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Vive la différence! Montreal revs up for Grand Prix weekend

McLaren Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain races to victory Sunday June 13, 2010 at the Frormula One Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. Red Bull driver Mark Webber of Australia and Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso of Spain are behind.

Jacques Boissinot/Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

I've been spending a lot of time in fast places lately, which is good. Went down to Charlotte Motor Speedway, the Vatican of NASCAR, where I watched Carl Edwards win the All-Star race (and total his car on the victory lap). Then it was off to the Great Smoky Mountains to mix it up on the Tail of the Dragon, one of the world's best twisty roads.

Loved it. As the late automotive writer and publisher David E. Davis liked to say: "Cogito, ergo zoom."

My speed odyssey continues this week with the Montreal Grand Prix. I will be in the Williams team pits, gazing upon milled titanium suspension pieces and listening to the scream of V-8 engines running at 18,000 rpm. The best part is being among the motoring faithful - Montreal is a speed town, and the Grand Prix is its finest hour.

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It's different than Toronto - when the Toronto Indy comes to town, my neighbours complain about the noise. I guess I shouldn't be surprised - many of them don't drive, and the ones that do tend to see cars as nothing more than a way to get to work or their cottage.

Nothing wrong with that, but it's not me. I grew up with machinery and speed, and going to Montreal for the Grand Prix is like a return to the womb. When I stood at the end of the back straight last year, the blur of the passing cars and the howl of the engines took me back through the halls of memory. I remembered sitting next to my dad at the Belgian Grand Prix back in the 1970s, and admiring his perfect technique as he arced our little Opel through the curves on the way home. I've loved going fast ever since.

And I love going to Montreal for the GP. When the race came to town last year, it was a resurrection with special meaning, and the city was in full party mode - there was no race in 2009, and some thought it might be gone forever. Such was not the case.

The Montreal GP dates back to 1978, and is inextricably linked with Quebec F1 legend Gilles Villeneuve, who was killed in a 1982 crash at Belgium's Zolder circuit. The first Montreal GP was in 1978, and Villeneuve won it in front of the hometown crowd. (The circuit is named after him.) Villeneuve did for motorsports what Maurice (Rocket) Richard had done for hockey - the crowds were huge every year and the race quickly became a Montreal tradition.

Despite the massive fan support, the race suffered from backroom woes: the 1987 event was cancelled after a sponsorship battle between beer rivals Molson and Labatt. It was cancelled again in 2009 after organizers failed to reach an agreement with F1 administrators.

All of this gave the 2010 race an extra energy. I was amazed at the way the city lit up. The F1 frenzy began on my way into the city. Lamborghinis and Porsches were jousting on the freeway, and the crowds on Rue Sainte-Catherine cheered as motorcycles did long wheelies. Out at Dorval airport, the tarmac was lined with private jets. Downtown was a sea of racing parties, and spotlights lanced up into the night sky.

At the race circuit, the atmosphere was intensified. Champions Sebastian Vettel and Michael Schumacher strolled the pits along with billionaire Richard Branson and more fashion models than I'd ever seen in one place. The air was filled with the smell of racing fuel and the ripping noise of V-8 engines running at four times the speed of the ones in a passenger car. I was in the motorized heart of a town that loves speed.

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Near the pits was a collection of historic F1 cars, and one stood out from all the others - a 1979 Ferrari 312 T4 that once belonged to Villeneuve. A steady stream of onlookers poured past Villeneuve's car, and more than a few crossed themselves as they gazed upon it. I realized that the car was a sacred relic.

Back in downtown Toronto, being a speed guy makes you a bit of an oddity. But in Montreal, you are among your people. Consider this - although Canadian manufacturing is quickly disappearing, Montreal is home to two builders of high-performance vehicles. One is HTT Technologies, maker of the 750-horsepower, 388-km/h Plethore supercar (which sells for $495,000). The other is Campagna Motors, which builds a three-wheeled vehicle called the T-Rex.

"People here like going fast," said Andre Morissette, president of Campagna Motors. "Quebec is a performance place."

I think he's right. And that tells you why the Grand Prix is in Montreal, not Toronto. It's great to be back in Speed City.

For more from Peter Cheney, go to (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

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About the Author
National driving columnist

Peter Cheney launched his driving column after 25 years as an award-winning feature writer, investigative reporter and news correspondent. His writing steers clear of industry jargon to focus on human experience and the passion of driving. More

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