A HACK LOOKS BACK

The Canadian GP

Before starting my usual nostalgic meanderings around Montreal and its Grand Prix, perhaps I might be permitted to reflect on last week's race at Monaco. Far be it from me to attribute great visionary powers to the magnificent electronic organ to which you have just directed your browser, but having warned you all about the rapaciousness of the Principality's hospitality industry it is a matter of record that the number of fans who went there two weeks ago to urge our own young Mr Hamilton to success was well down on the usual attendance. There was hardly a yacht worth the name in the harbour and I have even heard that several restaurateurs are facing ruin, or at least the prospect of having to carry on running last year's Porsche because this year's vastly reduced GP takings mean they can't afford a new one.

Although some observers might imagine that the unseasonally cool and wet weather was the cause of so much absenteeism, I prefer to believe that it was the words published right here which discouraged the tens of thousands who stayed away. To suggest any different motivation would be to deny the power and influence of grandprix.com and would constitute an insult to the army of technical wizards, skilled sub-editors and highly paid researchers behind the scenes at the website's numerous nerve centres around the world.

Having said that, it would be nice to think that the geeks in the basement were able to come up with some means of allowing a commonplace French word like 'Monegasque' to be reproduced in this hallowed province of cyberspace as it appears on my screen, instead of substituting a weird symbol where I had written a straightforward acute accent over the letter 'e.' I am therefore prepared to make a substantial wager with the proprietor - say, my fee for all of this year's columns - that his tech guys are powerless to prevent the same bizarre mistake making its appearance again this week.

We all make mistakes, of course, and I hope that not too many of you were inconvenienced after I advised that spectating positions on the Rocher at Monaco are free. That was a foolish suggestion, as dozens of those who had to pay 40 Euros for their places there have since notified us. Guilty as charged, m'lud, and my excuse is that I was working on the information I was given when I last investigated prices at Monaco, which must be something more than 30 years ago.

As it happens, it will be almost exactly 30 years this weekend since Montreal hosted the Canadian GP for the first time on the Ile Notre Dame circuit in the middle of the icy St Laurence river. That race was held in October, to fit in with the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen (where the promoters liked to close the season), and at those latitudes the weather is inevitably closing in at that time of year. It was a cold, cold weekend, although the race result ensured that the local fans stayed warm and happy.

By rights, the winner should have been Jean-Pierre Jarier, who had been recruited by the Lotus team following the loss of Ronnie Peterson at Monza, and "Jumper" was way ahead of everyone when a major oil leak developed. When the Frenchman finally pulled into the pits, the bloke behind, one Gilles Villeneuve, was ready to take over the lead. According to my colleague Gerry Donaldson, who knows as much about the history of the Canadian GP as I do about the music of Count Basie (i.e. far too much), it was the first time in the history of the FIA championships that a driver had ever won his maiden Grand Prix at his home circuit.

The loyalty to their race of the fans from Quebec (another opportunity there for a crazy grandprix.com accent, folks) is one of the most charming features of modern GP racing, and I am genuinely sorry that a family commitment to a Spanish beach means I won't be there this year. It seems positively bizarre that French-speaking Canada, a tiny cultural island situated as it is on a continent where baseball and a form of football which is played neither with a ball nor with the feet are the predominant sports, should be so devoted to Formula 1. You could never accuse Bernie Ecclestone of not capitalising on that devotion, and somehow the city has managed to keep Bernie and his investors happy for most of the time since 1978.

In spite of this year's race not being back-to-back with Indianapolis, as it has been since 2000, the Canadians have decided not to drop the event, no doubt hoping (as we all do) that Indy will be back next year. From what I hear, there is a sporting chance that it will.

As a sign of their seriousness, Montreal has invested in a new Media Centre at the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve, and, as all of us will say, "about time, too." Back in 1978 the press was accommodated in one of the old Olympic pavilions which had been converted into a casino, and it was a seriously strange experience to be writing one's stories surrounded the flashing lights and clanging bells of a thousand one-armed bandit machines. Later we were crammed into a three-story wooden press centre which had the advantage of being within easy reach of the pits but had only enough room for a couple of dozen scribes - even though at least two hundred of us regularly showed up. At least I understood then why we are called "the press."

One of my scariest memories of that old, unloved press centre was the year that I was asked to report qualifying for a major Sunday newspaper. Because the time difference meant that the end of qualifying in Montreal coincided almost exactly with the deadline for the first edition of the paper, my instructions were to write a brief piece and to try to dictate it (no electronic mail at the time) at the very end of qualifying.

Somehow I managed to meet this requirement, and I was starting to read the last line of my story as the session moved into its final couple of minutes. Then, as the man with the flag prepared to step forward, an Arrows appeared roughly at the same altitude as the first floor of the building in which I was sitting, going backwards.

"You're not going to like this," I told the man in London, "but Derek Warwick is in the process of having one of the most spectacular crashes of his entire career. Shall we ignore it or would you like me to call back when I've found out how many bones he's broken?"

As it happened, Derek miraculously got away with severe bruising and a nasty shaking. I wasn't invited back to report for that paper, although I did work, once, for the Sunday Mirror. That was in Argentina, where Damon Hill was slightly (but subtly) critical of the state of the track edging and suggested that in the event of rain it might be necessary to consider postponing the start until the water had drained away.

My story appeared across two pages under the huge headline, "DAMON SLAMS KILLER TRACK," with my name underneath it in only slightly smaller lettering. You will not be surprised, perhaps, to learn that that was the last time I consented to write for our splendid daily newspapers ...

This weekend, with not a deadline to worry me, I shall be watching the telecast from Montreal from the comfort of a friend's sofa, with a glass in my hand and the prospect of a nice dinner. I will be raising the glass to that happiest and most congenial of Brazilians, Rubens Barrichello, who (in case you've been taken in by all the Honda hype) will be breaking an old record by embarking on his 257th F1 race. For everyone's sake, I hope Rubinho doesn't do a Warwick and cross the finishing line at head height. As we say in Spain, Ole! (Oh, crikey, I hope that accent comes out OK).

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