Have you ever wanted to take a lap around a real-life Formula One track? If you live near Montréal, you can. The Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve, home of the Canadian Grand Prix, is open to the public most days of the year for biking, running, or, if you prefer, driving. The only catch: the speed limit is 30 km/h.
As far as I can tell, based on a random sample of F1 track websites (mostly from Europe), this is a unique situation. Other tracks have certain days where you can pay to do a few laps, but nowhere else is the track open to the public, for free, all the time. I suppose you can drive around the streets used for the Monaco circuit, and maybe Valencia as well, but those are regular roads, whereas Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve is still a uni-directional track, with the kerbs, pit garages and some Armco barriers in place. The only parts of the track off-limits to cars are the Casino hairpin and the pit lane.
After a recent family trip to the Biodôme, in Montréal’s Olympic Park, TPL mascot little Jense and I enjoyed a couple laps of the track, a walk around the pit lane and first few turns, and our own podium celebration.
After turning on to the track, just past the hairpin, we drove down the back straight (possibly a bit faster than the speed limit) before taking a bit of kerb on the final chicane and giving plenty of space to the Wall of Champions. We then stopped on the starting grid for a quick photo shoot and pulled into a parking lot just past the pit exit and control tower (the lot is for people using the beach, which is in the middle of the circuit on Île Notre-Dame).
Walking back toward the pits, we noticed that the stairs to the podium platform were open and that there was no one around, so we decided to have a bit of fun. The stairs are actually quite treacherous (a small, winding-staircase), but I think the drivers access it through the control tower. Once on top, little Jense celebrated with her bottle of ‘Champagne’ – her favourite part of race weekends, unless there is also a safety car appearance.
Next we walked down to the first turns and collected some left over tyre marbles from the grass. Little Jense was so excited to be collecting actual pieces of an F1 car, and she stored them in her bottle. I also found a small weight, which could be from a Formula One car, or it could have fallen off someone’s bike. If we make it to the Thursday pit walk at next year’s Canadian GP, I will ask one of the engineers. In the meantime, let’s assume it is a piece of a Sauber C32.
Around the track, many of the armco barriers and other walls are left in place, as well as all the kerbs. We also found some tyre walls, which had been moved and stored out of the way. Although the grandstands have been dismantled, you still really have the feel of being on a race track while you are driving around.
One thing I learned during our few laps is how high F1 kerbs really are. The whole car was vibrating when I put two wheels on the kerbs at the final chicane, before the start-finish straight, and I can only imagine what it feels like to hit those kerbs in a non-padded F1 cockpit with a rock-hard suspension, at much higher speeds.
The whole experience was a ton of fun and, if you are ever in Montréal with access to a car, I highly recommend heading down to Île Notre-Dame for a lap or two. The price is right, and driving on a grand prix circuit is an incredible experience, even at 30 km/h.
Before ending this post, here is one final treat for you: a video showing part of one of our laps (including a pass just ahead of us, at turns six and seven), with some ambient noise recorded during one of the 2013 Canadian GP practice sessions dubbed over top. Enjoy!