x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Students close doors at Montreal's Formula One track

Gary Meenaghan, in Quebec, explains why protests caused the cancellation of the open day at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve for the Canadian Grand Prix.

The Thursday before a race weekend is traditionally the only day when the exclusive F1 paddock and pit lane is open to spectators.
The Thursday before a race weekend is traditionally the only day when the exclusive F1 paddock and pit lane is open to spectators.

Be it civil unrest, a fire, a bomb scare or a student protest, it seems wherever Formula One goes these days controversy quickly follows.

Bernie Ecclestone, the ringmaster of this international travelling circus, is known to pronounce there is no such thing as bad publicity, but even he must be wondering what could possibly happen next.

In April, it was hoped the chequered flag marking the end of the Bahrain Grand Prix would symbolise the end of off-track controversy and a resumption of focus on a racing series enjoying its most unpredictable year in memory.

Such has not been the case.

Three rounds of the world championship have taken place since and each has featured a flashpoint of drama.

First, Barcelona brought with it a fire in the Williams garage that left 31 people seeking medical help.

Next, Monaco required a controlled explosion after the discovery of a suspect package at the paddock entrance.

Now, with the sport having rolled into Montreal, local students have targeted this weekend's Canadian Grand Prix as they continue their increasingly hostile campaign against Quebec government measures to raise tuition fees by 75 per cent.

Within the past month, protesters have brought the metro to a halt, while riot police have used pepper spray and sound grenades to disperse crowds.

Yesterday's "Open Doors" day at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve was cancelled earlier this week by officials, following threats of disruption.

The Thursday before a race weekend is traditionally the only day when the exclusive F1 paddock and pit lane is accessible to spectators.

Francois Dumontier, the race promoter, said there were "risks we could not neglect".

The dispute has also affected ticket sales for the popular annual event.

The Canadian Grand Prix has been known to attract more than 300,000 fans over the course of the weekend, but Dumontier concedes he is expecting a lower turnout than usual.

"I can't remember the last time we didn't sell out. It's been that long," he told the Montreal Gazette.

Canada has featured on the F1 calendar almost every year since 1967 and regularly appears on drivers' lists of favourite races.

Yesterday, Mark Webber, the Red Bull Racing driver who won the last race in Monaco, called the event "sensational" and assured "the focus for all of us in F1" is to "put on a very good grand prix weekend for everyone in Montreal and Canada". He did, however, acknowledge the delicacy of the situation, adding the cancellation of the Open Doors day was "disappointing".

"I'm obviously not completely up to speed with what is going on with the students not being happy with things," Webber said. "I'm not saying it's a minority, but sometimes when there is a little bit of tension, other people lose out. It's unfortunate."

"For a long, long time the Canadian Grand Prix has been held here in a very positive fashion," he added.

"It's a sensational event for the whole season - inside the top few grands prix of the year.

"The city embraces the event; the restaurants go for it, the driver parade is one of the best we do all season ... so there is a huge amount of positive aspects we have here."

Jenson Button won here last year and has hazy memories of his celebratory night, but the McLaren-Mercedes driver has been visiting Canada often enough to appreciate his surroundings and the way "the city of Montreal really comes alive over a grand prix weekend. Hopefully that won't be any different this year".

"It's just a precautionary thing," he said of yesterday's cancelled fan event.

"It's the start of the weekend, and it's a big thing for Formula One and also for Montreal.

"If you listen to the radio, it's non-stop talking about the grand prix. Hopefully, we can put this behind us and concentrate on putting on a good show for the fans who want to come and see us."

Button's rain-swept victory last season was one of the most enthralling races in recent memory as he fought from the back of the grid to capitalise on an uncharacteristic error from the race leader Sebastian Vettel to secure his first win of the 2011 season.

This year, after starting the season with a win in Australia, the Englishman has struggled.

"I purposely haven't looked at the points the last few races, but I don't think anybody is streaking ahead in the championship" said Button who has retired twice in his past three races and sits 31 points off the lead.

For the first time in the 62-year history of Formula One, six different drivers have won the opening six races of the season.

Button said he is looking and aiming for victory this weekend, but added that "just being consistently in the double figures in terms of the points is key to fighting at the front."

Fernando Alonso, Ferrari's Spaniard who tops the drivers' standings, has finished in the top five positions four times so far this season.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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