Montreal Canadiens fan Marco Schüpbach, race engineer for Sauber driver Adrian Sutil, with his Canadiens jersey outside the Sauber garage for the Canadian Grand Prix at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal on Thursday, June 5, 2014. He has been a fiercely loyal Habs fan for most of his life.
Photograph by: Dario Ayala, The Gazette
Marco Schüpbach figures he bought his road-white Canadiens jersey in the late 1980s or early ’90s, a now-outdated CCM model with a crest that seems a little small, purchased in a hockey shop in his native Switzerland.
But it was with chest-swollen pride that Schüpbach posed this week with his almost-vintage jersey in front of the Sauber Formula One garage at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, a fiercely loyal Habs fan for probably 25 of his 37 years.
Long before he earned his mechanical engineering degree in 2001, long before he was charting his career path in the most elite brand of global motorsport, Schüpbach loved hockey.
And he adored the Canadiens, future Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy at the top of his boyhood list of idols.
“Patrick and Renato Tosio, who played goal for Bern,” Schüpbach said with a laugh, sitting for a chat in Sauber’s paddock.
We had connected over Twitter, Schüpbach a follower of my mostly Canadiens feed and, I’ve learned, a huge fan of the club’s glorious history.
I mentioned on Twitter that had the Habs advanced to the Stanley Cup final against Los Angeles, Game 2 of the series would have been in Montreal on this Grand Prix weekend, the perfect storm of hockey and racing at their highest levels.
“That was my target,” Schüpbach replied to that tweet. “I believe I would not have had a ticket for Bell Centre though ...”
We quickly exchanged a few messages and a meeting at the circuit was set up by Sauber communications head Hanspeter Brack. And so we sat Thursday evening in the paddock, Schüpbach having brought his Canadiens jersey from Switzerland for a photo.
He has come by his love of hockey honestly. Schüpbach played a year of defence as an 8-year-old before he slipped back into the net, tending goal for a team in his hometown village of Zunzgen-Sissach, 30 kilometres from Basel.
“I always liked the position,” he said of goaltending. “I liked the equipment. Maybe also because it was a special position on the team.”
Schüpbach recalls teammates showing up at the rink with Pittsburgh Penguins jerseys, Mario Lemieux that club’s superstar of the day.
“But I was impressed by Patrick Roy,” he said. “I wanted to be like him. For me, it was Roy and Tosio, the best goalie in the world and the best goalie in Switzerland!”
As Schüpbach’s love of hockey grew, so did his passion for Roy, who was leading the Canadiens to Stanley Cups in 1986 and ’93. But by the time he was turning from his teens, he realized he would probably not make it to the big leagues of goaltending.
“At one point, you have to make the call to go for something proper,” he said. “I was studying and hockey meant training five times a week. It was just getting to be too much.
“You have to make the decision. Do I continue in hockey or go to the safe side? For me, (engineering) was just more important. And the likelihood I would achieve something in hockey ...”
Upon graduation in 2001, Schüpbach found his way into motorsport as race engineer with the Mücke team in German Formula 3. And then a year later he arrived at Sauber as a vehicle dynamics engineer, learning to his delight that the company had a beer-league-calibre hockey team.
He dug out his equipment and replaced it a bit at a time, having instantly rekindled his love of goaltending, while following the Canadiens the best he could in Switzerland.
And then he moved up to become a performance engineer with Sauber, joining the test team in 2004 and the race team in 2006.
“My fandom for the Canadiens, if you can call it that, was refreshed when I came to Montreal for the first time in 2006,” Schüpbach recalled, then the performance engineer for Nick Heidfeld.
A few days before the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix, having moved to the team of Robert Kubica, he booked a Bell Centre tour and was the only one who arrived for it.
“The lady basically showed me everything,” he said of his guide. “Maybe it was possible that I saw a little more than the normal tour.”
Then-Canadiens defenceman Mark Streit, a Swiss native, took in that race from the Sauber paddock, attending his first F1 event.
“It’s one thing to watch a race on TV, and even that’s spectacular,” a flabbergasted Streit told me that weekend. “But when you see it live — the speed they drive, how loud it is, on such a narrow, tight course at 320 km/h — it’s sick. Crazy. It’s phenomenal to see them doing this live.”
It was that weekend that Schüpbach, the Formula One universe and millions of fans were sickened by Kubica’s horrifying Montreal crash, a catastrophic wreck near the hairpin from which the driver ultimately and miraculously escaped with just a sprained ankle and a concussion.
Schüpbach was the performance engineer that year for Kubica, who in 2006 had replaced Jacques Villeneuve in the BMW-Sauber. And he was in the same engineering role in 2008 when Kubica returned to win an emotional Canadian Grand Prix, to date the only F1 victory for both.
Schüpbach graduated to Sauber race engineer in 2011, the man fully in charge of the machines of Sergio Pérez in 2011-12, Nico Hülkenberg in 2013 and, this year, Adrian Sutil.
He has a half-dozen engineering specialists under him, crunching data in such areas as chassis performance, aerodynamics and gearbox/engine, and a similar number of mechanics. It is Schüpbach’s job to co-ordinate everything and everyone based on science, experience and even intuition.
“You have to make calls on what is important and what isn’t,” he said. “Sometimes, you have to calm down the driver, sometimes you have to fire him up.
“Sometimes, you’re kind of a coach to the driver. It’s a relationship thing. You get to know him through the whole year. By the end of the season, you look at each other and you know what’s going on. With some drivers it happens more, some less. Normally it takes a year to really understand each other.”
With Sutil, who has finishes of 11th and 17th and four DNFs heading into Sunday’s race, the seventh of the season, the learning curve is not unlike the sweeping bends and tight turns in a track.
“In some situations we have to think twice and communicate a bit more than would be the case at Race 15, but that’s natural,” Schüpbach said. “Right now, it’s OK. Of course, we’re lacking performance a bit, we’re not happy with that, but generally our relationship works quite well.”
His engineering career, naturally, doesn’t leave him much time to work on his save percentage or goals-against average. When hockey and race schedules conflict, guess which sport suffers?
The Sauber hockey team, which plays a dozen or so games in Switzerland against most anyone willing, is made up of company employees and a few friends “because with the English guys who work for us,” its goalie jokes, “we don’t have a lot of hockey players.”
It was with a heavy heart that Schüpbach saw the Canadiens knocked out of the playoffs by the New York Rangers. He has never seen an NHL game live, though he has attended a couple of American Hockey League Texas Stars matches during the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin.
Schüpbach says that his fiancée, Melanie, is into hockey a little, “but she’s not a huge freak like me.”
He’ll check out Canadiens scores first thing in the morning if he hasn't been able to catch games live given the time difference to Switzerland. His favourite players today are goalie Carey Price, defenceman P.K. Subban and forward Brendan Gallagher.
“Gally’s always smiling,” Schüpbach said. “I think he’s awesome and I hope he has a long career, though by the way he plays, I have my doubts.”
On Monday, before his afternoon flight home, Schüpbach will visit the Bell Centre’s Fan Zone store and stock up on more souvenirs, including something for Mila, his 4-month-old daughter. He bought her two Canadiens-logo’d jumpers last year — with her one month in the womb.
“I’ll get to a game in Montreal, even if I have to fly over just for that when my daughter is old enough,” Schüpbach said with a grin.
And he will continue to dream about a madness and meltdown that’s almost unthinkable: an all-in-one Grand Prix/Stanley Cup playoff weekend in this city.
“It has to be,” Schüpbach said, laughing again. “This year, it would have been perfect.”
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