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Old hat in Canada

Ralf Schumacher, Canadian GP 2001

Ralf Schumacher, Canadian GP 2001 

 © The Cahier Archive

A couple of years ago I was pottering around a large antique shop in Monterey, California, and there amongst the flotsam and jetsam of lives I stumbled across a baseball cap with a Central Intelligence Agency badge on it. My job is to collect information in the Formula 1 paddock and it appealed to my (twisted) sense of humor and so I bought it. I have often wondered how the old hat got there, 3000 miles from Langley, Virginia, the home of the famous intelligence gathering organization.

Who knows? It was probably not a romantic story. I guess that some old spook retired to the West Coast and after playing a few rounds of golf, popped his clogs and somehow the old hat ended up in the antique shop. I never really knew if it was a real one but I guessed it must be and in Monaco recently I received confirmation of this fact. I was walking up a pedestrian street when an American approached me, looked at my hat and said: "Are you really?"

It is not the first time that such a thing has happened and I have developed a number of glib responses to cover the approach: "I could tell you but then I would have to kill you" or "No, but can you tell me the way to the Chinese Embassy?"

But on this occasion I decided to answer the question with a question.

"Why do you want to know?" I asked.

"Because that is a real hat..." he said.

"How do you know?" I said.

"I've seen one in Washington..."

I knew I had made a mistake when I said "So what are you doing here?" and he launched into a screed about how he was on the run from The Mob and needed some help from the authorities and I smiled (rather weakly) and said something like: "Oh goodness me, look at the time. Good luck with the bad guys" and dodged behind a hot dog stall and ran away.

But, while you get to meet some wild people, the hat is, in a general a great ice-breaker and incites comment from everyone in the paddock from Bernie Ecclestone downwards.

"Intelligence?" says Mr E. "I don't think so..."

It is not the oldest hat in the paddock because that honor belongs to Sid Watkins who has worn the same FIA baseball cap since the late 1970s. It's a ragged old thing. Niki Lauda's Parmalat hat gets traded in from time to time but is always a little rumpled.

Anyway in Montreal, I was chatting to someone when the subject of the hat came up once again.

"It's a bit battered," he said. "You need to get a new one."

"That is easier said than done," I replied.

"Would you like a new one?" he said.

"Sure I would."

"I'll send you one next week..."

You meet the funniest people in the F1 paddocks... Politicians, captains of industry, actors and sportsmen. And then there are those who are famous for being famous. I have always felt that this was a really stupid job but it seems that people pay for professional VIPs to turn up. These B-list celebrities turn up if you open a garden fete. Some of them will turn up if you open a door. Their aim is to stay famous and so they are constantly dropping stories into the gossip rags. This means that they become a self-perpetuating concept. If they are photographed when they appear they become more famous. Once upon a time they may have done something noteworthy: slept with a politician, slept with a Princess, slept with both at the same time. They may have appeared in a soap opera, won an Olympic gold medal for needlework or been on Big Brother in Malawi. That sort of thing. Usually such tawdry details are forgotten. They are famous for being famous. There are a few mature (shall we say) models who have reached the end of the catwalk and rather than retiring to do exercise videos, they wander around from party to party being beautiful people until they are no longer beautiful. There are several Formula 1 team owners who aspire to becoming B list celebrities, hanging out in the billionaire set, mumbling "My boat is bigger than your boat" and drinking pink champagne.

For some reason Canada attracts a lot of these gruesome people. In mid-June Montreal is a party town. For most of the year Montrealers (or whatever they are called) inhabit a cold and snowy world in which the duffle coat and the ski jacket round off the curves of even the curviest Quebecoises. But in June the summer breaks out and in a flash they trade in ice skates for roller blades and duffel coats for very little and the town becomes a spectator sport. Every inch of flesh tries to catch every available ray of sunshine. This is accompanied with a certain lack of reserve. Everyone is loud and happy. Even the street beggars have a good sense of humor. Instead of asking for money for food, they figure that they will get more if they can make people laugh and so you see weird things like little cardboard signs saying: "Money for lobster" and things like that.

The quirky and cosmopolitan nature of the city makes it very attractive to the quirky and cosmopolitan people in Formula 1 and Montreal is a firm favorite. If you asked the entire paddock to list their top three races, a huge majority would include Montreal. It is just a fun event. The Canadians like this but in recent years have tended to take the F1 visits for granted. The track needs more work and the facilities are pretty poor. It was all nice stuff at the end of the 1970s but 20 years on it is looking very secondhand (a bit like my hat).

The circuit has been run by the same people since 1981. They have done a good job. It is often not appreciated just how big a job they do for this is not a permanent facility. Every year there are 15 grandstands, four bridges and miles of fencing and advertising hoarding to be put up and then taken down. Quite a lot of the crash barriers disappear as well. And it has to be done in a hurry because for 10 months of the year the Ile de Notre Dame is parkland - and the site of Montreal's only major beach.

The Grand Prix is a big earner for the City of Montreal and each year brings in millions of dollars to the city from the track rental and from the race teams and fans who fill the city's hotels to bursting point. But city authorities never like to pay for anything because they have to do boring things like mend roads and unblock drains.

For a long time the organizers have been under pressure from the F1 authorities to improve the facilities. The paddock, race control and media center are not up to the modern F1 standards and work needs to be done. Last year the paddock problem was solved by temporary platforms being built out over the Olympic Rowing Basin behind the pits but the permanent structures remain a problem. Access is pretty poor as well. Money must be found to fund a major redevelopment program if Canada wants to keep its Grand Prix.

In an effort to raise the money Montreal has come up with the idea of holding two races a year on the island. The Grand Prix in June and a CART race in September. This is good news if they can make it work because I know that if it comes to June and I am not off in Canada, eating lobster and gawping at the girls on rollerblades, somehow something will be missing in life.

I am very fond of Montreal. Just as I am very fond of my old hat.

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