Alejandro Agag can understandably be stressed if he thinks the Formula E season finale is a poisoned chalice.
Like London before it, Montreal has turned the final round of the championship into a political and local issue that has received far more attention than the events on the track.
Montreal was never originally intended to close the third FE season though and was initially scheduled to be held before the New York double-header that preceded it.
Last September the FIA made an adjustment to the 2016-17 calendar and the Montreal and New York dates were swapped, giving Montreal the additional significance of ending another successful season for Formula E.
The races went ahead as planned in July of this year, but were blighted by negative press and disturbed locals.
Montreal was treading in London’s footsteps, which held onto the championship-deciding rounds for the first two seasons before angry residents, environmental campaigners and users of Battersea Park worked with Wandsworth Council to get the event removed from the Victorian Grade II-listed park.
The Battersea Park circuit used roads within the park, meaning there was a minimum inconvenience for the rest of London. There was so little obstruction to daily life that the majority of London was actually unaware of the race, and there was little mention of the races in the non-specialist press.
The Montreal street circuit, however, was situated in the Downtown region of the city, meaning it used public roads that see daily traffic levels in the 10,000s. This attracted the ire of residents, businesses and commuters, and consisted of a far larger number than the group who opposed the use of Battersea Park.
Montreal, like many North American cities, has a road system based on grids, or ‘blocks’. This means that when roads are shut the disturbance can be minimised to a smaller area with far more ease than in cities like London, where the road system is several hundred years older and far more complex.
The Canadian city shares London’s affinity with the orange cones and ‘Rue Barrée’ (street closed) signs. But an FE circuit is slightly larger than a regular building site.
At least three kilometres of roads were shut over the weekend of the Montreal ePrix, in addition to the 2.75km of asphalt being used as the track itself.
With this level of manipulation to road usage, there was a greater and more far-reaching wave of inconvenience in the way of traffic flow, parking, business prosperity and resident welfare.
The city had signed a three-year contract with Formula E, which has now been terminated, with an option to renew the deal for another three years.
London is also believed to have held such a deal before breaking it two years in.
Unlike London, which had no realistic alternative venues, the Montreal Street Circuit sits just a small distance away from an iconic Formula 1 track: the Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve.
Politicians in opposition to the location of the race named this elephant in the room multiple times in the run-up to the first, and quite likely last, Montreal ePrix, and when the money spent on hosting FE is added to this argument, it makes the decision to host the championship in the first place even more questionable.
Radio-Canada, Canada’s national broadcaster, conducted an investigation in June that suggested that the other FE rounds on the calendar for season three were funded privately.
This meant that all costs were covered by the organisers and sponsors, and no public money was spent.
In Brussels, where this was not the case, the race folded before it was even held.
Montreal did things very differently with Mayor Denis Coderre, since unseated, using C$24 million (£14,641,807) of taxpayer’s money for the first running of the event.
The breakdown of the costs (according to Radio-Canada) can be seen below (the exchange rate at the time of the ePrix was about C$1.64 to £1):
- Building/dismantling of track: C$9,000,000
- Nomination fees for City of Montreal: C$151,000
- Approval of the track: C$226,000
- First payment of race fees: C$1,500,000
- Salaries and other costs to organization responsible for the Montreal, c’est electrique event: C$250,000
- Protection of the track (concrete barriers and fences): C$7,500,000
- Citizen compensation for parking: C$80,000
- Road work: C$4,400,000
- Engineering services: C$450,000
- Work inspection: C$250,000
Two of the most divisive spending areas on that list is the track protection and road work.
Improvement to the roads the track used meant they were closed for far longer than the race weekend itself, although Coderre defended this inconvenience on the provision that they needed to be improved regardless of FE’s presence.
The C$7,500,000 (£4,588,886) cheque for trackside protection was also attacked, as there were barriers and fencing located at the Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve that could’ve been rented at a much lower price.
Montreal City spokesperson Anik de Repentigny defended the acquisition of the new barriers, telling the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) that they were built to FE’s standards and that using the ones located at the F1 circuit was implausible due to concerns they would be damaged if moved.
She then said that the new barriers would last up to three times longer than regular ones, which do not normally last longer than five years. They could then be reused at the Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve.
Several million dollars is a mighty investment, and the fact that residents were being squeezed out of their own cash to fund it was, and still is, seen as a mockery, and was used as an opportunity for political opponents of the Mayor Coderre.
The Canadian Grand Prix, held at the Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve since 1982, penned a deal in 2014 worth $187 million (£114,416,232) to hold the race for 10 years. This was also funded with public money, including money federal state reserves, and is considered a bargain in the world of F1.
A stipulation of this deal was that the circuit must undergo upgrades to keep it viable for modern F1. These will cost at least C$30 million (£18,355,545), and are set to be undertaken next summer, and have so far been receiving a far less hostile response from the Canadian public than the FE deal did.
Although the ePrix attracted tourists from across the globe, the race had a negative impact on local businesses, which was noticeable from both reading the press and while on foot.
Anything within the circuit was cut off entirely, and the shops that lined the outside of the circuit lost access to their car parks, terraces and most importantly their customers.
The large trackside barriers, littered with adverts or blue fabric sheets days before the weekend of the ePrix, meant that finding these businesses was made increasingly difficult.
Several made claims that they lost tens of thousands of dollars, although some were offered monetary compensation worth $2,000 and two tickets to the Montreal ePrix, or a kiosk within the circuit (such as Italian restaurant La Diva) to provide fans with refreshments.
This was not available to everyone though. The La Mer fishmonger was not even contacted about the event, and it felt the lack of exposure harder than most as the majority of its products had an indefinite display life.
“We’re trying our best to let customers know that we’re still open, and they can come. We know it’s a little difficult to get here,” said employee Alexander Meletakos in the run-up to the ePrix weekend.
“But it’s a huge stress, because you know, we can’t keep this fish another week.”
The Saint-André Hotel, a two-minute walk away from the circuit, had one of its poorest performing weekends of the summer, and the majority of its visitors were initially unaware of the event.
Businesses make money, and some of that money ends up in the hands of the Montreal council through tax. With less business, the city will be receiving less income, and it is to be seen if it will be made up for by an increase in the consumers using other shops, restaurants and retailers over the race weekend.
The barriers remained in some areas for almost 10 days after the race, and despite living in a world where online presence rules, it is the physical presence of these businesses that dictate whether they are successful or not.
As already mentioned, the closure of roads to necessitate the track was probably the most frustrating aspect for Montrealers.
Some of the streets surrounding the circuit became resident-only for parking, but many of those streets entirely banned parking for the full duration of the race weekend.
This prolonged the commute home for many people, and some became dependent on the three Julius Baer-branded walkways that crossed the circuit to make it to their properties. According to some reports, only one of these had disabled access.
Two exits off the Ville-Marie Expressway, Montreal’s busiest road, were shut, and access to the Jacques Cartier Bridge was cut off in several places.
Police were also allocated to the intersections affected by the moment track construction began, a further expense to the public.
When FE first launched, a race in the heart of London was always part of the plan. Britain was one of the most influential countries in the world in the automotive industry, had a great motorsport history and was looking to improve its green image.
Agag and his colleagues loved it so much that the championship chose to locate itself at the Donington Park circuit in Leicestershire.
Montreal was not one of the target cities initially named, but the newly elected Mayor Denis Coderre and his self-named party had other ideas.
Coderre wanted to put Montreal back on the global map, and he saw an FE race in the Downtown area as a perfect way of presenting his vision for the city.
That decision proved to be deeply unpopular, and in the last year the most dissatisfied streets have become a battleground for the different parties in Montreal.
In May 2015 it was reported that Montreal was set to hold the first round of the 2016-17 season of FE.
Both Agag and Coderre made statements, and Coderre’s rhetoric suggested that nothing was going to halt his FE dream.
“There will be a Formula E in Montreal — I have already negotiated that with the promoter,” said Coderre. “In my head, it’s taken care of. It’s not an ‘if,’ it’s a ‘when’.
“When I was in the paddocks with the drivers, where you have 11 out of 20 that have raced in the Formula 1 race in Montreal, they were ecstatic. They said: ‘Montreal is the place, it’s in the top three in the world for F1.’ So it will not be hard to convince the directors as well for the need for an urban course in Montreal.”
It took just over a year but he did indeed convince the executive directors of FE to let him hold a race. It now sat as the penultimate venue of season 3, and a few months later the track layout was revealed.
The event then swapped dates with New York, meaning it became the last venue on the calendar and thus the likely championship decider. Another plus point for Montreal.
Coderre did not consult the residents of Montreal though, and as more and more of the details surrounding the event entered the public domain, most importantly the price, the mood turned especially sour.
At least 5000 residents are “directly affected” by FE’s presence, and this lit the fire in the bellies of the political opposition in Montreal.
In the month running up to the race, the streets became a battleground for politicians, and the Montreal ePrix unwittingly became a proto-referendum on Coderre’s vision for Montreal and how he executes it.
This may seem a little excessive, but in November the election for the Mayor of the city occurred, and the candidates capitalised on the anger caused by FE.
Projet Montreal leader Valérie Plante held a press conference at one of the restaurants hit by the race back in the summer, stating that “the city is spending too much on a race that will hem in residents, paralyse part of downtown and harm merchants.”
She went on to win the election and has been the one to end Montreal’s involvement with FE.
Her initial stance was “to review the agreement badly negotiated by the mayor [Coderre] so that the event will take place at an appropriate location – the Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve.”
This has changed in recent weeks, and on Monday afternoon in Canada, a press conference was called to announced the cancellation of the Montreal ePrix with immediate effect.
Coderre was quick to respond to comments in the summer spurning the race event, and at least once a week made a statement defending them. In this case, he made it clear that hosting the ePrix on the F1 track would have been more expensive, an argument that has since become moot.
In his eyes, it was also in the spirit, and possibly in the rules, of FE that the races were held in the city itself. A Berlin-esque airfield-based track was off the cards.
Had Coderre thought flexibly on the matter, FE may still be in the city he used to govern.
City councillor, and former leader of Projet Montreal Richard Bergeron, used a different tack to attract voters: handing out free tickets door-to-door to the constituents of his downtown district of Saint-Jacques.
The move was slated by his colleagues, and many residents were not duped by the move, saying they were little compensation for the inconveniences they were suffering because of the race and that they were paid for by the taxpayer anyway.
Despite being part of an opposition party, Bergeron worked closely with Coderre to assist in organising the Montreal ePrix, and believed the C$24,000,000 (£14,684,436) of public money spent on it was worthwhile.
The Mayor’s team indicated that free tickets were always part of the plan, and households “directly affected” were offered two tickets (with a parking pass and 10-day bus passes).
Like in London it is a minority of Montreal that opposes the ePrix. However, this minority is far larger, has concerns that affect livelihoods of people in an area much greater, and just happens to sit on the doorstep of the city offices of Canada’s national broadcaster.
While in office, Coderre often praised his city’s green credentials. Electrification can be seen across all of Montreal’s forms of public transport, and FE promoted that process even more.
On the Friday before the championship decider, the city was awarded the Smart Cities Award for efforts in green transportation by the FIA.
Coderre was very assertive on what this meant. “The changes we see here in favour of more sustainable, intelligent and service-oriented mobility will find echoes elsewhere in the world driven by Montreal’s assumed leadership.”
The move towards electrification can only be praised, and it highlighted Coderre’s political style: it’s all about the image.
Mayor Coderre and his team lobbied for the race because they wanted it to promote Montreal’s status as a hub for transport electrification.
Besides the road closures, FE’s arrival was made known through a large advertising programme, in complete contrast to the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ coverage of the London rounds.
Jaguar’s FE car graced most billboards on the way to the city from the airport, and in the centre of Montreal was an enlarged version of the same advert draped down several stories of a building.
The Metro was also plastered in posters, and some of the trains/guided busways ran special liveries celebrating the arrival of FE to the city.
A city that puts effort into promoting one of its events looks far more enthusiastic than one that doesn’t, yet there were a number of people who were still unaware that a part of the city was being taken over for a weekend.
In speeches, the Mayor made multiple comparisons to Expo ’67, an event that put Montreal on the map just as the tendrils of modern globalisation began.
The Expo, and the Olympics held almost a decade later, were big money makers, but also used a lot of public funding and are projects Canadians ideally do not want to repeat.
FE wasn’t even the only event during the race weekend. The International Fireworks Festival (a feature since 1985) was in full swing, and there was also a separate festival and a show. Coderre wanted the world’s attention on Montreal.
When the race was confirmed back in July 2016, an attendance of 60,000 was identified, with a predicted TV audience of over 19,000,000.
That first number officially decreased, and FE events have a track record of overstating attendance anyway.
In an attempt to boost interest in the sport itself, Coderre publicly showed passion for FE as a spectator and was irritated that there were not more people discussing the title battle between Sebastien Buemi and Lucas di Grassi that will be decided in his city.
Meetings between the incumbent mayor Valérie Plante and Alejandro Agag’s team at FE started off promisingly, with the expectation that the Montreal ePrix would move to the F1 track.
Discussions were expected to continue into early 2018, and it took the FE side by surprise when Plante terminated the agreement earlier this week.
For Plante though, it made perfect sense. There is no incentive for her to run a continuation of the Coderre administration. The event was unpopular and caused great disturbance to a city that already had multiple things going for it, and perhaps most importantly, the race promoter has failed to pay FE for hosting the event.
The 2017 running also struggled to attract sponsorship, with state-owned utility company Hydro-Quebec acting as the title sponsor. Another instance of taxpayers money going towards an ultimately doomed project.
Formula E’s outlook
For FE, whose calendar has already changed significantly since its first season, losing its championship decider again will be a huge PR setback.
It initially seemed unlikely to happen, but as the most public display of disaccord with the series’ presence in a location so far, it wasn’t long before the race got the cut.
One less long-haul flight may be appreciated by the teams, but the Montreal circuit quickly established itself as a favourite for the drivers and will be sorely missed by several.
Agag’s claims that ‘100s of cities have shown interest’ may well ring true, but the failure of possibly two of the biggest could change that.
Agag has not commented on the issue of Montreal residents, it is after all not his city, and if he did take responsibility he’d collectively have a lot of people worldwide who have felt worse off the back of FE.
The championship has a steady flow of good news stories to drown these quarrels anyway, with two giants in Mercedes and Porsche joining the series in Season 6, simultaneously striking a painful blow to DTM and the World Endurance Championship where those two brands are currently based.
Both Coderre and Agag had the same aim, they want to see their handiwork recognised as the world leader.
All interviews with politicians and pricing are from CBC/Radio-Canada