The Way It Is/ Can America match the Canadian GP?by Gordon Kirby
Last weekend's Canadian Grand Prix demonstrated that Formula One is in rude health. Despite worries about student protests affecting the race a huge crowd turned out all weekend and le Circuit Gilles Villeneuve was packed on raceday with nary an empty seat in the grandstands. The race itself was all about how to get the best from the tires and that Lewis Hamilton did as he became F1's seventh winner of the year. It was Hamilton's third win in Montreal and McLaren's fifth in Canada in the last seven years.
"It feels great to finally be here on the top step," Hamilton said. "It's definitely something we never take for granted. I feel this is one of the best races I've had in a very long time.
"The great thing here at this circuit is you can overtake. There are a couple of places where you can overtake. It's like a go-kart track. You're bumping over curbs and it's got low grip. It's about having good mechanical grip and it's about the weather and the city.
"The fans here are absolutely incredible," Hamilton added. "There are very few places like this that we go to throughout the year. I would say that Monaco is real special and my home Grand Prix at Silverstone is special. But this race is also special. There's tremendous support from the fans. It's just fantastic."
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Two more years remain on Montreal's current contract with Bernie Ecclestone and negotiations for a new contract have already begun. Promoter Francois Dumontier said last weekend that he's involved in ongoing negotiations with Ecclestone. Dumontier hopes to negotiate a new ten-year contract and inevitably Ecclestone wants an increase in his annual fee plus some $20 million in improvements to the facility.
At the moment the race receives a total of $15 million in government subsidies shared by Canada's federal government, Quebec's provincial government and the city of Montreal. Last year the race generated $4.7 million in profits from ticket sales and $18 million in tax spin-offs. The profits are split between the promoter and the federal, provincial and city governments.
There were worries this year that Quebec's student protests triggered by small rises in the province's legendarily small university tuition fees would keep attendance down. But a concerted effort from the local police with some 2,000 extra police on hand kept any threats of disruption from happening.
As regular readers know the Canadian GP is one of my favorite races of the year. It's a short four-hour drive to Montreal for me through northern Vermont and Quebec's Eastern Townships and it's always a pleasure to see F1 cars in action and to spend a good deal of the weekend with my longtime F1 colleagues Nigel Roebuck and Maurice Hamilton, first-class gentlemen and excellent writers both.
This year Nigel and I enjoyed a delightful conversation in the middle of the weekend with Joann Villeneuve, wife of the great Gilles and mother of Jacques. Nigel wanted to give Joann a copy of the latest issue of Motor Sport which included some of her own reminiscing about her years with Gilles as well as a story about last month's celebrations in Italy of Gilles's life on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of his tragic death. We chuckled over the many stories told in the May issue of Motor Sport about Gilles's ferociously rapid driving on the road.
"I didn't drive at the time so I really didn't understand anything about it," Joann remarked. "I had complete confidence in him and I would often go to sleep when he was driving. I thought most people could do what he could do in a car. It took a few years for me to realize how special he was and how very few people could do what he could.
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"When we moved to Europe and he had Ferrari road cars to drive I was able to sit beside him and enjoy it, again, because I had so much confidence and belief in him. The scariest rides I ever took with him where in his Formula Atlantic days when he had a Boss Mustang. I remember driving with him from Montreal to Berthierville on little backroads and that was something else!"
Meanwhile, American F1 fans hope for something like the aura and atmosphere of Montreal to take shape around either or both of the upcoming new US Grands Prix. The purpose-built Circuit of the Americas in Austin makes its debut in November and a street race in Weehawken, New Jersey will join the F1 schedule next year.
As everyone knows the United States Grand Prix has suffered through more venue changes than any other World Championship F1 race. Since the first USGP at Sebring in 1959 the race has visited no fewer than nine different tracks--Sebring, Riverside, Watkins Glen, Long Beach, Las Vegas, Dallas, Detroit, Phoenix and Indianapolis. Austin and Weehawken will be America's tenth and eleventh F1 venues and if they are to be successful they must become established venues with longterm futures.
Last week the Circuit of the Americas announced that Mario Andretti has been hired to act as the track's ambassador and Mario was in Montreal on raceday to talk about his new role.
"Over the past year I've been peppered with questions about Austin," Mario said. "People ask, will it work? Will it be successful? Will it draw a crowd? So I thought it would be good for me and good for the Circuit of the Americas to be as informed as possible. We started to talk just to get me up to speed on the latest developments and as we talked one thing led to another. We began to talk about maybe we should join forces in more of an official manner.
© Gary Gold
"I believe the most important thing is consistency and longevity," Andretti added. "We need an event with a solid base that you can look forward to every year. We don't need any more of people putting up the tent for a year or two and then it comes down. We've been looking for a home for F1 in America for a long time and I believe Austin will be that home. Hopefully, F1 will be there forever.
"The biggest challenge is first to have the theater and to build it steadily. I maintain that the Formula One fan base in America is grossly underestimated. First of all we've got to make a lot of noise about this so people know that it's happening and it's going to be there for many, many years and it's going to be a place to go--a destination. It's got to be a big event where people want to be there and be part of it."
The Circuit of the Americas has also made a good move in hiring Dr. Steve Olvey as the track's medical director. Dr. Olvey was CART's medical director for 25 years from CART's start in 1979 through 2003. Olvey and his colleague Dr. Terry Trammell are also founding fellows of the FIA's safety institute.
"We review all significant crashes from all disciplines of racing," Dr. Olvey told me last weekend. "We try to figure out what we can do to prevent injuries in the future in each particular area. We screen and look at all the ideas that come from all over the world to improve every area and see if they're off the wall or make sense. Then the engineers in the institute do testing to verify what really works and what doesn't."
Dr. Olvey also discussed his role with the Circuit of the Americas.
"We got together over a year ago," Olvey said. "They originally contacted me with some questions and then realized the experience I had. So I met and interviewed with them and they invited me to be the medical director which was approved by ACCUS and the FIA. We have a 5,500 square feet medical center that's going to be state of the art. I made some changes to the architecture of the medical center and it's going to be very well done. They're almost at the point where they're going to be putting in all the walls and fixtures. It's come a long way."
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"The other thing is I've got the old band back together. Lon Bromley is going to be the safety director and Terry Trammell and Dick Sanderski are going to be on the racetrack in rescue vehicles."
Another factor in F1's struggle to succeed in the United States is that more than a third of a century has passed since an American driver or team last won a Grand Prix. Andretti scored the last world championship F1 win for an American driver in Holland in 1978 his championship season with Lotus while Roger Penske's team recorded the last F1 victory for an American team when John Watson won the Austrian Grand Prix for Penske in 1976.
Today it appears highly improbable that an American team will ever again compete let alone be successful in F1. But at least there are a handful of young Americans angling to make a career in F1 including Alex Rossi and Conor Daly while Josef Newgarden has shown plenty of talent in his rookie IndyCar season after spending a couple of years racing Formula Ford and GP3 cars in Europe.
Conor's father Derek raced F1 and Indy cars before becoming a motor sports business consultant, author and TV announcer. Derek was in Montreal last weekend and we talked about the importance of having a competitive American driver in the field if F1 is to be successful in Texas or New Jersey.
"To sustain its growth and interest no significant sporting event lasts or grows without local or national pride," Daly observed. "All professional sports from the NFL to baseball, basketball, ice hockey and pretty much everything in between are built on local pride in their team. And the same is true in motor racing. The British Grand Prix, for example, draws 25,000 extra people through the gate because Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton are there. That's a fact. If everybody spends $200 that's $5 million additional through the gate.
"In America we don't have that. We don't have the draw of our own national stars and the fans don't get behind the development of our future stars who we hope will be our ambassadors or flag wavers. Of course, the difficulty with me saying this is people think I have a conflict of interest (with Conor) but I've spent twenty years in television learning what the TV audience wants and what makes great events. I've also watched the Indy 500 go down and down as the number of American drivers went down and down. What happens is it kills the emotional attachment to the event. If you're not emotionally attached, you won't make an effort to go.
"You can argue that the Canadian GP has been built on the legend of Gilles Villeneuve," Daly added. "The circuit is named after him and his legend has sparked the massive interest and enthusiasm for racing in Quebec and Canada, and I believe Long Beach was built on the legend of Mario Andretti. When Mario won at Long Beach in 1977 it turned the event around from being on the brink of failure to a success and he was also the key to making CART successful in Long Beach. It was his name and legend that made the race a huge event through the eighties and early nineties."
I agree wholeheartedly with Andretti and Daly about the keys to F1's success in America. It would be a great thing for the sport if the United States could have one if not two Grands Prix to equal Canada's superb Grand Prix at le Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. It's a long shot to be sure, but here's hoping it happens.
Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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