In 1995, when Jean Alesi scored his one and only F1 victory at the Grand Prix du Canada in Montreal, fans of the driver went crazy.
Seconds after he crossed the finish line, hundreds – and soon thousands – of overexcited spectators spilled over the safety fences surrounding the circuit and went out on the track.
The problem wasn’t that they were out there. The problem was that the cars were still racing.
Hundreds were on the main straight when Michael Schumacher and Olivier Panis, who were fighting for fourth place, came around the final corner and headed for the start/finish line. Nobody was hit, but it was close.
The FIA was not amused and warned the Canadian organizers that if there was ever a repeat of that scene, that the financial penalty would be heavy and, if the situation was deemed serious enough, that the country could lose its Grand Prix.
So the next year, in 1996, organizers were ready for any tom-foolery.
About three laps from the end, with Damon Hill leading our own Jacques Villeneuve toward a 1-2 finish for the Williams-Renault team, there were suddenly dozens of brawny young men standing with their backs to the fences and looking up at the crowd.
All the way around the circuit, and particularly near the podium, these muscle-bound men wearing brown shirts, brown shorts and army boots – in fact, in my Globe and Mail article I referred to them as “brownshirts” – dared anybody in the crowd to try to get anywhere near the racing surface.
One false move, and the implication was that they would break you in half.
You hadn’t seen them before those closing laps. They had been standing up against the fence with other spectators, or sitting in grandstand seats, or been loitering behind the garages, but by some prearranged signal (or something) they had doffed whatever outerwear they had been wearing and were suddenly and dramatically “in uniform” and ready for action.
Montreal is on edge because of threats against the Grand Prix made earlier by students protesting tuition-fee increases. Nobody knows what to expect, although student leaders have since tried to play down any plans to interfere with the Grand Prix or any of Montreal’s other famous festivals (the Jazz and Just for Laughs).
Whatever, the Grand Prix will be ready. Francois Dumontier, president and CEO of Octane Motorsports Events, which promotes the F1 race, has said there will be a large police and security presence at Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve this weekend.
My bet is that you won’t see it. Oh, maybe the police will be visible but if 1996 is any guide, the “brownshirts” will be ready and waiting, but won’t show themselves unless there’s an emergency.
And let’s hope it never comes to that.