Stu Cowan: Lance Stroll should give Canadian Grand Prix a boost

Stu Cowan: Lance Stroll should give Canadian Grand Prix a boost
The Formula One race " is a major event," Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre says. "It’s good for the economy, it shows that Montreal is truly that international hub.” Allen McInnis / Montreal Gazette

As the Canadian Grand Prix celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Gilles Villeneuve remains the only Canadian driver to win the Formula One race.

Montreal’s Lance Stroll has a chance to become the second, but don’t bet on that happening at this year’s event on June 11 at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

During his first five races as an F1 rookie this season, the 18-year-old Stroll has yet to earn a point in the drivers’ standings. After failing to finish the first three races in his Williams Mercedes, Stroll has made it to the checkered flag in the last two GPs, finishing 11th in Russia and 16th in Spain. 

Stroll’s presence at this year’s Canadian Grand Prix will definitely generate some extra local interest, since the last Canadian F1 driver to compete at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve was Jacques Villeneuve in 2006.

Australia’s Jack Brabham won the first Canadian Grand Prix in 1967 at Mosport Park in Bowmanville, Ont., and Gilles Villeneuve won the first race held in Montreal in 1978 on the track that would be named after him following his death during a qualifying crash at the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix. While Jacques Villeneuve, Gilles’s son, won the F1 drivers’ championship in 1997, he never won the Canadian Grand Prix.

“There’s of course a Lance Stroll effect here,” François Dumontier, the president and CEO of the Canadian Grand Prix, said during a news conference Tuesday morning at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. “I think that our fans wanted to see a local driver on the track. Looking at the (ticket) sales right now, there’s going to be a lot of people there to cheer for him when he comes out on the Friday morning for his first (practice) session. 

“Something that people don’t know, he never drove in Montreal (on Circuit Gilles Villeneuve),” Dumontier added. “It’s going to be his national race and he’s only going to discover the track on Friday morning. It’s going to be exciting.”

There were questions late last year about whether there would even be a 50th anniversary of the Canadian Grand Prix. When the provisional 2017 F1 calendar was put out last September, there was an asterisk beside the Montreal race noting “subject to confirmation” after the city said it wouldn’t be able to meet its contractual obligation to renovate Circuit Gilles Villeneuve before this year’s race.

In November, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre announced there was a new agreement in principle between race promoter Groupe Octane and Formula One World Championship Limited and in late February, Dumontier announced a deal was in place to keep the Canadian Grand Prix in place at least until 2029. 

“We show that we want to be there for the long term now that we have an extra five years until 2029,” Coderre said at Tuesday’s news conference. “That we will start the new paddock and investment of $48 million with the help also of the Government of Quebec, the Government of Canada, Tourism Montreal and all the stakeholders, we’re sending a strong message that we’re not just celebrating the 50th anniversary. We’re sending a strong message that this is a major event. It’s good for the economy, it shows that Montreal is truly that international hub.”

When the asterisk was finally taken off the Canadian Grand Prix, Dumontier and his staff had some catching up to do. He said ticket sales picked up after Christmas and that more tickets have been sold for this year’s race than were at this point last year. Grandstands 15 and 46 at the hairpin are both sold out, as are Grandstands 11 and 12 at the Senna Corner.

There was a change in ownership of Formula One in January with Liberty Media completing its takeover and Bernie Ecclestone replaced as chief executive. Liberty Media said in a statement at the time that the transaction price represented an enterprise value of US$8 billion and an equity value of $4.4 billion. Ecclestone, 86, had been in charge of F1 for nearly 40 years and is now an honorary chairman and adviser with limited input. Chase Carey is the new chief executive.

“Bernie Ecclestone was very good with us, with me, with the Grand Prix,” Dumontier said. “It’s another vision, it’s another way of managing. We’re going to work with them. It’s different in a good sense. I’m looking forward for the future. They got a nice mid-term vision so we can start to work on it and build on it.”

For this year’s race, the “50 Years of F1 in Canada” celebrations will include two races in the Masters Historic Grand Prix series, featuring more than 20 classic F1 cars from the 1970s and ’80s. The Cosmos Bridge at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve will become “Winner Alley” with banners created by Montreal artist Art Rotondo featuring the 31 drivers who have won the Canadian Grand Prix. A Gilles Villeneuve banner will be among them. 

At this point, Stroll can probably only dream about one day joining that group.
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