Thursday, June 15, 2017

Canadian Grand Prix - June 10-11, 2017

Back when I lived in Asia, Formula 1 was a sport that I followed quite closely, including attending races in Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan. Now that I have returned to North America, I still try to keep up with the happenings in F1 but it is a lot tougher, as the main sports networks barely cover it and most races are on early Sunday morning rather than in the evening. Since 2012, there has been a race in Austin, but that is a bit too far to go for me, particularly given the cost of attending an F1 event.

Fortunately, there is an annual race that is closer to NYC, namely the Canadian Grand Prix, held on the second weekend in June at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal. Being Canadian myself, this has long been on the bucket list, and 2017 was the first year since my return that I had nothing else on that weekend. I was able to book a cheap flight to Montreal, returning via Amtrak's Adirondack service, an 11-hour ride that is a bargain at just $60.

My buddy Sharpy drove down from Ottawa to join me, picking me up at the airport early Saturday morning. I had an AirBnB booked because hotels downtown were ludicrously expensive. F1 fans are jetsetters, and they can afford overpriced lodging, but I cannot. After finding a perfect parking spot near our accommodation, we made our way to Berri-UQAM metro station, where the Yellow Line takes you to the circuit, which lies on Île Notre-Dame, a man-made island just south of the city. The metro system is accustomed to the crowds that F1 attracts, and it was a smooth process to purchase a day pass, board the train along with a thousand other people, and disembark one station later at Jean Drapeau.

As we enjoying a bit of breakfast before boarding the train, I received a notification from AirBnB, which certainly didn't bode well. I reluctantly checked the message and was dismayed to find that our host, for some unknown reason, had cancelled at the last minute, without even providing a note of explanation or apology. Ah, the beauty of the sharing economy, where there are no consequences for being a piece of crap. Regardless of my anger, Sharpy and I were suddenly stranded without a place to stay. But we had no time to worry as we had to get to the qualifying session.

From Jean Drapeau station, it is a short walk over a bridge to one of the three entrances to the track. Before entering the circuit, you pass by the Biosphere, the iconic symbol from Expo '67, which also houses an environmental museum.

Along the bridge are banners celebrating each past champion, including surprise winner Robert Kubica, whose only F1 win came here in 2008. There is no waiting at security or where the ticket is scanned, as the crowd arrives at a fairly steady pace. Once inside, you might have a long walk to your grandstand (tribune in French). For qualifying, we were in Grandstand 24, right at the hairpin, which took about 15 minutes to reach. This is the best place for pictures as the cars are moving quite slowly out of the turn.

Each grandstand is really just an uncomfortable metal bleacher, and many fans choose general admission instead, which allows them to find a spot close to a fence and set up a portable chair. Food and beer are allowed to be brought in, so you can really make a day of it if you come early. I brought my F1 radio headphones, but they were not necessary. In the time since I first attended, the cars have become much quieter, so much so that even earplugs are not required.

The qualifying takes only an hour, and it was quite exciting as Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton (above during the drivers' parade on Sunday) set a track record to take the pole in front of Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel. I had seen 5 races so far, and Vettel has won them all, so I was hopeful that that streak would be broken. We stayed to watch a bit of the next race, featuring smaller and slower Formula 1600 cars, but after watching the big boys zoom by, this event was rather dull. With our lack of accommodation for the evening becoming a pressing issue, we headed back to town.

After retrieving the charger for my phone, we stepped into Yer Mad, a bar very close to Berri UQAM. There were cheap beers, odd grilled cheese sandwiches (butter chicken for example, which is worth a try) and a plug so I could charge my phone and start figuring out where to stay. Perfect. While I tried to get in touch with AirBnB (no luck) and look for a suitable hotel in the area (options were few and far between). Sharpy went upstairs to the Hotel Arena Palace (a double misnomer as it is neither) to see if they had a room. Surprisingly, they did. It was obviously a flophouse, but I've stayed in worse during my travels in Asia, and given the convenience to the station and the track, plus a nearby sports bar, plus the lack of anything else in the area, we decided to stay there. The room was basic, but did have a private shower, its only amenity. There was a fan, but the attached light did not turn off separately so you either slept in humidity, or with the light on. There was also a TV with 13 channels of static. But hey, we weren't there to watch TV. In order to improve our quality of sleep, we spent a few hours at the sports bar before finally crashing for the evening.

Sunday we returned to the track several hours before the race. This time we were in Grandstand 46, the cheapest option if you want a seat. Views are fine, but this part of the track sees only cars accelerating out of the hairpin, thus there is no real chance for passing. As well, there is no screen visible from our seats, as the nearest one is blocked by a tree as you can see on the right of the photo below. This makes the race a bit difficult to follow, but there is an announcer who keeps fans apprised of events elsewhere on the track.

The race started with some excitement as Felipe Massa and Carlos Sainz Jr. were knocked out on the first lap. This left Canadian Lance Stroll (below), an 18-year-old rookie, as the only Williams car in the race. Stroll had qualified 17th, but the early shakeup was just what he needed to move up. Hamilton was the runaway leader right from the start, so the excitement was to see if Stroll could move into the top 10 and secure his first F1 points. As the race continued. Stroll slowly gained position bit by bit, helped by other cars leaving the race (including Max Verstappen) and his own aggressiveness. When he took over tenth spot, there was a loud cheer the next time he came around.

Vettel had to pit early due to some wing damage, but he was able to move from 18th to 4th over the rest of the race, providing Ferrari fans something to cheer about, but he could not catch Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo for a podium spot. Hamilton won over teammate Valtteri Bottas by 23 seconds to complete the Mercedes sweep, while Stroll ended up 9th to record the feel good story of the afternoon. That's Hamilton celebrating on the big screen below. A more detailed review can be found here.

With the race over, the track was opened to fans, who could walk along as they made their way to the exit.

I expected a long wait at the station, but things moved very quickly and we were back at the sports bar about 40 minutes after the race ended, in plenty of time to watch the Jays and Mariners out west. Later that evening the Penguins clinched the Stanley Cup, just as I predicted (kind of).

It was a great weekend hampered only by the last-second cancellation of AirBnB. After I returned home, I sent them an email to complain about the situation and our limited options. They refunded the money we spent on the Arena Palace, which helped a lot. Still, I have now been cancelled on three times in a row, so I'll probably be avoiding them for a long while.


The train ride back to New York is beautiful as you pass along Lake Champlain on the east and then the Hudson River to the west, but the air conditioning in the car failed halfway there, rendering it a somewhat uncomfortable experience. Most riders moved to the snack car to take advantage of their AC, which left my car quite empty and quiet. The conductor passed out free water, which made things tolerable. I would recommend this ride once, but possibly in the spring or fall, when a failure of the air conditioning system won't impact you as much.

The museum in the biosphere was free during the weekend and is worth a visit, if only for the view of downtown through the lattice.



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