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Alpha Romeo driver Valtteri Bottas signs autographs for fans at the Canadian Grand Prix, in Montreal, on June 16.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Olivia Cesta will tell you straight up what she thought when she first saw her father and her older sister watching a Formula One race on TV a few years ago. “I was like, That looks kind of boring, just watching them go around the track.”

But early last year, looking to fill some COVID-19 downtime, she began watching Drive to Survive, a reality-doc series on Netflix that has become a surprising pop-culture force by taking viewers behind the scenes of F1 and unlocking the sport’s technical jargon for new fans. “I just started the series out of boredom, honestly, then kind of got obsessed,” she explained.

“The way they’re portrayed is quite dramatic, and being able to see the lives of the drivers behind the wheel is pretty cool,” said Cesta, 18, during an interview this week. “And they break it down, so it’s pretty easy to follow.”

Cesta, a Grade 12 student who lives in north Toronto, is not alone. Data from the ratings agency Nielsen suggest that Formula One is on an astonishing tear, largely because of the Netflix series, gaining more than four million fans in the United States since 2019. In Canada, F1 races this season are averaging 731,000 viewers across TSN and RDS, according to ratings data provided by those networks, up a whopping 45 per cent since 2020. And new, young fans such as Cesta are helping to power that growth: viewership on TSN and RDS in the 18-to-24 demographic has tripled since 2020.

Sure enough, when the new F1 season kicked off in March, Cesta joined her sister and father in front of the TV, cheering on her favourite driver, Lando Norris, the boyish 22-year-old Brit on the McLaren team.

And this weekend, Cesta and her sister will catch their first F1 race in person, joining more than 300,000 fans flocking to Montreal’s Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve to soak in the thunderous roar of the first Canadian Grand Prix in three years, which is returning after the 2020 and 2021 editions were scuttled because of the pandemic.

The race promises to be a firecracker. Norris will be there, hoping to erase memories of his only other outing on that track, in 2019, when suspension issues sparked a wheel fire. Lewis Hamilton, whose first F1 victory came in Montreal in 2007, is battling a bad back but has vowed to compete. The odds-on favourite is Max Verstappen, who is dominating the F1 driver standing for the season, with five victories over the first eight rounds including an easy win in Azerbaijan last week.

The Canadian Grand Prix has been held on Île Notre-Dame since 1978, when 70,000 fans watched Quebec’s own Gilles Villeneuve take the checkered flag. It remains one of the biggest events in Montreal’s sport and cultural calendar, with more than $40-million pouring into the city’s economy from the event, according to a 2016 report. (That comes at a cost: the Montreal, Quebec and federal governments subsidize the race with almost $20-million annually.)

Tickets for this year’s race all but sold out within days, fuelled by a combination of pent-up anticipation and F1′s new perch in pop culture because of the Netflix series. Two new grandstands have been built for extra fans.

All of which is helping the Canadian Grand Prix recover from a black eye after the local F1 promoter, Octane Racing Group Inc., was hit with lawsuits and a torrent of complaints from fans who had to fight to receive refunds they were promised from the 2020 cancellation.

Ryan McCallum has been selling corporate VIP tickets to Formula One racing for more than a decade, but he’s never seen anything like this.

“In 2019, if you’d called me on the Thursday before the race to ask for a Paddock Pass for the weekend” – the tickets that grant well-heeled fans a spot at the Start/Finish line, above the team garages overlooking the pit lane, for US$5,450 (plus taxes) a pop – “I’d say, no problem.” But when passes went on sale last December, “everything was sold out right away.”

“Demand has been insane,” said McCallum, the president and CEO of Canada Sport Marketing. “In the past few weeks, we’ve had celebrities and NHL players and everyone reaching out to us, saying, ‘We want in, how do we do this?’ And I guess they’re not really used to hearing ‘no,’ but, I mean, it’s actually sold out. There’s nothing we can offer them.”

He added that there’s no doubt where the excitement is coming from. “When people call me, they will literally say, I am a new fan, I fell in love with F1 because of Drive to Survive.”

F1 was already on the upswing in Canada, where TSN had been airing pre- and postrace programming from British-based Sky Sports since 2016. “I think that really helped our fans engage a lot more with the content,” Shawn Redmond, the vice-president of Bell Media Sports, said in an interview. “Then, certainly, Drive to Survive turbocharged that interest, brought in a real pop-culture angle, a real global buzz about the sport.”

The hype isn’t enough to appease Warren Liebmann of Aurora, Ont. Two years ago, he’d bought tickets for himself and his son to attend the Montreal Grand Prix, but when the race was cancelled he didn’t receive a refund until an online petition he started attracted media coverage and the attention of François Dumontier, the president of Octane. He finally got his money back in January, 2021, but several months later others told The Globe and Mail they were still waiting for their refunds. Some took Octane to small-claims court.

In late April, 2021, the telecom and media giant Bell acquired Octane. Soon after, the outstanding refunds were issued. Still, Liebmann said this week that he would not be attending the weekend’s race. “The whole episode left me with such a bad taste in my mouth that I do not wish to support the organizers.”

Bell hopes to turn the page on that chapter with a full-court press of programming this weekend that leans into the growing youth demographic. Kayla Gray, who hosts the digitally based show The Shift, will interview Lewis Hamilton. TSN’s Instagram-based Digital SportsCentre will be produced from the fan zone at the racetrack each day. Bar Down, a TSN team that produces snappy digital content, will be on site, as will a team from Bell Media’s recently revived MuchMusic operation, which pumps out content on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and TikTok.

“I think it’s really cool for us that both the Bar Down and the MuchMusic team are going to be there creating content for their social platforms,” Redmond said. “It really shows the pop culture, music, sports crossover of Formula One.”

Sometimes those crossovers spill into other areas of life, too. In September, spurred by her new love of the sport, Cesta will be starting a program in systems engineering at the University of Waterloo. She’s hoping it might lead to something in the automotive industry – or, who knows? – working in Formula One.

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