Grand Prix hoping to recover Toronto market

DEAN MCNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:49 PM ET

The new boss of the Grand Prix of Canada chose his words carefully Thursday.

Francois Dumontier was in Toronto to promote the return of Formula 1 racing to Montreal’s famed Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

Dumontier, who took control of the race from the legendary iron-fisted Normand Legault, knows that for the first time in decades he has a sales job on his hands to get back the 110,000 or so race fans who had flocked to Ile Notre Dame track every year prior to last season’s cancellation.

Just to bring everyone up to speed, so to speak, the 2009 Canadian GP was cut from the F-1 calendar after Bernie Ecclestone — the boss to bosses of the series — tried to squeeze $175 million from Canadian taxpayers for the rights to the event.

When the federal and Quebec governments answered with a thunderous “Non,” Ecclestone pulled the plug and vowed never to return to Canada.

Well that lasted until the economy-sized despot found out that there weren’t any more Third World countries left willing to dip into the tax vault to pay his extortion-like sanctioning fees.

Dumontier and the Quebec government began negotiations to bring back the race with a simple offer to Ecclestone: “Chop $100 million from your demand and maybe we’ll let you come back to Montreal.”

And after several trips to the F-1 czar’s offices in London, a deal was made and by late November a five-year contract worth $75 million was signed, sealed and delivered.

By that time, however, the curtain was closing on 2009 and Dumontier’s people found themselves with just six months to plan, construct and sell this country’s largest single-day sporting event.

Which brings us back to Toronto.

When Legault was running the Grand Prix he counted on a huge influx — estimated at up to 25% of the gate — of fans from southern Ontario, Toronto in particular.

There was no real sales pitch to make.

In fact the Canadian Grand Prix, for all intents and purposes, had become the Montreal Grand Prix and when the axe fell on the event in 2008 the headlines read: “Montreal loses Grand Prix.”

Those days are gone.

Dumontier made it clear he wants not only to get back the more than 25,000 fans from the GTA, he wants to add to that number.

“This is the Grand Prix of Canada,” he said. “This is not just a Montreal event. This is not just a Quebec event. This is a Canadian event.”

It is not quite a “it’s your patriotic duty” to attend the race kind of sales pitch, but the subtle pressure is there that supporting the Grand Prix is good “for all of Canada.”

But after all is said and done the fact remains that there is a certain truth to what Dumontier wants and needs.

The F-1 race is as prestigious in the international sporting community as is the Olympic Winter Games currently underway in Vancouver.

And it is true that the world comes to watch.

“The world-wide television audience for the Canadian Grand Prix is either No. 1 or No. 2 of all 19 GPs,” Dumontier said.

Indeed the 2005 Canadian GP was the third most watched sporting event on the planet, behind only the first place Super Bowl and the UEFA Champions League Final.

That kind of exposure can only come from a handful of sporting events.

So Dumontier has every right to pound the drum for his event, and it says something for southern Ontario that he feels this market is such a large part of bringing the Canadian Grand Prix back to its place in this country’s sporting pantheon.

Just not at any cost. So his deal with Ecclestone may prove to be a bargain for Montreal, for Quebec and, yes, for Canada.


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