2005 Grand Prix du Canada - Montreal, June 10-12, 2005

I started watching Formula One racing about five years ago; though I had always held an interest in the circuit, it wasn't until I worked with someone who really knew about it that I caught the bug myself. Formula One is nothing like NASCAR; first of all, every track is different (there are no ovals) and each one provides its own set of challenges for drivers and mechanics. Second, the engineers are constantly testing new setups and parts as a way of trying to extract just a bit more speed out of the cars. And third, since the tracks aren't short ovals stuffed with 40 cars, you don't see a lot of crashes - so when you do see one, it's a rare event.
From Saturday qualifying

The Canadian Grand Prix is the closest Formula One comes to the eastern US, and that's not bad because Montreal is only a 5 1/2-hour drive from Hartford, or seven hours or so from New York City. And it's a nice drive. We got up at 5am on Friday the 10th, which was a bit of a miracle because the night before Jim and I had a playoff game in our deck hockey league. We won, fortunately, but that always keeps me up late. So getting up at 5am was no easy task - and I was impressed that we were on the road by 530.

The first half of the drive is fairly mundane, followed by the second half, which is equally mundane BUT pretty. Most of Vermont is filled with rolling green hills and farms, with little of civilization visible to the passerby. Certainly a nice drive, but not electrifying by any means. What kept me awake, of course, was the knowledge that at the end of this drive was MONTREAL!

A barn on the 15 going up from Vermont to Montreal.  This picture was taken by Jim.
(The picture on the left was actually taken by Jim Bethune, as I was driving at the time.)
I had not yet been to Montreal; this was my sixth time to Canada (the other times had been to Vancouver, Toronto, and Niagara Falls), but my first to Quebec, and what better time than for the GPC, one of the most popular races on the F1 calendar, and from what my Canadian friends had told me, one hell of a time to come to Montreal. Streets will be closed off to traffic because of all the people going out at night.

This was taken by Jim also.

So we crossed the border into Quebec at around 1015 or so, and for the first half hour, Quebec was just as desolate as Vermont. But then we got into the suburbs of Montreal, and finally we crossed the St Laurence River into Montreal itself, which was shrouded in a bit of a haze as the temperature was in the high 80s with humidity to boot. Conditions that are quite common in June for much of the US, but Montreal? This had to be unusual.

Crescent Street
In any case, we were soon to our hotel and decided to check out the scene on Crescent Street, one of the streets I knew would be closed. As you can see from the picture, even by Friday around noon it was pretty well populated. A lot of sponsors had displays, there were people selling 1/18-scale models of the cars, girls handing out flyers for Casino Montreal, a bandstand setting up for the afternoon's entertainment, and lots of restaurants and bars open on the sidewalks. At night this would become a madhouse; thousands of people walking around, from all over the world and of course with plenty of locals there to enjoy the occasion.

A catherdral just a block away from our hotel, the Marriott Chateaux Champlain Our hotel was on top of the Bonaventure station on the Metro, so we had ultimate convenience. We went to the friday practice session, which taught us two things: One, it's only twenty minutes from downtown to the metro station for the track; but from the metro station to our seat is another 45 minute walk, because we happen to be at the far end of the course! Fortunately there were plenty of refreshments available, and we were by no means alone in our walk.

Jensen Button
The practice went well, we went back to the hotel, showered, had dinner, and went out. But having been up since 5am, we didn't have a late night, and got up the next morning in time to go straight to the track for saturday qualifying. In qualifying, you get a warm-up lap and then a qualifying lap, from which your time will be used to determine the order on the starting grid. Obviously the goal is to turn in the best time, and win the pole position: that went to Jensen Button of BAR-Honda. Jacques Villeneuve, who was born in Quebec and thus the local favorite, qualfied eighth, which is no bad position for his Sauber.

A view of the crowd behind our grandstand during the race weekend
After practice we took some time to walk around the island and see the other events going on. Budweiser had an exclusivity for the event, so they had the entertainment. There was a band playing here, too - the Budweiser girls were on stage doing background vocals, which was interesting. I won a t-shirt in a football toss that I'll be happy to explain to anyone at a different time, but in brief, I put the ball into Randy Moss' hands - which no one else we saw was able to do. Every one of the F1 teams had a tent out so you could buy merchanside, and Honda had a tent with all their current motorcycles; I almost lost Jim in that one!

We returned to the hotel, napped, showered, and went to dinner before heading to Casino Montreal. This is where we strarted to show signs of fatigue; we got out of the metro at the correct station (for the record, it's Jean-Drapeau) and started walking in what we thought was the direction of the casino - as you can see from the picture, it isn't hidden. But after 20 minutes we realized we must have taken a wrong turn. We got directions and walked the remaining 4 km to the Casino, which we soon found out was served by a bus right outside the metro stop. I then proceeded to lose $120CDN at craps after being up in Caribbean Stud. So we went back to Crescent Street for the rest of the night, sitting at Karinas and Churchills for much of the evening.

First time by during the race

Race day was exciting: we got up just in time (again) to have breakfast and get to the track, and this time we arrived at our seats with not much time to go, as the cars were just starting to leave the pits for a quick stint around the track to the starting grid. From there we would see the formation lap, and then the picture here, which is the first trip through the Senna corner at the start of the race.

The Renaults got off to a phenomenal start, Giancarlo Fisichella taking the early lead but maybe halfway into the race, he was caught up by his teammate, current championship leader Fernando Alonso. Alonso passed him on the back straightaway, and when he returned to our corner he got a huge ovation - which was followed by the sight of Fisichella going into the pit lane and then into the garage, a mechanical problem taking him out a race he had every reason to believe he could have won.

Fernando Alonso winning in Canada
Alonso's day would soon end also. He came out of the turn going into the start-finish straight and nailed the wall, ruining his suspension and taking him out of the race on the following lap. He was soon followed by Jensen Button, who did the same thing but hit the wall so hard that the safety car had to come out, and while that was going on Juan Pablo Montoya ran a red light in pit lane and was black-flagged out of the race by the stewards. So that left Kimi Raikkonen in the lead, with Michael Schumacher behind him.

Michael Schumacher on saturday Schumacher, of course, is the reigning World Champion, as he has been since I started watching F1. Only Tiger Woods makes more money as an athlete than Michael. Don't think racecar drivers are athletes? Here's a stat for you: Michael Schumacher trains for six hours a day lifting weights, running, and stretching, in order to keep in top shape as a driver because the g-forces that F1 drivers endure require them to be fit as any other athlete in sport. And the endurance needed to race at top speed for an hour and a half is no easy feat either.

Kimi Raikkonen winning the Canadian Grand Prix
For the final 12 laps, Raikkonen led Schumacher by about two seconds. But Schumacher could not catch him. Lap after lap, the two went by us with barely any time between them, Schumacher and Ferrari hoping that Raikkonen would make a mistake and spin out, or overbrake, or do something to allow Schumacher to win his first race of the season. But it was not to be; Kimi held on and won the race, the first time he had done so on this track, where Michael Schumacher has won 7 times - more than any other driver in history.

We ran over to where the podium ceremony would be, and to our surprise ended up next to where the cars come in after the race to walk up the steps to the podium - so I got this great shot of Michael Schumacher exiting his car. Here we see him replacing the steering wheel onto the car, which they have to take off in order to get in and out of it, and MUST remember to replace it when they get out or they will be disqualified. He was joined by Rubens Barrichello, his teammate on Ferrari and who finished in third place, despite starting the race from pit lane due to a mechanical problem on saturday.

The three went up to the podium, and I was able to get this shot of Schumacher applauding the crowd as he arrived. You can see the trophy he won on the left; traditionally in F1, the winning driver and constructor hear their national anthems played, then get a big trophy, and then the second and third place drivers get smaller but similar trophies. Then the dignitaries clear the stage and the drivers spray each other with champagne (although in Kimi's case he often drinks much of it). They they head to the interview room where they will have a short press conference.

I got this shot of Michael coming down the steps, with Rubens' head at the bottom of the picture. Someone standing near me had yelled for Michael to acknowledge the crowd, and that's why the thumbs-up sign is in his hand. Notice he isn't actually carrying the trophy with him; they never do. And allow me to note that I'm not a huge Schumacher fan; I like him, I think he's a great driver, and he's as good for the sport of F1 as Wayne Gretzky was for hockey; but I much more enjoy seeing wins for Raikkonen and Alonso, the young guns of the sport. For the record, Schumacher is six months younger than me.

Ron Dennis and Kimi Raikkonen
So where's Kimi? Well, here he is, talking to McLaren boss Ron Dennis, one of the big non-driver names in F1. I couldn't get good shots of Kimi; he has a tendency to walk with his head down, and isn't as conscious of the fans as Schumacher is. But this shot came out well. And as an aside, right after this shot was taken, Michael Douglas walked by us, though to my chagrin he had not brought his lovely wife - the beautiful Catherine Zeta-Jones - with him to the race. Maybe he heard I was going to be there and decided to play it safe? Hmmm....

And that left us with getting home. We walked past the biosphere, which was the site of the USA exhibit during the 1967 World's Fair in Montreal and still stands to this day. We walked over 10 miles in getting back to the hotel, because the metro was so crowded that we figured that walking couldn't be so bad. We were wrong; in addition to it being much farther than we thought, it was also a hot day and I got a sunburn on my face. And it took out our legs; the following Thursday night I pulled a calf muscle in the final of our deck hockey season (but we won, so I don't mind). But all in all, it was a great weekend, and I would recommend it to anyone.

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