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Fans react to the decision to start under the safety car during the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on June 12, 2011 in Montreal. (Paul Gilham/Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Fans react to the decision to start under the safety car during the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on June 12, 2011 in Montreal. (Paul Gilham/Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

Motorsports

Confessions of a Formula One junkie Add to ...

At the chain-link fence dividing the crowd from turn one at Montreal's Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Henry Fong strains his eyes toward the start-finish grid where mechanics prepare 24 Formula One cars for the Canadian Grand Prix.

Fong, from Toronto, is something of an oddity in hockey-crazed Canada - outside of Quebec, at least: He's a devout Formula One fan.

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Wearing a red Ferrari team jacket and hat, from around his ears dangle earphones, which he inserts periodically to hear BBC Radio F1 commentary. With his friend he talks blown diffusers, drag reduction and kinetic energy recovery systems, esoteric racing technology he learns about through "religious" consumption of F1 websites. And around his neck hang the tony grandstand passes that have cost him dearly.

But still, as the start looms, he's at the fence rather than in the stands. He aches to get closer. "In Formula One everything's all blocked off," said Fong, 43. "Not just this fence here, but in general. It's impossible to get into the pit area, the paddock area, to meet and greet with some of the drivers.

"That creates part of the attractiveness of it," he said. "If you don't have it, you want it."

Because F1 is the most rarefied sport in the world, one that travels to exotic locales coated in bling and billionaires, it offers many fans of car culture a glamorous escape from their comparatively normal lives. As Fong put it, they don't have and they want.

But in a country that doesn't quite get F1, outside of its adopted Canadian home in Montreal, as an F1 fan living outside Quebec I have a complicated, secretive relationship with my chosen sport. Why, friends challenge, do I like F1 instead of other sports? And why do I follow this form of racing yet shun series' such as IndyCar or, shudder, NASCAR?

I struggle with the unimpressive but honest answer - my childhood interest in cars has mixed with my adult love of travel. And I'm painfully aware that my sport is often indifferent to my existence, and why this would turn most people off.

For example, I tell Fong that, thanks to my media pass, I've been lurking about in the paddock, the sovereign celebrity state that goes wherever F1 does on its 20-race, global calendar. I share how I sat near Sir Richard Branson, saw countless people who must be models, walked past Kamui Kobayashi, the fearlessly aggressive driver for the Sauber team, and stood a few feet from seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher.

This paddock is so laced with wealth that rapper-turned-actor Ice-T Tweeted of his experience in Montreal, "I love being the brokest guy in the room."

Fong counters: "So why aren't you down there, on the grid?"

Well, because this is F1, after all. My pass allows me into some echelons of the spectacle, but certainly not there. That would be too easy.

The rarity doesn't work for someone who isn't passionate about either a driver, or speed, or celebrity, though. It doesn't surprise me, then, that attempts to share F1 excitement with Canadian friends, including one in Malaysia with a former girlfriend, who I forced to sweat in 40C heat while we watched a race held at a track in the jungle, have just resulted in me feeling silly or weird.

At the moment, the sport isn't considered a normal one to follow in Canada, outside of Quebec or of hard-core racing circles at least.

Or American, it seems. The sport's mandarins are beginning to recognize the lack of American engagement is a crucial issue. Eric Boullier, team principle with the Lotus Renault Team, said that after the financial crisis pushed car manufacturers Honda, Toyota and BMW out of F1, attracting broader North American acceptance is vital.

"It's now purely sponsorship and business related, and obviously, a lot of big companies, big decision makers, they are based in America," Boullier said. "So this is very crucial for the economic sustainability of Formula One, to be there, to be recognized."

Christian Horner, team principle for Red Bull Racing, currently the world champions, reckons much of this divide is caused by the lack of an American driver in F1. "If there was an American driver running at the front, that would obviously stimulate quite a bit of interest," Horner said.

"The show's good," he added. "At the end of the day, it's like chariot racing, you know, and the drivers are the gladiators and need to be the heroes." Still, with the U.S. as Red Bull's largest market, according to Horner, the importance to see the situation change is "huge."

Part of those changes is a new grand prix to run in Austin, Tex., set to begin next year. Though many hope this race will take off, the grand prix held in Indianapolis between 2000 and 2007 never gained a huge following of American fans.

Back in Canada, though, aside from grand-prix-crazed Montreal, which many teams consider the highlight of the year, and which this fan counts as an unknown gem amongst Canadian cultural events, the broader acceptance of the sport could be about to change.

Just before the Montreal Grand Prix, Marussia Virgin Racing announced Guelph's Robert Wickens as its reserve driver. He's the first Canadian in the sport since 2006, when former world champion Jacques Villeneuve, from Quebec, left the BMW-Sauber team.

Wickens recognizes he may be the key for a wider appeal of a sport he loves. "Until I'm winning GPs, it might not be what it was when he [Villeneuve]was winning world championships," Wickens said. Despite backing from Branson, the Virgin Racing team is currently a back-marker in the field. And Wickens has yet to drive the car.

"The Canadian people might have to be patient," he said.

 

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