The foolproof Canadian GP formula that new US F1 venues should copy

Elizabeth Blackstock
Daniel Ricciardo drives during the last practice session ahead of the 2018 Canadian Grand Prix

Daniel Ricciardo at the 2018 Canadian Grand Prix

Formula 1’s legacy in the United States is characterized by frequent stops and starts as the US Grand Prix swapped venues or fell victim to poor promotion. Up in Canada, though, F1 has been extremely stable since it was first introduced.

But why? Canada and the United States share a border, a language, a continent, and, in many cases, their racing series; they also both feature plenty of citizens enamored by the throaty roar of an automobile at speed. We’re delving into the long history of the Canadian Grand Prix to understand what makes it such an iconic North American event.

A brief history of the Canadian Grand Prix

Formula 1’s version of the Canadian Grand Prix got its start at Mosport Park in Ontario, Canada back in 1967 — though it was included on the F1 calendar as a non-championship race all the way back in 1961.

By contrast, the United States was already on its third venue, Watkins Glen, which joined the calendar in 1961. The event swapped between Mosport and Mont-Tremblant for four years before settling at Mosport for an additional six events.

However, by the late 1970s, it had become clear that the track was lacking in safety features, and after an extended battle between sponsors and different potential host cities, Montreal emerged as the ideal location for a race. The manmade Île Notre-Dame had been built to host Expo 67 and had later been used to host certain 1976 Summer Olympics events. By combining existing roads and erecting pit buildings, a Formula 1 track was born.

The first Montreal Grand Prix was run in 1978 and was won by Quebec racing hero Gilles Villeneuve, firmly establishing the first of the circuit’s many myths that have, over time, combined to tell the story of a fantastic event. When Villeneuve was killed soon after, the track was renamed in his honor; he remains the only Canadian driver to win an F1 race on his home soil.

The legends have only compounded. The “Wall of Champions” has ruined the races of some of F1’s most iconic drivers. Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton proved their skill at the event by winning time and again.

Jenson Button’s truly unforgettable 2011 win was well earned, making history as being the longest F1 race of all time thanks to red flag periods and heavy rain; Button himself started in last place and fought his way to victory.

Get up to speed ahead of the 2024 Canadian Grand Prix:

👉 Wall of Champions explained: How one Canadian Grand Prix corner gained its fearsome name

👉 Red Bull ‘on the backfoot’ as three ‘exciting’ Canadian GP dynamics identified

👉 Five Canadian GP questions: Red Bull to struggle, McLaren’s bogey circuit and what next for Esteban Ocon?

What the U.S. got wrong — and what Canada got right

The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is perhaps the ideal North American venue; for as much as this continent adores its sporting events, it can be a challenge to get visitors to the race track while keeping them close enough to a city for the off-track parties. It can also be a challenge to maintain purpose-built sporting facilities in light of rapidly shifting local governments.

F1’s Montreal track is almost perfect. Located on the Île Notre-Dame — effectively, an artificial island turned into a public park — the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve benefits from being several things at the same time.

Technically, it is a street course, but because the island is transformed into an F1 haven for the Grand Prix, it carries with it a sense of seclusion that you generally only find in older purpose-built tracks.

But even though the track is isolated, it’s still easily accessible. Fans can drive into the circuit to park, or they can take public transportation; Montreal’s subway system is already equipped with a stop on the Île Notre-Dame.

The lines can get congested during a race weekend, but it’s a very cheap and efficient way to commute to the track.

That then means teams, drivers, and fans can stay in the city of Montreal itself without having to worry about waking up early for a long trek to a middle-of-nowhere race track.

Accommodations range from luxury hotels to ultra-cheap hostels, which means fans of all stripes can afford a trip. And when the day at the track is over, it’s easy to head back to your hotel, grab a shower, and then hit the town for dinner and drinks.

But a race’s success often has very little to do with the fans who attend; instead, local residents and governments have plenty of sway. All of the Canadian GP’s positives for fans, though, also make for positives for locals.

The Île Notre-Dame is far enough outside of the actual city of Montréal that it doesn’t cause a ton of downtown disturbances, both in terms of traffic congestion and noise from the cars. It’s also close enough that local businesses are flooded with customers.

Anyone who doesn’t want to deal with any Grand Prix nonsense need only leave the city for a weekend.

Plus, Tourism Montreal CEO Yves Lalumière recently pointed out that the Canadian Grand Prix accounts for a little over two percent of all tourism spending in the city — but that there have been significant upticks in both the number of tickets on offer by promoters, and in the duration of F1-related stays. Many visitors are domestic attendees, but the race has also pinned Montreal to the map as a destination of interest for international travelers, even outside of the race weekend.

Glenn Castanheira, executive director at sociétés de développement commercial Montréal centre-ville, added in the Montreal Gazette, “It’s literally Christmas in June for a tremendous amount of businesses downtown and outside of downtown.

”We all know just how difficult it is to operate a business. High rent, high taxes, correct, but also the surprise construction sites that affects the sales for months on end, the unexpected protests that translates into sales being lost, the unexpected weather change or consumer habits. All those things have impacts on our businesses being able to survive or not.

“So a successful Grand Prix normally translates into all these businesses being able to withstand the unexpected that makes doing business so difficult the rest of the year.”

Formula 1 has never hosted a similar event in the United States. Early Grands Prix at Sebring and Riverside fell apart due to promoter problems.

Watkins Glen served as a longtime home for F1, but organizers struggled to raise the funds to maintain the track — in large part because the track is so far away from any major city.

Events in Phoenix, Detroit, and Dallas, and at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, were poorly organized races on boring tracks. Indianapolis had a chance at establishing F1’s American foothold, but a quick succession of events including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the disastrous 2005 tire debacle, and the 2008 financial crisis killed a race that had only started to find its footing.

Now, big races like the Miami and Las Vegas Grands Prix are stunning spectacles — but both boast high ticket prices and have arrived on the scene with ample amounts of local backlash.

The USGP in Austin and the Long Beach Grand Prix are as close as F1 has come to establishing a long-standing, competent event in America.

When F1 first arrived at Long Beach, the region was close enough to Los Angeles as to be easily accessible, but the town itself simply couldn’t afford to maintain a high-profile event. Austin has thrived thanks to smart track management and state subsidies — but the moment either of those two factors fumble, the future of the event gets rocky.

Still, as North American interest in Formula 1 continues to grow, the United States could strongly benefit in turning its eye to its cousins above the northern border.

The Canadian Grand Prix at Montreal was something of a happy accident — it wasn’t a track that required years of planning, nor was it ever really a first choice for an event — but it just so happens that all the various elements of that event worked in a way that future-proofed the event from countless factors: frustrated locals, growing cities, evolving government, much-needed track maintenance, and more.

It’s a foolproof formula; organizers of the next US race would do well to study it.

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