jovite and Watkins Glen. But Jackie was also very commercially-minded and was one of the sport's leaders in generating sponsorship and what we then called, 'ink'. After he retired Stewart further established his name and identity during a stint as a race commentator with ABC.

Today, Jackie is as sharp and well-informed as ever and a regular visitor to F1 races as an ambassador for the Royal Bank of Scotland. He's been watching the FIA's move to push F1 toward a new turbocharged formula in 2013 and at IndyCar's debate over its new formula for 2012 and is a firm believer that the time has come for the sport to embrace new technology and greater efficiency.

© Gary Gold
"Over the years Formula One has always been at the leading edge of producing better, more efficient fuel," Stewart observed. "It's been part of motor racing, really since the start, and that will continue and I believe become an even more important part of the sport over the coming years. I fully support what the FIA and IndyCar are trying to do. I think it's part of what the sport has always been all about and contributing the development of improved efficiency in all areas of internal combustion engines and vehicle dynamics will be very important for motor racing as we go forward into the future."

Back in the late sixties and early seventies after he was burned on the infamous opening lap of the 1966 Belgian GP at Spa, Stewart became racing's leading crusader for improved safety. He was vilified by many people who were proud of racing's heritage as a dangerous, life-challenging sport. But over time most everyone came to agree that massive improvements in safety have been the biggest, most positive change for the sport over the last thirty or more years.

Jackie drove Carl Haas' L&M Lola T260 in the 1971 Can-Am series racing against the mighty McLaren team of Denny Hulme and Peter Revson. At Mid-Ohio that year Stewart refused to race unless a tree on the outside of the first turn was felled. His uncompromising stance angered some people but he stuck to his guns and agreed to start only after a bunch if trees were cut down the night before the race.

"It made me unpopular with some people," Stewart remarked. "But it was something that had to happen and when Denny went off at the first turn at the start of the race and crashed exactly where the tree had been everyone realized they had done to right thing because they could see it would have been a fatal accident if the tree had been there."

We've come a long way since those days and we have to thank guys like Jackie Stewart for their contributions. Without them we might not have a sport to enjoy today, and of course, it's always a pleasure to spend some time in the company of an older gentleman who's message is that you always have to move with the times.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2010 ~ All Rights Reserved

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