Ferrari Formula One driver Fernando Alonso greets a fan as he and other drivers sign autographs during Grand Prix Open House Day at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal Thursday June 6, 2013. The 2013 Canadian Formula One Grand Prix happens on Sunday.
Photograph by: Phil Carpenter, The Gazette
MONTREAL — Normally, Formula One schedules are seemingly set with an atomic clock, events timed almost to nanoseconds.
So it was unusual, even comforting, that Thursday’s Shell fuel promotion featuring Fernando Alonso began roughly 45 minutes late because the Ferrari driver was consumed in gridlock between hotels, swallowed up by Montreal construction and morning traffic.
Alonso was in good humour when he did arrive, playfully taking part in a “mixology challenge” that involved a Shell fuels scientist, two affable lab-cloaked technicians, a tableful of beakers, a cocktail shaker, two seltzer bottles, two engine valves and a little maple syrup, which was the local ingredient used to simulate engine gunk.
With these props — and orange juice, lime juice and a dash of Grenadine, which respectively represented base fuel, detergent and corrosion-inhibitor technology — Alonso and a Shell customer had some fun.
By demonstration’s end, we’d learned of the link between the fuel that bloats Alonso’s Ferrari and the gasoline you pump from Shell into your thirsty sedan.
And we’d seen Alonso jokingly turn one of the seltzer bottles on a technician, hosing the latter’s mug with a quick burst in a slapstick routine the driver has probably performed during similar corporate promotions elsewhere on the Formula One circus.
The 32-year-old Spaniard then stepped off the stage into a gaggle of cameras and notebooks for an advertised 10 minutes; that the scrum ran three seconds overtime was more tuned to F-1’s atomic clock.
This weekend’s 44th Canadian Grand Prix will be Alonso’s 11th time running Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, his fourth for Ferrari. He arrives off a tepid seventh-place result in Monaco two weeks earlier, leaving him third in the drivers’ championship, 29 points behind leading Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull, nine behind second-ranked Kimi Raikkonen of Lotus.
“Hopefully we can go back to our normal form and recover some of the points we lost in Monaco,” said Alonso, whose victories this season in China and Spain are among his 32 career wins and 89 podiums in 202 Grand Prix starts.
Montreal has been a challenge through the years. Alonso was victorious here in 2006 for Renault, his win from the pole one of five times he’s been running at the end. In 2010, his first Canadian race for Ferrari, he started and finished third.
Those two results are his only podiums. They join classifications of fourth in 2003 for Renault, seventh in 2007 for McLaren, and fifth last year for Ferrari.
Add to those his five DNFs for problems with transmission, driveshaft and suspension, a spinout and a collision.
But dubious performances have done nothing to dampen Alonso’s enthusiasm for this city and all that this race offers.
“I like the atmosphere, that’s probably the best thing of the weekend,” he said. “The fans are very passionate, there’s a great atmosphere of Formula One when we arrive here.
“There is a lot of support for Ferrari coming from the old days with (late Ferrari legend) Gilles Villeneuve. There are a lot of Ferrari fans here and we enjoy racing here.
“The worst thing in the past few years was the weather,” he added, rain lightly falling on the racetrack a few hours later and expected for much of the weekend.
“I think every time we come here, we see the forecast the week before and after is very sunny, 32, 33C, but the week we race here there is always rain.
“It’s also interesting races in wet conditions, so let’s hope to put on a good show for everybody this weekend.”
Alonso vividly recalls his first time running the Villeneuve circuit in 2001 for bottom-feeding Minardi. His eyes were widened as much by the G-forces he suddenly was pulling, screaming out of tight corners into full throttle straights, as they were by the history of the track.
“I remember it was a very fast circuit,” Alonso said with a grin. “In my first year in this category (of racing), I was discovering a new circuit every two weeks.
“After some slow-speed circuits like Barcelona and Monaco, we arrived in Montreal (for his eighth career GP) and that’s the first memory I have — being at 340 km/h. It was an amazing feeling. I remember it was a special circuit.”
Very-fast-forward to 2006 and there was Alonso winning a less-than-crowd-pleasing decision by two seconds over Ferrari god Michael Schumacher.
Today, Alonso understands why his win wasn’t embraced by everyone, and he comprehends the mystique of the Italian carmaker among its disciples around the globe.
“It would mean much more, there’s no doubt,” he said, considering the weight of winning in Montreal — in any race, really — for the Prancing Stallion.
“Every victory you get with Ferrari is different compared to any other team. There is huge support from fans worldwide. The repercussion of winning with Ferrari is much higher, and especially in Canada where there is a huge amount of Ferrari support coming from Gilles’s time. Winning here would make us very happy and very proud.”
It would end a drought; the winner of 11 Canadian Grand Prix, nine on the Villeneuve circuit, Ferrari hasn’t sprayed champagne from the podium’s top step in Canada since Schumacher in 2004.
Alonso’s Ferrari stablemate, Felipe Massa, is seventh on the drivers’ table, a suspension failure having violently ended his most recent effort in Monaco.
“Just muscles,” Massa said with a shrug Thursday of his hard wreck, in fact his second in the same spot during that race, declaring himself fully fit.
In a season of high and low tides, Alonso has ridden his waves with a philosophical eye. In fact, he sounded downright like any Canadiens player when he sized up the wild swing of popularity he holds among fans.
“When you’re at the top level of the sport, when something goes good, everything is exaggerated,” he said. “After (his win in) Barcelona, you can hear and read that you’re the best driver in Formula One history. …
“Then when you finish after a bad race in Monaco, (they say) you should retire because you’re not able any more to drive a Formula One car.
“It’s always the same thing, so you need to be focused on yourself, keep training hard and work with the team very closely because this championship is extremely close. The small details make a difference time after time, and we need to find perfection in Canada if we want to finish ahead of everybody.”
The Villeneuve circuit will present its usual high-speed, hard-braking test, likely complicated by wet practice and qualifying conditions.
“It’s challenging for the drivers,” Alonso admitted. “At the end of the lap you’ve had six corners to make time. You compare with your teammate and normally the difference is very, very small. There are not many corners that you can make the difference.
“It’s interesting to see the qualifying times — 2-, 3-10ths (of a second will separate) eight, nine cars. This makes us a little more stressed to drive, for sure, but it makes it very interesting for the fans.”
The Canadian Grand Prix has always been that for Alonso, and he expects nothing different beginning with Friday’s two sessions of free practice at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., 90 minutes each.
“I’ve always been quite confident on the circuit,” he said, recalling that he turned his first fastest lap in Formula One here 10 years ago.
“It’s true I have some retirements here. This is a circuit that doesn’t allow you to make any mistakes, there are walls all around the track. If we can finish the race, if we can have a good pace, this is a circuit that should be good for me and our car.”
Alonso will need no reminders of the expectations. Everywhere he turns this weekend, he’ll see the red Ferrari flags waving.
They won’t be only in the grandstands ahead, of course. They’ll also be in his mirrors and in his employer’s unique history that buckles him behind the famous wheel.
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