MONTREAL // Many of the Formula One fraternity had spent the previous evening observing semi-naked student protestors walking the streets of Montreal, so when the thundering noise of F1 engines filled the atmosphere around the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve Thursday afternoon, it brought with it a return to normality.
Students protesting against a 75 per cent rise in tuition fees are using this weekend's Canadian Grand Prix as a vehicle to increase their exposure.
On Thursday, more than a thousand scantily clad protestors marched through the city's downtown, and riot police were deployed to escort protestors away from a pre-race dinner held by Bernie Ecclestone, F1's commercial rights holder, and attended by personnel of several teams.
The protesters - one of whom said "the police are softer if we are naked" - have remained peaceful, although anonymous threats were made to circuit officials who felt forced to cancel Thursday's traditional Open Doors day. The impact appeared only to heighten the interest in Friday's first on-track action with spectators queuing up from as early as 7am.
Much has been made of the unpredictability of the sport this season, with six different drivers winning the first six races, but Canada boasts a circuit known for its ability to throw up a surprise, or what Mark Webber, the Red Bull driver, calls an oddball race.
Last season's four-hour grand prix provided a perfect example. Jenson Button, starting seventh, found himself last after a collision with his teammate, Lewis Hamilton. Yet the McLaren-Mercedes driver overcame pounding rain and a two-hour rain suspension to fight his way through the field and clinch a first victory of the season.
Button calls it his best win.
The wet stuff is being forecast to empty itself from the clouds again during Saturday's qualifying and teams are preparing accordingly.
Button acknowledged that last year's grid positions proved largely irrelevant, but said: "It's something you obviously still want to do - get as far up the grid and make your life as easy as possible on Sunday. A lot happens around here. Last year, we obviously didn't have the marbles [rubber debris from scorched, degrading tyres], but we had everything else thrown into the mix. If we have a dry, hot race marbles on the track is something we'll have to watch out for."
Friday's practice sessions were dry and Hamilton finished top of the time sheets in both.
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