Storm gathering over Canadian Grand Prix

Demonstrators attempt to disrupt Canadian Grand Prix festivities in Montreal, Que., June 8, 2012....

Demonstrators attempt to disrupt Canadian Grand Prix festivities in Montreal, Que., June 8, 2012. (MICHEL DESBIENS/QMI Agency)

DEAN McNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:45 PM ET

MONTREAL - As if on cue, the skies opened up just minutes after the end of practice day for the Canadian Grand Prix at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on Friday.

And there was relief as the rain came down in waves across the 13-turn, 4.361-km purpose-built race track.

It seemed to wash away the angst of drivers, teams, promoters, race officials and thousands of volunteers who had spent much of the day looking over their shoulders.

What they were looking for was any sign that the three-month long battle being waged almost daily in the downtown core of Montreal by roving protesting students, union militants and black-clad anarchists against the provincial government would move to Ile Notre Dame — the site of the largest single day sporting event in Canada.

But Day 1, at least, went off without even a minute of disruption.

That is not to say that the demonstrators — angered that the province wants to raise post-secondary school tuition in Quebec to a level with other Canadian provinces — will not attempt to make the trek across the several bridges that separate Circuit Gilles Villeneuve from the Island of Montreal on Saturday for qualifying or again on Sunday for the big race.

Already the protesters have left their mark.

Media from around the world are here to cover the Grand Prix and are reporting back to their native countries about near-naked demonstrators attempting to push and shove their way into Formula One events in the downtown area.

England’s Sun, the largest daily newspaper in that country, made the front-page comparison between what was happening in Montreal — however unfairly — to the deadly civil unrest of the Arab Spring that cancelled last year’s Grand Prix in Bahrain.

As a result, for the first time in more than a decade, there are still tickets to be had for Sunday’s race as nervous fans react to the events on the street.

The string of 10 consecutive race-day crowds of 115,000 fans — save 2009 when there was no race in Montreal — will very likely be broken on Sunday, according to most knowledgeable observers.

Hopefully, the student protesters will see this as enough of a victory and stop a rallying call to have their followers invade the circuit over the next two days.

Grand Prix bosses have already made arrangements for a heavy security presence at the race venue in the hope it will dissuade protesters from making the Grand Prix a martyr for their cause.

Meanwhile, on the track Friday, Lewis Hamilton recorded the fastest lap of the day of one minute, 15.259 seconds, in his McLaren Mercedes. “I’m very happy with my start to the weekend; happy that the rain held off for both sessions and happy that we got through a lot of good set-up changes,” Hamilton said.

Championship points leader Fernando Alonso was second fastest, posting a lap of 1:15.313 for Ferrari, with teammate Felipe Massa third at 1:15.410.

Two-time defending world champion Sebastian Vettel was fourth on the leader board at 1:15.531 in the Red Bull Renault with Paul di Resta a surprise fifth for Force India with a time of 1:15.544.

FINISH LINES

Jacques Villeneuve will be back at the track named after his late father this season at the NASCAR Nationwide Series in August, driving the No. 22 Penske Racing Dodge. He will also race at the Sargento 200 on June 23 at Road America.

In testing last week at Virginia International Raceway, Villeneuve posted the top NNS time and beat the times of half-a-dozen Sprint Cup drivers also testing at the road course.

Villeneuve is at the Grand Prix working as an analyst for Europe’s Sky TV ... There are no plans in the offing for Mercedes Benz to get back into big-time open-wheel racing in North America outside of the F-1 race in Canada and next season’s races in the United States.

Mercedes Racing boss Norbert Haug said Friday that the IZOD IndyCar Series is “not promoted properly.” But he said the German auto maker might be interested some day in joining NASCAR.

TOP 5 FASCINATING FACTS ABOUT THE CANADIAN GRAND PRIX

1. Only one Canadian has ever won his home race and that was the late, great Gilles Villeneuve in 1978 while driving a Ferrari at the then-Circuit Ile Notre-Dame.

Villeneuve’s main competition was American Mario Andretti in a Lotus, who would go on to win his only world championship that season.

Andretti had complained loudly before the race that the track in the middle of the St. Lawrence River was designed to favour Villeneuve.

Ironically, when F-1 returned to Montreal in 1982, the track was renamed Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

Other legendary drivers in the 1978 Canadian GP included Emerson Fittipaldi, Bobby Rahal, Jody Scheckter, James Hunt and rookie Nelson Piquet.

2. When he was in Formula One with the Williams team, NASCAR driver Juan Pablo Montoya won back-to-back pole positions in 2002 and 2003.

Unfortunately for Montoya, Ferrari superstar Michael Schumacher was at the end of his unprecedented seven world championships and was on a three-consecutive Canadian GP win streak, winning in 2002, 2003 and 2004.

3. Damon Hill, considered by many as one of the most talented F-1 drivers in history, won the Canadian GP in 1996 driving a Williams-Renault.

That race also marked the best finish ever in Canada by Jacques Villeneuve — Hill’s teammate at Williams-Renault — when he earned second place.

4. Jacques and Gilles Villeneuve are not the only father-son combination to race at the Canadian GP.

On the grid on Sunday will be Nico Rosberg, driving for the Mercedes AMG team. Nico’s father Keke Rosberg raced in seven Grands Prix in Canada between 1978 and 1986.

And Mario and Michael Andretti both raced in Canada as well, with Mario’s best finish of third in 1975 of the five GPs he raced in the Great White North.

Michael Andretti raced only once at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in F-1, finishing 14th in 1983.

The most successful father-son team, however, goes — hands-down — to Nelson Piquet and Nelson Piquet Jr., who combined to win three Canadian Grands Prix and another two podium finishes.

Fortunately for Nelson the younger — who raced only once in Canada in 2008 when he didn’t even finish — it was dad who amassed all of the winning records.

5. The record for the most Canadian Grands Prix by any driver goes to — drum roll please — Italy’s Riccardo Patrese, who competed in 16 events at both Canadian Tire Motorsports Park (formerly Mosport) and at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve between 1977 and 1993.

Patrese had a pair of second-place finishes — 1982 and 1989 — and a third place in 1991.

But he is mostly known for his 10 times at the Canadian GP when he did not finish the race — also a record.

WICKENS NEEDS TO START WINNING

Canada’s Robert Wickens needs to prove himself this season in the DTM Series if he is to get serious consideration in Formula One, Mercedes boss Norbert Haug said on Friday.

Wickens is driving for the Mercedes Junior squad in the European-based sports car series after winning the Formula Renault 3.5 Series championship last season and acting as a reserve driver for the Marussia F-1 team.

But Haug said the 23-year-old native of Guelph must make the first step — winning in DTM — before the team starts to think about the second step — a job with the F-1 team.

“I think he’s a talented driver,” Haug told a group of Canadian reporters at the Mercedes team hospitality area.

“But he is in a very tough series.”

Tough, indeed: With former F-1 drivers David Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher as teammates, Wickens is low man on the totem pole.

Haug said the team was aware that Wickens was capable of driving fast, but in the world of big-time racing, speed alone is not enough.

“He has shown lots of speed already, but he has to show that he can translate that speed into good qualifying and in the races; it’s a learning process,” Haug said.

So far, after four rounds in the DTM championship, Wickens has a best finish of 13th last week at Red Bull Ring in Austria.

He also has two 14th-places finishes at Hockenheim and Brands Hatch with a worst finish of 22nd at Lausitzring. The good news is Wickens finished each of the four races.

As for Wickens’ future at Mercedes, Haug said it was up to the youngster to make an impression with top results — and that means winning.

“We have expectations for him beyond this year, but you cannot go to Step 2 before you get Step 1,” Haug said. “You need to get the best possible results in the environment you are in and then you can look ahead.”

SCHUMACHER NEARING RETIREMENT AGAIN

Formula One’s most decorated driver is facing retirement for the second — and quite likely — the final time.

Michael Schumacher, the 43-year-old seven-time world champion and a seven-time Canadian Grand Prix winner who came back to F-1 in 2010 after a three-year retirement, is in the final season of his contract with Mercedes.

On Friday, the team’s principal, Norbert Haug, hinted that there have been no talks so far about keeping Schumacher beyond this season.

“It is not decided yet,” Haug said. “(Schumacher) has a three-year contract which runs out at the end of this year.

“We will make a decision on this later this year.”

Schumacher’s qualifying results have been better this season than in the first two years of his comeback, but he has only been able to convert those good starts into two championship points.

By comparison, Nico Rosberg — Schumacher’s 26-year-old teammate — is fifth in the championship with 59 points.

Haug said that F-1 racing has changed a lot since Schumacher was winning his championships for Benetton and Ferrari.

“We are a young team,” Haug said. “Michael, of course, is experienced, but his time was a very different time in the sport when testing was allowed, tire development was allowed. Now there is no testing and the tires are all the same for everybody.”

He said Mercedes could change its mind if Schumacher suddenly returns to something close to his former self on the race track.

“We need to assess all of this, but I think if we give him a car where the most driver skills are needed, he can show us what he is capable of doing,” Haug said. “Having said that, there is no final decision being taken about next year.”


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