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McLaren Mercedes driver Jenson Button navigates through a puddle during the morning practice session at the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal on Friday. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
McLaren Mercedes driver Jenson Button navigates through a puddle during the morning practice session at the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal on Friday. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Formula one

Future of Canadian Grand Prix clouded in uncertainty Add to ...

The drivers love it, so do the sponsors, and the legions of business folk who can make a tourist season’s worth of profits in one week.

And the ticket-buying public? Fans flock to Montreal for Formula One.

About 300,000 will turn up over the course of three days of racing that culminates in Sunday’s Canadian Grand Prix, which takes place before a packed house, rain or shine (the former appears likely).

Every year, the moneybags racing teams and the grandees who run motor sport’s glamour circuit also profess their affection for Montreal’s race weekend, which organizers always point out is the single largest annual sporting event to take place on Canadian soil.

More than that, it’s also considered the unofficial kickoff to summer – and festival season – and legitimates the opinion many Montrealers hold of their city: It belongs in the international jet set.

Montreal’s passion for open-wheel racing burned hottest in the late 1970s and early ’80s, the heyday of the late Gilles Villeneuve, and later when his son, Jacques, picked up the family mantel, but whatever it is about F1 – the noise, the speed, the danger – it has worn itself into the fabric of the city.

When former Canadian Grand Prix promoter Normand Legault announced the cancellation of the 2009 race after an ill-fated negotiation with F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone, “it almost felt like a small part of the city’s soul died,” said Paul Wilson, then a vice-president at GPF1, Legault’s company.

But, sometimes, love can be fleeting; sentiment generally takes a back seat to financial considerations when the numbers are this big.

The contract between Montreal’s current race promoter, François Dumontier, and Ecclestone runs out in 2014, and while talks have been ongoing for more than a year to extend that contract for another decade, progress has been painstaking.

There is still ample time to reach a deal – the 2015 F1 calendar won’t come out until the fall of next year – but the longer the negotiations drag on, the more the uncertainty will build.

The main sticking point is the amount poured into the race by the three levels of government – while Ecclestone is reportedly willing to accept a modest increase on the $15-million or so in public money his company receives each year, Ottawa doesn’t seem in a big hurry to add to its share of the pot.

A spokesperson for federal Transportation Minister Denis Lebel, the political minister for Quebec, said the talks toward a contract extension are ongoing, but “we won’t be negotiating in public.”

It’s also an open question whether Ecclestone will even be around to ink an eventual deal; the 82-year-old billionaire is facing the grim prospect of bribery and fraud charges in Germany.

There has even been talk the hedge funds who own the bulk of Formula One Group, which in turn owns the commercial and promotion rights to the racing circuit, would like to replace him with a former chief executive of a British grocery chain.

Ecclestone has reportedly told the board of F1’s management company – he is a minority shareholder – that nothing short of a prison sentence will oust him from his role as F1 supremo.

As the F1 universe descends on the universe the main players in the Grand Prix negotiations are all smiles.

The Parti Québécois government has indicated it is committed to reaching a deal, interim Mayor Michael Applebaum reiterated his support for the event, but with a fragile minority in Quebec City and a municipal election slated for the fall, it’s not clear what say they’ll have in the matter.

Dumontier, for his part, said in a raft of prerace interviews he’s confident a contract extension can be struck.

That’s all fine and dandy, but until Ecclestone gets the financial package he wants, nothing else really matters.

“Fundamentally, it’s all about the money,” said Wilson, who now works as a communications consultant.

Wilson is no longer involved with Formula One, but he still believes the event is a major benefit for Montreal. The question is: At what price?

“You can’t think of this event in strictly financial terms, and I think there’s a tendency to take that approach,” Wilson said. “But at the same time, you don’t want to hold it at any cost … it’s a glamour event for Montreal. Is it a must-have? Probably not. But it’s a pretty great nice-to-have.”

It’s beyond dispute Formula One is a big deal for the city’s tourist economy.

The association that represents the city’s hoteliers estimates occupancy rates this week will hit 95 per cent – a typical summer week seldom tops 70 per cent – and the group that speaks for bar owners on Crescent Street, epicentre of the Grand Prix festivities, reckons profits will be in the seven digits.

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