For a car buff, the Canadian Grand Prix is more than just a race. It's a calendar highlight and a state of mind.
For me, it starts with the ritual drive up to Montreal, then the final journey through the city to the track itself, where I find myself in a parallel universe where nothing matters but speed and engineering. For the next two days, I am a worshipper at the Vatican of Internal Combustion.
This year, things got a little complicated. There were empty seats in the stands, and the local news wasn't fixated on who was fastest in qualifying, or which drivers were in and out at Ferrari. Instead, the story of the day was the protesters who have dominated the life of Montreal for the past four months.
For the first time, the joy of the Grand Prix was not unalloyed. Quebec was defined by two solitudes once again, but with a new twist. This time it wasn't French versus English – it was speed and engineering versus the politics of dissent.
The Montreal protests had been sparked by a government plan to raise tuition fees at Quebec's universities, but have since morphed into an Occupy-style movement against social inequality. The GP had been targeted as a symbol of capitalist decay.
On Saturday morning, I strolled along pit lane. Next to me were garages filled with exotic machinery and champagne hospitality suites that cost $5,000 for the weekend. Supermodels and actors rubbed elbows with billionaire developers and CEOs. Seven-time world driving champion Michael Schumacher brushed past me, followed by Nicole Scherzinger (lead singer of The Pussycat Dolls, and girlfriend of F1 driver Lewis Hamilton).
The air was filled with the noise of 18,000-rpm engines as the drivers ripped around the track at more than 300 km/h, and rows of engineers sat glued to digital screens that showed the data streaming back from the cars. Bernie Ecclestone, the billionaire CEO of Formula One, watched the action from the pits along with Niki Lauda, a champion driver who was badly burned in a 1976 crash. (As always, Lauda wore a baseball cap to cover the brutal scars on his head.)
After Saturday's qualifying sessions, I headed downtown. The GP party was on as usual, but there were clear signs of trouble. A line of riot police in black helmets marched down Rue Sainte-Catherine, drumming their shields with batons. Sirens wailed, and percussion grenades popped somewhere in the distance. I watched for a while, then headed out into the night.
Back at the track, I met Joann Villeneuve, the widow of GP legend Gilles Villeneuve (a Quebec hero who died in a 1982 crash). She was trailed by a TV producer working on a reality show about her family. And now there was an unexpected chapter – her son Jacques (a former F1 champion) was in the news after criticizing the protestors for "loafing about."
"It's costing the city a fortune," Villeneuve said. "It makes no sense. I think these people grew up without ever hearing their parents ever tell them, 'No.' So that's what you see in the streets now. People spending their time complaining."
I read up on the protests a while ago. Quebec university students pay about $2,100 a year in tuition. Earlier this year, the Quebec government announced that they would increase fees by $325 a year for the next five years, bringing the total cost to about $3,700 by 2016. I was amazed – my kids' tuition has been in the $5,500 range since my daughter started university back in 2006.
I went to an information website put up by a protest group that explained the impact of the increases: "Since available financial aid will remain inadequate, students will face surging debt burdens, which act to channel us into high-paid corporate jobs, rather than work we might find more fulfilling…. Education is a right, not a privilege."
Back at the Montreal Grand Prix circuit, I found myself in a world ruled not by idealism, but by engineering and the ruthless forces of competition. The Williams team was repairing Pastor Maldonado's car after a trip into the Turn 13 wall. Caterham and HRT couldn't make their cars fast enough. Over at Ferrari, the buzz was about Felipe Massa, one of the team's drivers, who has been off the pace since being hit in the head by a part that fell off another car back in 2009. Massa came close to dying in the incident, but in F1, sympathy only goes so far, so Massa will be on his way out unless he gets his nerve and speed back.
Not everyone in F1 is rich and famous. The teams depend on hundreds of mechanics, go-fers and parts-schleppers. These are the people who clean the pits, push the tire racks, and empty the holding tanks. I spent some time hanging out with Mike, a young guy from Pirelli tires who spends his days measuring the temperature of the track and the F1 cars' tires. This is his second job – back in England, he works as a truck driver and has two young children. He hadn't seen them for weeks, and he missed them. "I'm looking forward getting home," he said.
On the day of the race, protesters tried to block the Montreal subway to keep fans away. It didn't work very well, but it still ticked some people off. "I saved up all year for this," said a fan who had flown to Montreal from Los Angeles to watch the GP. "If these guys have a problem, they need to talk to their government," he said. "What are they going to accomplish by screwing up a car race?"
I spent the GP weekend with my wife's cousins, Jean and Claude, who live in a condominium on top of a hill in Notre Dame du Grace, overlooking the city. As the weekend came to a close, we stood on their roof looking out at the Montreal skyline. The St. Lawrence River glittered to the south, and the noise of the F1 cars had abated. Would the protestors be out tonight? Jean and Claude had no way of knowing, but after four months of hearing pots and pans being banged together (the signature sound of the protests), Jean and Claude were sick of it.
Jean pointed to a new hospital that was going up a few blocks away. The buildings were rising, concrete shapes overhung by construction cranes that looked like giant steel egrets.
"Cranes! "Jean said. "It's great to see to that in Montreal again."
I fired up my car Sunday night and headed west to Toronto again. In Montreal, I had seen two realities. Neither was perfect. But I knew which one made sense to me. Give me speed.
Check out Peter Cheney's exclusive gallery from the F1 paddock here: In pictures: Behind the scenes at Formula One
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