Our Montreal Trip and First Live F1 Race

We just got back from Montreal today, and woooww what a fun weekend.

This is Kevin’s first time in Montreal, and my second time. The first time, I went with my parents, and we mostly did sightseeing in the order of the top ten attractions on TripAdvisor. I spent half a day in the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) alone. We visited Saint Joseph’s Oratory, walked around McGill University, checked out Vieux Port (the Old Port)… but today’s post is not about that trip!

This weekend, we traveled to Montreal pretty much exclusively to watch the 2019 Canadian Grand Prix. My boyfriend is a long time F1 fan, and while I am not, I still wanted to watch a race in person at least once, just to see what it was like. And looking back, I can definitely say: it was worth it! Sure, the days were tiring and hot, we both got sunburned, and at times I wanted to fall asleep… but I am so glad I went. I know I just gave four reasons right there why it shouldn’t have been enjoyable at all, but it was still a worthwhile experience. We’ve also learned a lot from this trip, so hopefully the next time we do something similar, we’ll be more prepared.

Thursday: Getting to Montreal

We traveled by train to Montreal. If you’re starting from K–W, like us, you’ll first have to catch a GO train from Kitchener Station to Union Station in Toronto. From there, you can ride the VIA Rail from Toronto straight to Montreal.

Because of all these transfers, scheduling options can be limited. We had to wake up at 5 am to catch a 5:40 train departing from Kitchener, then transferred to an 8:30 train from Toronto. Because it was so early, there weren’t any buses running at the time, but luckily there were a couple of Ubers around.

Taking the GO Train

The great thing about GO is that they are always on time. The only time I’ve heard of them being behind schedule was when a full-on blizzard was tearing through Toronto back in February, and a couple of my coworkers showed up late. It was a clear day when we set out at 5:40, and we showed up to Union Station perfectly on time.

Traveling by VIA Rail

line-up for via rail train to montreal

The line up for Montreal was already long when we got to the gate, and it was reminiscent of the boarding area of an airport. Actually, most aspects of VIA Rail would come to remind me of air travel, but I’ll get to that later.

It looked like the train was near capacity, and we speculated on whether that was because of the upcoming Grand Prix. We saw a few people in the line wearing F1 attire so it’s safe to say a good amount of the passengers were there for the race.

I was excited to use VIA, since I’d only ever taken the GO train from Toronto to Kitchener and had never been on a longer train ride in Canada. I had a romantic vision of sitting in plush seats, doing some homework or reading, and appreciating the rural scenery outside. Having tried it, I have to say I wouldn’t do it again.

via rail train seats

My one other long train ride experience took place on an overnight express from Shenzhen to Beijing, which definitely gave me that unrealistic idea of what train travel is like, and I’m sure anyone could tell you that Canada’s train infrastructure lags way behind China’s. The inside of a VIA coach is more like an airplane than anything else. The seats are a bit bigger than your average airplane seats, but there still isn’t a lot of legroom. The tray tables are somehow smaller than the ones you can find on a plane, and my tiny Surface Pro barely even fit on the whole thing. The entire trip was as bumpy as a car ride, so we couldn’t get any work done.

For most of the journey, I listened to music and drifted in and out of sleep. It’s a five-hour ride, but it didn’t seem that long because of how woozy I was. The whole time, I’d been feeling a little sick to my stomach because of the bumping and jostling, but not long after we arrived in Montreal in the late afternoon, we were both pretty hungry, since we hadn’t eaten all day.

Settling into our Airbnb

After dropping things off at our Airbnb, we hit up two popular local spots just a block away. You can read more about what we ate on my dedicated Montreal food post, since this post will be mainly about the logistics of getting around Montreal and the F1 Grand Prix.

view from the window of a montreal mile end airbnb

Have I mentioned how amazing our Airbnb was, btw? It’s an adorable studio apartment on Saint Laurent Blvd, which is known as the “Main Street” of Montreal, in the Mile End district. Every city has one of those artsy, historical neighbourhoods that’s full of culture and good food, and Mile End is Montreal’s. The weekend we were there, the annual Mural Festival was taking place a few blocks away.

We walked through this festival a couple of times throughout the weekend, but never really at “peak times” so I didn’t take any photos. This blog has uploaded pics of many of the artworks on display and also captures the vibe of the festival in general.

Friday: Free Practice Day

Finding our way to the circuit

f1 marshall on the track

Canada’s one and only Formula One Grand Prix is held at Circuit Gilles Villenueve, on the two little islands to the east of downtown Montreal. The entrance to the circuit is conveniently located next to a subway station, Jean-Drapeau, but getting from the entrance to our seats is where the real journey begins. It took us less than 30 minutes to walk from our Airbnb to Station Jean-Drapeau. It took us almost an hour just to walk to our grandstand, all the while breathing in cigarette smoke and dust kicked up from all the people milling around. The entire area surrounding the track looks like a fairground, with tents set up all around selling food, guidebooks, and F1 merchandise.

According to everyone in Montreal, the Thursday we arrived was the first day all year that felt like summer, so maybe some of the attendees were just citizens itching to get outdoors for the first time. I’m not sure if every race is this crowded, but all I know is that from Friday to Sunday, the entire area surrounding the circuit was consistently jammed with people.

(Learn from our mistakes: I strongly recommend not trying to make your way to the track while the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge is in progress, or bring earmuffs. Those cars are SO FUCKING LOUD. I literally felt like I was getting ear damage for the entire time I was forced to listen to them. The F1 cars and Ferrari Challenge cars aren’t nearly as bad, but I literally wanted to put life on mute when the GT3s were running.)

f1 track

(Most of the empty seats in this photo were taken up closer to the start of the event. During the race, you can bet that every available surface on these grandstands was occupied.)

F1 Free Practice explained

alfa romeo driver kimi raikkonen

In each Grand Prix, there are three Free Practice events prior to the big day, with the first and second FPs taking place on Friday and the third one on Saturday. A Free Practice, as explained by my boyfriend for uneducated bandwagoners like me, is an opportunity for drivers to get a feel for the track, for teams to run simulations, and for making adjustments to the car. Teams are no longer allowed to make adjustments to the cars post-FP, so they need to take advantage of what they learn during practice to optimize the vehicles for racing conditions.

Since we were both pretty tired last night, we got up close to noon on Friday and only made it in time for FP2. That was enough for me, tbh. From a fan’s perspective, Free Practice is nothing special, although it is one of the first opportunities for us to actually watch the drivers on track. But after an hour and a half of watching drivers lap around, I felt like I’d seen enough.

Groundhog spotting

The only one of two exciting moments of the day was the commentators announcing that Lewis Hamilton had some kind of hydraulic issue with his car, and he retired from the session early. The second one happened when a groundhog made its way onto the track!!

groundhog on f1 track

It’s a running joke in F1 that Canada is the race with the highest risk of wildlife interfering on the track, especially after Romain Grosjean turned one into puree during last year’s race in Montreal. (Warning: blurry but graphic) We were all yelling for this little guy to run off the track, and everyone cheered when he did!

We left soon after practice ended, and met up with my cousin for an early dinner at a hot pot restaurant. We were hoping to make it back to the track at 7 pm to take part in the “Grand Walk,” where you can walk around on the track itself.

Unfortunately, it turns out this event wasn’t included in the basic admission, and you had to have bought an additional ticket for that. I do wish F1 had made this clearer, because neither the schedule nor the tickets we’d bought had mentioned this being an exclusive event. Anyway, although we were kind of frustrated at being turned away at the entrance, we ended up being allowed onto the track after the race on Sunday, so we were able to take part in that experience anyway.

Saturday: Qualifying Day

Qualifying Session recap

My experience on Saturday was better than the previous day, since we’d already had some experience getting to and from the track and had some idea of what to expect. There were slightly more people today than yesterday, since today’s main event is the Qualifying Session, which is when the pace of a driver’s best lap determines which position he will start in during the race. Qualifying is generally regarded as the event where drivers will push the hardest, since their starting position plays a huge role in what they can expect to accomplish during the race.

red bull driver max verstappen

There are three rounds of Qualifying, known as:

  1. Q1: All drivers participate in Q1, which lasts for 18 minutes.
  2. Q2: Only the 15 fastest cars proceed to Q2, where they can attempt to better their rankings, while the slower drivers are eliminated with their rankings fixed. Q2 lasts for 15 minutes due to the smaller number of cars.
  3. Q3. Top 10. Some of the more powerful teams (Ferrari, Mercedes, etc.) only pull out the stops for this round, since the previous rounds are more about avoiding elimination than setting the fastest lap. This round lasts for 12 minutes. Whichever driver sets the fastest lap in Q3 gets to start in first, or “pole” position.

Sebastian Vettel (driving for Ferrari) took pole for this GP, which was a bit of a shock to most of us since Mercedes have been the clearly dominant team for this entire race. Unfortunately for them, their drivers (Hamilton and Bottas) placed 2nd and 6th respectively, while the second Ferrari driver (Leclerc) would be starting in 3rd. Additionally, Max Verstappen, a driver for another strong team, Red Bull, didn’t make it into Q3 which is so uncharacteristic of a really talented driver (although it wasn’t his fault).

So basically a lot of unexpected things happened, making this a pretty exciting Qualifying to watch, and we all hoped the shakeup from the usual expected starting positions was going to make an interesting race.

Please wear sunscreen!

The unfortunate thing about watching F1 on a nice cloudless day is most of the grandstands don’t have shade, so you’re just sitting there baking in the sun for x hours you want to spend there. There is just very little shade in the park in general, so please check the weather for the weekend before you go.

If things look sunny, it’s important to bring a hat and some kind of long-sleeved shirt or sweater to cover yourself a bit. Believe me, being a little overheated because you’re wearing too much beats sitting exposed in the relentless sunlight, I’ve been there!

On Friday night, I noticed that the skin around my collarbone, which I’d forgotten to apply sunscreen to, was lobster red. I made sure that we were well covered in sunscreen for Saturday, and I reapplied about every 1–2 hours, but the redness persisted and spread to my arms this time. I started noticing these tiny blood-red spots all over my forearms, where the sun exposure was the most intense. I have no idea what they are, but they only popped up under the sun and most disappeared a day or two later. Maybe they’re a symptom of the stress my skin was feeling under all that UV. It seems that SPF 30 sunscreen—what we used—doesn’t give enough protection, so next time I would use SPF 50 at least.

I’m actually shocked at just how deadly the sun that weekend was, since this is only the second time in my life that I’ve experienced sunburn (or pre-sunburn?), and I used to bask in the sun for hours and hours as a kid with little regard for sunscreen.

On the bright 🌞 side, people I see around campus have been telling me I’ve gotten so pale ever since we came back from co-op, and finally my tan has been restored! I’m so lucky to tan easily.

Sunday: Race Day!!!

ferrari driver sebastian vettel followed by mercedes driver lewis hamilton

Ahh race day, how do I begin. On one hand, this was the single event we’d been most looking forward to, and the reason for our entire trip. On the other hand, sitting there in the stands that day was actually hell at some points. Sunday was the hottest day of the weekend, reaching a high of 28 °C, which doesn’t sound so bad until you’re stuck on a grandstand under a cloudless sky counting down the laps from 70 and hoping for something to end your misery…

Can you tell I didn’t have the best time?

Looking back on it, I’m definitely so glad for the opportunity to go, and probably would again in the future (but splurge on some shaded seats for next time). In the moment, though, it felt rough. To be honest, aside from the first ten or so laps, and the final ten, everything in between was uneventful. Even my boyfriend agreed this was kind of a boring race, up until near the end.

Driver’s Parade

Just before the race begins, there is one lap where the drivers are driven around in really nice sportscars (not the ones they race in), and wave to the audience and stuff. This was pretty fun, since we get to see the drivers out in the open as they pass by. Did you know there are so many cuties in F1? My personal favourites:

I’m still amazed every day that Charles Leclerc isn’t a model (-:

Race recap

I was hoping for Verstappen (who had a reputation as “Crashstappen” last season) to do some damage as he made his way up from midfield, since he qualified 11th. He did do really well, quickly climbing all the way to 5th, but he was stuck behind Bottas for the remainder of the race and never got close to passing him :-/

We were also excited about Daniel Ricciardo, who had qualified 4th, which is pretty impressive in his mid-tier Renault car, but he didn’t really do anything noteworthy and ended in 6th, only conceding spots to Bottas and Verstappen.

The first three drivers (Vettel, Hamilton, Leclerc) pulled away from the pack right from the get-go and stayed in those positions for the entire race, although Vettel did kind of screw up under pressure once Hamilton started tailgating him, and spun out onto the grass briefly. This was near the end, and sparked the only bit of controversy in the entire race.

The FIA (F1 governing body) gave Vettel a 5-second penalty for the way he handled his recovery, which endangered the track for Hamilton who was so close behind him. Since Vettel and Hamilton were so close by the end of the race, the five seconds were crucial since that meant Hamilton won the race, even though he came in after Vettel on the track.

mercedes lewis hamilton among ferrari flags

A lot of fans were unhappy with this (seriously, there were a lot of people repping Mercedes merch that day but you could only hear BOOS coming from the grandstands) and Vettel himself did not handle coming in second well at all. Even I was disappointed, although I don’t have a strong bias towards either team (and I was even wearing a Mercedes shirt that day lol). Mercedes have been performing so well this season that Ferrari somehow has started feeling almost like the underdog, and I guess a lot of people wanted them to win one for once.

The controversy after the race was pretty interesting to sit through and discuss, but I was so tired from sun exposure and heat at that point I wanted nothing more than to go home. Walking back to the station was pretty terrible, packed with people like you’d expect, but at least we were let onto the track to walk back, and we even walked over the spot where Vettel had the slip-up that cost him the race.

Monday: Leaving Montreal

montreal street in mile end area

Bye Montreal! We had to leave too soon, checking out of our Airbnb at 10:30 to catch the VIA train back to Toronto at 11. I’m sad we didn’t have time for more attractions, like the Fine Arts Museum or sightseeing around the city. But between the Mural Festival, catching up with my cousin, the Grand Prix, and eating so much delicious food every single day, we squeezed as much as we could into this tiny trip and I’m sure we’ll be back in the future to explore the other things in Montreal that we couldn’t get to this time!

Now that we’re back in Waterloo where the thermometer is struggling to climb past 20 °C, I’m missing the hot, sunny ice cream weather days in Montreal. Hopefully Waterloo catches up! I’m feeling nostalgic for those evenings of walking through Blvd Saint Laurent with ice cream cone in hand already.