How Montreal has ridden North America's F1 wave
Much has been made of Formula 1's successful recent push into the USA, but the contribution of its northern neighbour Canada has often been overlooked.
In fact, this year marks the 45th anniversary of the first race in Montreal, famously also the maiden victory of local hero Gilles Villeneuve.
The circuit that was later renamed after the Ferrari legend has been a near-constant presence on the schedule ever since, apart from glitches for financial reasons in 1987 and 2009, and during the COVID-hit years of 2020 and 2021.
Significantly, Montreal carried the torch for F1 in North America during periods when there was not enough interest to sustain a race in the USA, in 1985-'88, 1992-'99, and most recently, 2008-'11.
American fans, sponsor CEOs and corporate guests had to head north of the border for their annual fix of grand prix racing.
Last year the race bounced back in some style after the enforced COVID break with a hugely successful event that showed that a Canadian GP can thrive even with two races in the USA. This year's event was sold out even before the end of last season.
Fans who committed to buying tickets back then have an added bonus: Lance Stroll now has a car that is capable of racing well inside the points if his luck finally holds.
The driving force behind the Montreal race is Francois Dumontier, the president and CEO of the promoting organisation Octane Racing Group.
Previously independent, the company was purchased in April 2021 by the mighty Bell Group, the telecoms giant whose portfolio also includes the country's English and French language F1 broadcasters, TSN and RDS.
Both have been partners of F1 for three decades, with their current deals – agreed a year before Bell bought into the Montreal event – running to the end of 2024.
Dumontier has served as the Canadian GP promoter since 2010, having been involved with the event in various roles since 1994.
Mick Schumacher, Haas VF-22, Zhou Guanyu, Alfa Romeo C42
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
"Just before that I was working for the park, the city," he recalls. "And since the city is renting the track to the promoter, I was the liaison guy between the city and the promoter, Norman Legault. One day Norman came to me and said I have a job for you. And I simply quit the city and started working in F1!
"Because I'm from Montreal and Quebec, I was more of a hockey fan. Of course, I knew of Gilles. I was not following racing, but I became passionate working in it."
Dumontier gradually worked his way to a more senior role in the organisation.
"When I started I was the operation director," he says. "I was really on the ground helping to put in grandstands, and things like that.
"I climbed the little ladder in the company up to when we lost the race in 2009, and there was a fight between Bernie Ecclestone and Norman. It was a contractual issue between them.
"It was really something between two guys fighting. And when we lost it, everybody in Montreal, and when I say everybody it's the government, the hotels, the restaurants, they realise the importance of it. This is why we all worked together to bring it back in 2010.
"I was vice-president of the company in '09. And then one day, Bernie rang me. And he said, 'We need to go back to Montreal.' I think the teams were putting pressure to go back. And he said, 'Can you come to London?' This is where we started a discussion."
With former promoter Legault by now out of the picture, it was Dumontier that put together the deal to put the race back on the calendar in 2010. He helped to foster a package of financial support from the federal, state and city governments that made the event a realistic business proposition.
"The structure I created was completely different from Norman's structure," says Dumontier. "When we lost the race in 2009 everybody realised the impact of not having the grand prix. And everybody wanted to make sure that it would be back. So they all partnered with me to bring back the race.
"The country, the province, the city, and then Tourism Montreal, which is an independent body, they are all putting it together.
"They don't have any stake in our business. But they support the event for the economic impact, and the visibility impact, of having a race in Montreal."
Alex Albon, Williams FW44, Zhou Guanyu, Alfa Romeo C42, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari F1-75
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images
In essence, each of the aforementioned entities makes a financial contribution to the race hosting fee that goes straight to the F1 organisation.
"They actually send money to F1," says Dumontier. "It's not coming through my office. They take care of a portion of it [the fee], and the rest of it is us.
"I would say the federal government, the province and Tourism Montreal, are roughly 30% each. And then the city, they're not giving as much money, but they are giving services, electricity on-site service, things like that."
The arrangement clearly works for all parties, as evidenced by the fact that the deal for the race was extended until 2029 as long ago as June 2017, just months into Liberty's ownership.
Two further years have since been added to make up for the cancelled COVID-era events, taking the current end date to 2031.
One unusual aspect of the deal is the fact that the local government owns the venue, and Octane leases it.
"The track and the buildings are owned by the city," says Dumontier. "So we rent the track, we have a lease with them that matches my contract, up to '31 also. We did other races many years ago. We had NASCAR and we had IndyCar. But right now it's just F1."
It's easy to forget that Montreal is a temporary venue, returned to normal public park use after the race, and as such there is a lot of expense associated with building things up each year.
"Our cost is because the track is temporary," says Dumontier. "We rent the grandstands, and we need to put up walls and fencing because we take out almost everything after a race.
"I would love to have a permanent venue, like other races in Europe, and just almost put the key in the door. But this is not our case."
The fact that the city owns it has traditionally made upgrading the circuit facilities a complicated process, while the long and harsh Quebec winters always made it difficult to get work done.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB18, Fernando Alonso, Alpine A522, Carlos Sainz, Ferrari F1-75, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W13, the rest of the field at the start
Photo by: Andrew Ferraro / Motorsport Images
The race was often criticised for letting its infrastructure fall behind the times, but for 2019 a brand-new pit complex was constructed, and it was well received by F1 and the teams.
That was a huge and much-needed step, but Dumontier says there is more to come.
"We've improved more things around the teams, when you cross from the parking, things like that," he says. "We are now more in a long-term project, let's say a five-year project, where we can improve things on track and off track. I'm also the president of ASN, so I'm doing both.
"I think that the teams and the Paddock Club are now set. It's part of the five-year plan, what can we do now? How can we improve the fan experience on site? Whether it's the food, or the access to the grandstands. It's all part of our reflection every year."
Montreal may be in a secure position with eight years left on its contract, but no event can afford to rest on past glories.
There's now intense competition for dates, and newer venues are raising standards in terms of what they offer both fans and the teams. The extended deal has at least helped with forward planning.
"It's allowed us to think wider," says Dumontier. "Not only for the next race but think long term. And always thinking about how we can improve the fan experience, the team experience. This is what we do on a yearly basis, find what can we do to improve."
And he will have to continue to improve, as F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali and Liberty boss Greg Maffei have made it clear that the sport's "historic" races, a category into which Canada falls, will have to keep up with the new ones. It's inevitable that Montreal will always be compared with Austin, Miami and now Las Vegas.
"I feel the pressure, yes and no," says Dumontier. "It's a good thing I think to have good competition. At the same time, I think that over 23 or 24 races, you need to have variety and different types of circuit.
"Yes, we are part of the history. But even without Stefano or Greg saying that we want to raise the bar every year. And this is why I partnered with Bell now, to have the power or the money to do that, and the capacity to do that.
"It's a broadcast company, it's a telecommunication company. So marketing-wise, they can bring a lot. Bell is the second biggest company in the country. We didn't have access to their customers before, now we do."
Francois Dumontier, President and CEO, Canadian Grand Prix
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images
Dumontier is adamant that he still gets a lot of US fans, even with the competition from other events.
"Last year we had 57% of our clients who are not from the province," he says. "So this is why we are the biggest sporting and tourism event in the country.
"It's easy to get in Montreal by car from New York State. Montreal's got that charm of being like an American city, but European style. And when you compare the US dollar rate exchange, it's cheaper. So actually I think we didn't really lose our US clients because there's now other races.
"I'm a fan of having more races in North America. Because when I was alone in North America, we'd be talking F1 one once a year, in June. Now there's four races in North America, plus one in Mexico.
"We're talking F1 more and more and more and more. We can exchange with them. I think it's a good thing. I'm not against that."
Like the US events Montreal has been boosted by Drive to Survive, and it's riding that wave to some extent in terms of the demand for tickets.
"I think that the series helped every race in the championship," says Dumontier. "It did help us also, by bringing new clients to the track, or a segmentation of people that we wanted. So I think it's great.
"But I've been in F1 for a long time. F1 works in a cycle. Right now we are in a good place, but we don't know what's going to happen in three or four years. So let's enjoy it right now, and we'll see."
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