The focus at Sunday’s Canadian Grand Prix will be on the track – and on the security situation – but there are also important discussions going on behind the scenes this weekend.
The current deal between race promoter Francois Dumontier and Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula One Management still has two years left to run, but talks have already begun on a 10-year extension.
“I strongly doubt we’ll have time to make too much progress [this weekend], but I imagine we’ll chat, even if it’s a very quick conversation,” said Dumontier, who may have the most stressful job in Montreal this weekend given the student protests and multiple threats to disrupt his event.
Striking a new deal is a complicated process, if only because it involves officials from three levels of government who together contribute $15-million a year to the event.
Dumontier said “negotiations are ongoing, we don’t have a deadline,” with Ecclestone’s group, which is seeking about $20-million in renovations to the aging Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and an incremental boost in the annual fees.
It would doubtless help the talks move along if the drivers oblige this weekend with as thrilling a contest as last year’s, when Jenson Button went from dead last in the rain to passing Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel on the final lap en route to the checkered flag.
Friday’s practice sessions suggest McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton could be the man to beat Sunday – he posted the fastest times both in the morning and afternoon laps.
“I think it’s going to be a tight call this weekend, not only in qualifying [on Saturday] but also in the race,” said Hamilton, who also hinted at his pit strategy. “It looks again like it will be another one-stop race as it was in the last race, which is very, very strange. My tires did well over 30 laps today, so it will be interesting.”
The 27-year-old crashed out of the race a year ago and is plainly seeking to make amends; after climbing the bottom step of the podium three times this season, he’d dearly love to be F1’s seventh winner of 2012.
It’s not overstating matters to say Montreal is Hamilton’s favourite race.
“I always enjoy being here and I really suggest that people to come here on a holiday because it’s such a lovely place. Great city, great people, great food and an incredible track,” he said.
The two Ferraris also posted quick times in practice, and given the wide-open nature of the season to this point, it’s not beyond the bounds of plausibility that Mercedes, Sauber or even Force India could hit the right combination on race day.
But a question mark hovers over how many people will actually see the race.
Advance ticket sales have been slower than usual – Dumontier said the slump coincided with the start of student protests against tuition hikes – but there is hope that walk-ups could make up the gulf.
“This week has been about the same as other years. What has hurt us is the previous couple of months,” Dumontier said.
Quebec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand, who typically attends the event, has already signalled he is amenable to spending money to spruce up the garages and paddocks, though city and federal officials haven’t taken a public position. The fact the race typically generates a profit suggests a deal can be hammered out.
Last year, the race generated about $18-million in tax spinoffs and $4.7-million in dividends from ticket sales (including $1.25-million for the province, $1.56-million for Ottawa and $313,000 for the city.)
But that success isn’t mollifying hundreds of protesters who have targeted the event.
Local authorities are bracing for demonstrations and will pay particular attention to securing the city’s subway, which will carry as many as 100,000 fans to the course on Sunday and has previously been targeted by militant student protesters.
A Montreal police spokesperson said, “We will have a stepped-up presence” but declined to say exactly how many more officers from the service – as well as provincial and suburban police officers – would be deployed.
Given the international prominence of the event, some F1 observers have mused this year’s Canadian Grand Prix is an audition of sorts – with two races scheduled to be held in the United States next year, questions are sure to be raised about Montreal’s place on the schedule after the current contract runs out in 2014.
Dumontier, however, doesn’t see the arrival of a Grand Prix race in New Jersey next year as a threat.
“I think it’s an opportunity to give even greater visibility to our sport in North America,” he said. “We don’t consider it’s any added pressure at all.”