Walter Buchignani: Action, intrigue and a Bond girl at the Canadian Grand Prix

Walter Buchignani: Action, intrigue and a Bond girl at the Canadian Grand Prix
Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton makes a pit stop during the second practice session for the Formula One Canadian Grand Prix at the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve in Montreal on Friday, June 10, 2016. (Dario Ayala / Montreal Gazette) Dario Ayala / Montreal Gazette

How fitting that a Bond girl has made her way to Circuit Gilles Villeneuve this weekend.

If it’s action and intrigue you want, the 47th edition of the Canadian Grand Prix — the 37th on Île Notre Dame — promises to deliver just that.

The script calls for heated battles between rivals and teammates, none bigger than the one unfolding at Mercedes, where defending champion Lewis Hamilton finds himself on the back foot.

The starring role, however, might well go to the weather, bizarre even by Montreal standards, with the forecast calling for cool temperatures and a strong possibility of rain for Sunday’s race.

Then there is the controversy unleashed by F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone, who suggested the future of the Grand Prix might be at risk if planned renovations to the island track aren’t completed on time.

The Bond girl is Stephanie Sigman, who played opposite Daniel Craig in Spectre and looked glamorous in a black dress unsuitable for the cold and windy conditions when she made her appearance on Thursday.

Sigman is an ambassador for Heineken, and took part in a glitzy news conference to announce the beer giant has entered into a major partnership with Formula One.

That’s good news for F1 at a time when it faces shrinking audiences and revenues. Heineken sponsorship has been effective in boosting other global sports, notably soccer and rugby.

The company won’t put its logo on cars or drivers, but will be visible in other ways. Notably, it will become the title sponsor of at least three races as of next year.

No, not Canada. Race promoter François Dumontier ruled out that possibility immediately after the announcement. He didn’t even attend the news conference.

Too bad. Our race could use a boost. Dumontier says the event is secure for years to come, with a contract in place through 2024, but needs new investors and a title sponsor if it hopes to remain viable.

So far, none has been found.

And now this: Under the contract, the city is required to upgrade the garages, paddocks, control tower and other facilities at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve by 2017, at an estimated cost of $32 million.

The work has not yet begun, and Ecclestone sounded less than reassuring when he was asked whether the lack of progress puts the future of the race in doubt.

“Probably the contract’s in doubt,” he specified. “When you have a contract, normally the terms set out what people are supposed to do, both sides. It’s been forgotten a little bit from the city.”

Was that a threat, or was Ecclestone trying to be mysterious?

Cue the James Bond music.

In 2009, you’ll recall, Montreal was scratched from the calendar in a dispute over — guess what? — track upgrades, only to return a year later.

This time, though, it’s probably a case of Bernie being Bernie, dropping bombshells in an effort to shake local authorities into action.

For their part, both Dumontier and Mayor Denis Coderre said Friday they were not worried, they have a good relationship with Ecclestone, and things will get sorted out.

Whatever might happen in future, the cars will race at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on Sunday, after the starting order is determined during Saturday’s qualifying session (12:30 p.m., RDS).

As usual, the main battle is expected to play out at Mercedes, which has dominated F1 since the switch to 1.6-litre, V6 hybrid turbo engines in 2014, winning 37 out of 44 races.

Hamilton arrives as the favourite, having won here four times already, more than any other active driver. He’s chasing his third straight championship at Mercedes and fourth overall.

Teammate Nico Rosberg has had a flying start to the season, taking an early command of the championship by winning four of the six races so far to Hamilton’s one.

And yet, the math says Hamilton can leapfrog his teammate atop the standings if he wins on Sunday and Rosberg finishes outside the top 10 and scores no points.

Unlikely? Well, yeah. But so is June weather that goes from winter to summer and back again in the matter of hours.

Keep in mind, too, that Hamilton owns Montreal, having won here last year as well as in 2012, 2010 and 2007. That maiden win was the first of his F1 career and the only one by a black driver.

Another notable scrap: Ferrari vs. Red Bull. Both are trying to stake their claim to best-of-the-rest honours behind Mercedes, though neither has presented conclusive evidence so far.

You can argue Red Bull holds the edge at the moment. The team’s young gun, Max Verstappen, is the only non-Mercedes driver to have won a race this year, in Spain on May 15.

The victory made Verstappen the youngest F1 winner in history, at 18, and the first Dutchman. To boot, he did it in his first appearance with Red Bull, after moving over from sister team Toro Rosso.

At the next race, in Monaco two weeks ago, teammate Daniel Ricciardo seemed a sure bet to make it two wins in a row for Red Bull, if not for a botched pit stop.

A mix-up in communication meant his crew was not fully prepared when Ricciardo pulled in, forcing him to wait while they scrambled to fit fresh tires on his car. The lost time handed Hamilton the lead, and the victory.

In Montreal, you can be sure Ricciardo will want to make up for the wasted opportunity that was in no way his fault.

Ferrari, meanwhile, will be eager to prove it is better than the results it has put up so far, and that the team has been more the victim of bad luck and circumstance than poor performance.

The Italian stable arrived in Montreal with upgraded engines for Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen, and hopes the boost will be enough to make a difference.

Ferrari is confident it can not only stay ahead of Red Bull, but close the gap on Mercedes. We’ll see. The go-lights blink Sunday afternoon (2 p.m., TSN3, TSN5, RDS).

Of course, other teams will aim to pull off an upset at a Grand Prix that has a long history of producing unexpected results over its 70 laps covering 305 kilometres. Only six times since 2000 has the pole-sitter gone on to win the race.

McLaren-Honda, too, have brought upgraded engines, while the likes of Williams and Force India are expected to be well-suited to the characteristics of Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

And if weather forecasters are correct and the rain comes, well, all bets are off.

Which, come to think of it, is not a bad title for a Bond film.
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