Montreal Canadiens Raphael Diaz, right, and Detroit Red Wings Damien Brunner, left, speak with Sauber F1 driver Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico, centre, outside the F1 team Sauber garage during a break in practice for the Formula One Canadian Grand Prix at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal on Friday.
Photograph by: Dario Ayala, The Gazette
MONTREAL — We’ll get to the part about Kimi Raikkonen toe-dragging Henrik Zetterberg during a hockey practice.
But first, there’s the matter of Canadiens defenceman Raphael Diaz not yet having driven his own car around Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
“I don’t know that I’d let him drive it, either,” Detroit Red Wings forward Damien Brunner was saying yesterday, needling his friend. “He’s a bad driver.”
“Aw, c’mon,” Diaz protested lightly of Brunner’s harsh critique, throwing his arm over a chair and looking back over his shoulder as he did.
“I’d drive in reverse!”
The two Swiss pals were taking a short break from having the experience of a lifetime, red-carpet guests of the Sauber team on the first day of the 44th Canadian Grand Prix on Montreal’s Île Notre-Dame circuit.
“I didn’t expect this,” Diaz said, sipping a coffee in the Sauber paddock’s hospitality area during the day’s second of two F-1 practice sessions.
“You don’t see this many things when you watch the races on TV. You see the cars and maybe a shot of them in the (pit) box, but what the team has to do to set up the car is unbelievable.
“The engineers were telling us about the sensors in the cars that analyze everything. It’s so impressive to see that.”
If Brunner didn’t agree with Diaz’s assessment of his own driving skills, he wouldn’t argue about the spectacle of Formula One.
“It’s amazing, walking in there, seeing what’s behind the scenes,” he said. “There are so many details. It’s crazy what’s going on backstage. It’s pretty cool to get to see all that stuff.”
Neither Diaz nor Brunner had attended any part of a Grand Prix before, and both will be back Saturday for the third practice round and qualifying session as guests of Sauber, a natural connection given that the team is based in Switzerland.
The idea was hatched last month as the Canadiens were packing their bags in Brossard following their playoff elimination and Diaz was preparing to head to Europe, where ultimately he would win a silver medal with Switzerland at the IIHF world championship.
“I’d love to see some of the Grand Prix but I’m not sure about getting in,” he said that day.
“What if …?” I replied, and we agreed to stay in touch.
Diaz won his silver medal and headed from Stockholm to Mexico for a little vacation. In the meantime, I sent a note about the Habs rearguard to longtime Canadian Grand Prix media officer Normand Prieur, who forwarded the few paragraphs to Sauber communications head Hanspeter Brack.
A day later, Brack emailed Diaz and the wheels were in motion. Diaz got in touch with Brunner, with whom he played almost four seasons for EV Zug of the Swiss A League, including a stretch during the NHL lockout, and Brunner changed his travel plans back to Zurich from Detroit to go out through Montreal.
“(Diaz) had told me earlier that I could swing by Montreal when we lost the first round and he was still playing,” Brunner joked, the Red Wings of course lasting two playoff rounds to the Habs’ one before Detroit fell to Chicago in a seven-game Western semifinal.
Brunner landed in Montreal on Wednesday, unsuccessfully trying to bring Red Wings teammate Pavel Datsyuk with him.
“I’ve been sending some photos to him today and I’ll bet he’s (peeved),” Brunner said, laughing. “Maybe next time?”
Alex Sauber, the race team’s marketing director, was happily showing the pair around the garage, introducing them to engineers, team staff and drivers Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Gutierrez.
“It’s always a great pleasure for us to have other guys from different sports come and join us, an exchange, to visit our factory in Switzerland or at the race track,” Sauber said.
He wasn’t getting much of a nibble from either NHLer, however, when he suggested they return on Saturday with their training shoes to join the engineering group whose unofficial society goes for a run on virtually every Formula One track worldwide.
Neither player is a gearhead who follows every lap of every race.
“Sometimes I watch on TV, but I’m not one to get up in the middle of the night to watch,” Diaz said. “I’m not into it like I’m into hockey.”
Brunner said he watched more racing when he was younger, “but that was nothing like getting close to it like we are today.”
Still, they did have a bit of a link to Formula One before this weekend, Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen once an ambassador for EV Zug and, by many accounts, a very good hockey player.
“We had an optional skate (during the lockout) and Kimi came out in his equipment. He toe-dragged (Detroit’s Henrik) Zetterberg!” Brunner said of the flamboyant offensive move that can embarrass its victim. “Hank even came out and took a few videos of Kimi.”
Both Diaz and Brunner say they’d be much more likely to pay attention to Formula One now, especially to Sauber, given the bonds they have quickly forged.
Not that they expected to be piloting one of these cars any time soon.
“Wouldn’t fit in one,” Brunner said, grinning. “Not even close.”
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