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Montreal Grand Prix June 2010 (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)
Montreal Grand Prix June 2010 (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

Maseratis, models and Montreal Add to ...

It was a perfect weekend: Fast car, top down, destination Montreal. Grand Prix time.

I hadn't watched a Formula One race live since the 1970s. Now it was time to revisit the Vatican of speed, and get answers to some burning questions. Just how fast are the new cars? How tall is Michael Schumacher? And what do the world's fastest racers drive on the street?

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I would get all my answers, and more. As I headed east into the city, the F1 frenzy began: Lamborghinis and Porsches were jousting on the freeway, and a Ferrari drafted me down the off-ramp.

By Saturday afternoon, I was in pit lane, getting a behind-the-scenes look at the new world of Formula One. Things had changed dramatically since my last visit. The cars looked like mutant insects, and hit about 330 km/h down the straightaway. The downshifts sounded like artillery rounds.

The stands were filled with about 300,000 cheering people, but the pits were a different world. Billionaire Richard Branson strolled past. I recognized an actor from the ER television series.

As I strolled the pits, I realized that almost every driver conformed to a human F1 prototype: handsome, excellent hair, fluent in at least three languages. And short. Jarno Trulli, one of the drivers for the Lotus team, stood chatting with a model I recognized from a recent issue of Vogue. The top of his head barely reached her nose.

Schumacher was a little bigger - about 5-foot-8, with the lean, perfect build of a bantamweight fighter. The emphasis on compact size made sense. F1 teams spend millions shaving weight from their cars, and tweaking their shape to minimize drag. A small, lightweight driver is a serious advantage.

As a result, Formula One is based on Darwinian selection. You have to be compact, and you have to be great. There are only 24 drivers in the entire sport. By comparison, the National Hockey League has about 700 players. Tough as it may be, getting into the NHL is like landing a job as a Wal-Mart greeter compared to securing an F1 seat.

The top drivers live like kings. They fly helicopters, cruise on private yachts, and do not hurt for female companionship. The money in the sport was hard to fathom. The F1 circus had arrived in town with seven Boeing 747 cargo planes just days before. Unloading the planes took 63 flatbed trucks. Many of the drivers and team officials had arrived by private jet. The tarmac at Dorval airport was packed.

A temporary city had been built. In a few days. it would disappear, only to be recreated somewhere else. The driver's private vehicles were parked on a river bank behind the pits. Each spot was labelled with their name. Schumacher had a freshly waxed Mercedes SUV. Ferrari teammates Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso had a matching pair of Ferrari 599s. Red Bull star Mark Webber had an Audi A5 Turbo. But not every driver got to ride in style - in Sauber driver Pedro de la Rosa's spot was a Hyundai Sonata. And not the current model.

After Saturday's qualifying session, I headed downtown for a Ferrari reception at the Hotel St. James, a beautiful establishment favoured by rock stars and software moguls. Half a dozen new Ferraris were set out on the street, glittering under temporary floodlights. Beautiful young women in pastel summer dresses strutted on a red carpet that had been rolled out for the occasion. A polished Lamborghini snarled up and disgorged a woman who looked like a runway model, along with her driver-escort, an elderly man with a Hugo Boss suit and a jet black hairpiece. Next to his female companion, he looked like a garden gnome.

Montreal was drunk with speed. Over on Saint Catherine St., a crowd cheered as a customized motorcycle pulled off a long wheelie. A stripper in tiny hot pants was stationed on the sidewalk, enticing customers into a neon-lit doorway. The night air was filled with the music of high-compression engines, and the curbs were lined with everything from American muscle cars to Maseratis and Honda Civics that looked like they'd been taken from the set of The Fast and the Furious.

Race day was perfect. The sun blazed down, and the stands were filled to capacity. Some fans had paid more than $500 for weekend tickets, but the event was sold out, and the ticket office had been shut down the week before.

I sat at the top of the Hairpin, a corner where the racers go from top speed to about 75 km/h in just a few car lengths. It was spectacular. But I couldn't keep track of who was winning without watching a giant video screen that listed the current standings. Although Lewis Hamilton won in the end, that didn't really matter to me. I just liked watching the unbelievable machines and their drivers.

One of my favourite moments had come the day before, when I visited the pits of the Historic Grand Prix racers - drivers who buy old Formula One cars, and travel the world to race as a warm-up act for the current stars. Among them was John Goodman, a Seattle real estate mogul who owned a 1971 Ferrari that had been raced by Belgian ace Jackie Ickx. "There's nothing else like this," he said. I asked him what he paid for his car. "Seven figures," he said.

A few feet away was a car that stood out from all the rest - a 1979 Ferrari 312 T4 that once belonged to the legendary Gilles Villeneuve, who died in a 1982 practice accident. Although he never won a world championship, Villeneuve is considered one of the greatest F1 drivers of all time, and captured the hearts of Quebeckers with his down-to-earth manner and fearless driving.

As his car was rolled out, I could see that Villeneuve's appeal hadn't dimmed. The crowd parted before the red car. The cross that Jesus had been nailed to might be more sacred. But not by much.

A middle-aged man with a Ferrari hat grabbed me by the arm as the Villeneuve Ferrari was parked: "Montreal is a speed town!" he said. "You're looking at history."

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