Montreal’s Formula One: High stakes drama on and off the track rivals Netflix’s ‘Drive to Survive’

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You know you are at the Grand Prix in Montreal when the queue for the loo, outside the premium lounges, is about 40 men-deep, while the women just sally by.

Gender vengeance!

You know you are at the Grand Prix where one particular man, who looks like a Jerry Garcia look-alike, and/or a Hawaiian-shirted billionaire escapee from Panama, corners you at one point, inside the Mercedes-Benz Canada hospitality lounge, to show you the Mercedes-AMG tattoo on his forearm. “I love my cars. My first love. Well, I love my wife, too,” he rambles in a woodsy French accent.

Commitment!

You know you are at the Grand Prix — well, I was the other week — when I get the most excited when someone alerts me that Dude With Sign (the guy behind the Instagram handle with 8.1 million followers) is sitting a few rows down from us, while the race rages. In Montreal, I am told, to cheer on his friend, motor superstar Lewis Hamilton … because, well … of course, Lewis is friends with Dude with Sign.

“Still we Rise.” What the IG influencer boomed — via sign, of course — after the ever-stylish Lewis, a seven-time world champion, placed third on the podium, after what has been an up-and-down time for him lately on the Formula One hustings.

The noise. The purr. The far-out motor co-ordination and elite aerodynamics. The mirage of 300,000-plus fans in the stands, after a two-year lull. The peppered steak (they feed you nicely Chez Mercedes). The sheer emotion of the anthem being wrung out in twirling English and French at the beginning of the competition. The enigmatic crowd of VIPs where I was situated, comprised equally of gents who looked like “Die Hard” villains, handsome fellas in their going-out Zara shirts, and women with pressed smiles who you absolutely, 100 per cent, do not want to ever f — with. Bienvenue, drivers.

As someone who doesn’t speak fluent F1-ese (far from it), and whose body of knowledge relating to the sport mainly consists of knowing facts like Ashley Judd was once married to a professional driver, I surprised even myself after spending a few days in Montreal — going to a barrage of social functions — that I was casually dropping in references to “G force” (gravity force, duh) in my chit-chat. I pick-up fast.

As an émigré to this world, I was fascinated to hear people nerd out about engines, and to discover, for instance, that F1 racers can experience vertical accelerations of up to 3 Gs, akin to what an astronaut experiences during a space launch. Or that it can get so bloody hot in those metal speed-machines that the heat radiated can cause drivers to lose up to five per cent of their total body fluids during a race.

Life imitating Netflix imitating life: that is something else I discerned during my Grand Prix immersion. Because of the reality streaming series, “Drive to Survive” — released to much oomph in 2019, and now four seasons in — the sport has been breaking through in a bigger way than ever before on this side of the pond (even though Montreal has long been an enthusiastic hub for it). The series, and the minutiae gleaned from it, came up repeatedly while I was out and about, evidence of what a recent New Yorker article summed up in describing its appeal (the show and the sport): a buffet of “international playboys, Machiavellian billionaires, humble heroes, racing-world royalty, overachieving underdogs, aging has-beens …”

Put it this way: according to The Guardian, ratings for actual Formula One in 2021 were up more than 40 per cent. Not only was it the most-watched F1 season ever in the U.S., in particular, the sport added an estimated 73 million fans, globally.

Adding to the high stakes and higher drama, which the show also latched onto, was the dynastic factor in motor-racing. There is an inordinate amount of it (something it shares with both Hollywood, and the world of politics). As evidenced, even, by the name of our environs in Montreal: Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve. Named after a homegrown hero and enduring F1 icon, whose death in an F1 crash in Belgium in 1982 eventually made way for the rise of his son, Jacques, who promptly became a sensation in his own right (and the only Canadian to ever win a championship, back in 1997).

A darker father-son shadow in play at this particular race, reinforced by the fact this Grand Prix fell on Father’s Day. The presence of 23-year-old Mick Schumacher on the track. His pop, Michael — commonly regarded as one the most successful F1 drivers of all time, with a career spanning more than 20 years — is also now known for the tragedy that befell him in 2013 when he suffered a severe head injury while skiing in the Alps. Last year, in a documentary, Mick said he would “give up everything” to be able to talk to him again. “I think Dad and me, we would understand each other now in a different way now.”

The tragedy and the debauchery. Both in the F1 storybook, and both on view in Montreal. With a social circuit in high gear, there was a pre-pandemic frisson at play, for sure. In fact, one plugged-in PR fixture expressly told me that one soiree represented nothing less than an official reboot of the party scene in Canada’s second-largest city: that sweeping black-tie thing at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, held, as it is traditionally, on the Friday of the Grand Prix. I stopped by, and it was a boisterous, swellegant affair, bigger than ever — taking over the glamorous Palm Court of the grande dame hotel (which descended into an all-hours dance party), spanning both the Oval Room and the Oval Terrace, plus various lounges set up on the second floor, including the sotto voce Loubi Piano Lounge, courtesy of Christian Louboutin and lit up in bordello red.

“Did you know more people moved from Ontario to Quebec than the other way around, for the first time in 50 years, last year?” a Jeff Goldman lookalike told me near the poutine station, at one juncture during the night. Aye aye, sir.

Pretty buoyant, too, was the official Mercedes party, held at Griffintown hot spot Le Richmond, complete with groaning seafood towers and manic Tonga-drummers. Off the hook: what happened when Lewis Hamilton himself stopped by. A drive-by, if you will. Showering the room with love, the face of F1 these days (certainly the one who has deftly crossed over to the worlds of fashion and pop culture), made some news, too, by nixing some of the ongoing rumours about a coming retirement.

Seemingly wanting to keep at it, the 37-year-old driver matter-of-facted to the party: “I still plan to race a little longer. We still have some time to go.”

Shinan Govani is a Toronto-based freelance contributing columnist covering culture and society. Follow him on Twitter: @shinangovani

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