The decadence and decay of the Montreal Grand Prix

As we try to work for a better future, the Grand Prix represents everything we should leave behind.

Every year the summer festival season in Montreal begins with the Grand Prix. A scourge for the average Montrealer, the event caters instead to the wealthy jet-set who descend on the city centre for a week of garish decadence. Brands host lavish parties, Westmount floods with late-’90s Euro dance hits and Peel is polluted with discarded product samples. The Grand Prix is an event marked by pit-stains, heavy cologne and flashes of Ferrari red; it is an indecent demonstration of wealth and power.

While the city and province insist the event brings in huge revenues and helps put Montreal on the map, what is the real cost of hosting a Formula One event in 2019?

Your typical Grand Prix party takes place in a darkened room. Men on vacation from their families press into beautiful statuesque women trying to sell overpriced champagne. The only lights are camera flashes and dollar store sparklers. As celebrations inevitably spill onto the street after 3 a.m., men try to buy young women as peanut butter ramen spills over their white sneakers. Every human interaction is an opportunity for a transaction and the worst impulses of capitalism are out to play.

If Montreal was largely built as a city of the future, it becomes a particularly dystopic landscape for this brand of decadence. The hulking brutalist architecture and the shadows of Expo 67, crumbling and stained, emphasize the crude celebration of social collapse. Montreal’s modernist dream of a sustainable future becomes a nightmare of social inequality and environmental disaster.

Most information about the money the Grand Prix brings into the city is anecdotal. Local businesses surrounding the many festival locations benefit the most directly but taxpayer money is nonetheless squandered on the event. While the federal and provincial governments have insisted it draws in a huge amount of tax dollars, a 2015 survey suggests that the Grand Prix represents a loss of about $10-million for tax-payers.

When presented with these facts, politicians argued that the event was about prestige. “The Grand Prix helps put Montreal on the map,” they argued. For those who aren’t forced to experience the Grand Prix weekend, perhaps the idea of it is imbued with a certain amount of glamour. It evokes European aristocrats and luxury brands, enforcing the idea of Montreal as a slice of Europe in North America. From the inside though, it is an absolute horror show of consumerism and greed.

I say this as someone who does see the beauty in the actual race. Like horseback riding, there is drama, danger and poetry to Formula One racing. It is an event that similarly unfolds on the edge of politics; rivalries and personalities dominate. With the introduction of first-person cameras to the event, it offers the experience of living a life that isn’t yours by channelling a supernatural experience of flying. But is the beauty of the sport enough to justify the toxic kingdom it invites into Montreal?

Formula One racing is a sport plagued with corruption and scandal. It has a bad history of neglecting the safety of its athletes; its leadership has been accused of bribery and criminality; the industry safely guards its environmental impact. The race often coincides with “bad air days.” While the Formula One representatives have argued the environmental impact is negligible, the industry has been tight-lipped about releasing any actual emission numbers. The large increase of private jets flying into the city doesn’t help either.

Based on the most recent Global Environmental Outlook report, a study released by the UN earlier this year, we are facing an environmental disaster. The climate crisis is causing an unprecedented amount of death and displacement and without major social change will only get worse. How much worse does it need to get before we start turning away from something like the Grand Prix, which relies on and promotes the fossil fuel industry? The Grand Prix is fundamentally tied to the practices and values that have contributed to the current crisis.

There is nothing fundamentally “good” about the Grand Prix. If anything, it encourages the worst impulses that have drawn us towards environmental collapse: consumerism and extravagance. It privileges the desires of the most wealthy and powerful, those who will likely stave off environmental disaster longer than the rest of us, seated on their pile of money in their climate-controlled compounds.

When the only justification for keeping the race in Montreal is money, it’s time to reconsider its presence in our city. Especially if, as citizens, we are losing tax money to the event we have to consider our dignity. As we try to work for a better future, the Grand Prix represents everything we should leave behind. ■