Few places embrace their Grand Prix as enthusiastically as Montreal. The city grinds to a halt over the race weekend as fans from around the world descend on Quebec for a non-stop party. Formula One fever - street parties, driver appearances and F1 exhibitions - is focused in one area of town: Rue Ste Catherine. It is the focal point at which race fans can meet. But there is plenty to see and do elsewhere because Montreal seamlessly mixes the old with the new. There is the 400-year-old charm of ‘Vieux Montreal’, which sits in surprising harmony with the grid pattern and skyscrapers of the modern city.
Locals still idolise Gilles Villeneuve, father of 1997 world champion Jacques, who won the city’s inaugural Grand Prix in 1978 and after whom the circuit on the Ile Notre-Dame is named.
“Montreal is a great city,” says Jacques Villeneuve. “The people are very friendly and there is lots to do.
"Then, of course, you have to visit my club, Newtown - Thursday night is a good night, but the food is really good all the time.”
Did you know?
Winter in Montreal starts in November and lasts until early April. In January, temperatures can often drop as low as -18 degrees Celsius. Thankfully, it’s a lot warmer for the race, with temperatures in the mid 20s.
All air travellers - international and domestic - arrive into Montreal-Trudeau Airport, situated 22 kilometres west of the city. If you are not hiring a car, taxi rides into town take about half an hour and are inexpensive.
There is a Metro station (Jean-Drapeau) just 200 metres from the track. If driving to the race, note that organisers issue a finite number of car passes on a first-come-first-served basis, as parking within the confines of the Ile Notre-Dame is limited.
At night, the best ways around Montreal are by Metro or on foot. There are taxis too, but bear in mind journeys can be slow due to party goers spilling onto the roads. If you’re visiting the Old Town, you could always take the more sedate option on offer: a horse and cart ride.
Three-day general admission is not expensive, and such is the compact nature of the track that many of the corners are accessible on foot. Grandstand tickets dominate at the best spots (start-finish, Turn 1 and hairpin), with prices for the seats dependent on the day and the position.
Where to go?
For good shopping, lively nightlife and lots of Formula One excitement head to Rue Ste Catherine. It has an abundance of everything. Try out a restaurant called Le Queue du Cheval. The food’s excellent, but that’s not the reason for the recommendation. In 2005, F1 veteran Jarno Trulli persuaded the restaurateur to stock his very own Podere Castorani wine - and very good it is too.
Away from Ste Catherine’s, why not take in some culture? The best galleries are the Musee Des Beaux Arts and the Musee D’Art Contemporain. Another famous F1 name, Nick Heidfeld, acquired some modern art masterpieces on a visit to the latter.
“If ever I have a bit of time to kill,” says Villeneuve, “I go to Old Montreal. It’s beautiful and has a special atmosphere. The buildings are old, the streets are narrow and there are some pretty exclusive places to eat.”
Where to stay?
The big hotel chains are located in the heart of Montreal. For budget alternatives, move towards the suburbs for the best deals - nowhere is too far away because of the convenient Metro system.
“I see no reason for anyone to leave Montreal and the surrounding area,” says Villeneuve. “You could stay in the city, go to Quebec City, go on trips up the Ste Lawrence (river) - lots of stuff. Montreal’s great!”
The more adventurous might want to travel up the Ste Lawrence to the Great Lakes. Or check out the Aboriginal Way, which passes through stunning countryside and leads through some of the 11 linguistically and culturally different aboriginal nations in Quebec.
Montreal is only 45 minutes by car from America's New York State and you can be at Watkins Glen, the home of the United States Grand Prix between 1961 and 1979, in just a couple of hours. Canada's Trois Rivieres circuit is closer still, being in Quebec itself. It may have never hosted a Formula One Grand Prix, but its annual summer motorsport festival is a must for local race fans. Also nearby is the picturesque Mont-Tremblant track, venue for the Canadian Grand Prix in 1968 and 1970. It still holds regular events and also has a driving school.
222 Circuit Gilles Villeneuve
Parc Jean Drapeau
H3C 6A1 Canada