Montreal's Formula E kicks off to thin crowds, but picks up as race begins

A thin crowd in the stands the Formula E qualifying on René-Lévesque St., on Saturday July 29, 2017. (Pierre Obendrauf / MONTREAL GAZETTE) Pierre Obendrauf / Montreal Gazette

The weather was picture perfect, but attendance was sparse early during a practice session for the Formula E electric car race in east-central Montreal.

As the race got underway, TV images showed mostly full grandstands, but not packed.

Earlier, Jean-Philippe Nadeau, 30, and Charlaine Delorme, 31, both of Gatineau, watched the qualifying run for the Hydro-Québec Quebec Montreal ePrix Saturday.

Both said they enjoyed it just as much as Formula One.

“The atmosphere is different. It’s calmer, because of the noise,” said Delorme, a hairdresser, referring to the much quieter electric cars.

“It’s more of a family event,” she added.

Retired elementary schoolteacher Nicole Brûlé, 64, of Blainville, said the race lacked some of the excitement of F1.

“It’s relaxing for the ears. All you hear is the squeaking of the wheels,” said Brûlé, who attends the F1 every year.

She was disappointed when Swiss driver Sébastien Buemi crashed into a wall during the practice.

“I really like Buemi,” she said.

Nadeau, who operates a wood business with his brother, said ticket prices were a bargain compared to F1.

He paid $135 for two tickets for both days. The cost of admission ranged from $45 to $131.50 for one day and from $72 to $212 for both days.

But while spectators felt they got their money’s worth, the question is whether Montrealers will think so when the two-day event is over.

The city paid at least $24 million to host the race, including the cost of building and dismantling the track, fees and salaries.

The Opposition Projet Montréal party has criticized Mayor Denis Coderre for spending $7.5 million on new concrete barriers to line the racetrack. The Coderre administration has also come under fire for distributing thousands of free tickets to the event.

The Société de transport de Montréal offered free rides on the métro, buses and Bixi bikes all weekend, forgoing an estimated $1.1 million in fares.

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Lucas Di Grassi of Brazil heads toward the finish line on his way to winning pole position for the Montreal Formula E race, in Montreal on Saturday, July 29, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz  Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS

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Lonely fans watch practice from the grandstand near Papineau and Viger Aves. at the Formula E site in Montreal on Saturday, July 29, 2017.  Pierre Obendrauf/Montreal Gazette

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Sebastien Buemi, of Switzerland, checks the damage to his car after crashing into the barrier in the second practice session at the Montreal Formula ePrix electric car race, in Montreal on Saturday, July 29, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Boland  Tom Boland/THE CANADIAN PRESS

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ABT Schaeffler FE02 driver Lucas Di Grassi, of Brazil, rounds the track to take pole position during Day 1 qualifying at the Montreal Formula ePrix electric car race, in Montreal on Saturday, July 29, 2017.  Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS

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Lucas Di Grassi, of Brazil, celebrates after winning the pole position for the Montreal Formula ePrix electric car race, in Montreal on Saturday, July 29, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz  Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS

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Cones, fences and detours around the Formula E site in Montreal on Saturday, July 29, 2017.  Pierre Obendrauf/Montreal Gazette

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A Montreal police officer stands on corner of De Maisonneuve Blvd. and St-Denis St. to direct traffic during the qualifying round of the Formula E on Saturday July 29, 2017. (Pierre Obendrauf / MONTREAL GAZETTE)  Pierre Obendrauf/Montreal Gazette

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Man walks away from his home near the Formula E track, near the corner of Papineau Ave. and René-Lévesque St., prior to the practice round on Saturday July 29, 2017. (Pierre Obendrauf / MONTREAL GAZETTE)  Pierre Obendrauf/Montreal Gazette

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Anti-Coderre window dressing in a building on Viger Ave. near the Formula E site in Montreal on Saturday, July 29, 2017.  Pierre Obendrauf/Montreal Gazette

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Fans head through security to get to the Formula E site at the corner of Papineau and Viger Aves. in Montreal on Saturday, July 29, 2017.  Pierre Obendrauf/Montreal Gazette

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A crowd gathers around the electric truck that was unveiled by the city of Montreal at the Formula E track, on Saturday July 29, 2017. (Pierre Obendrauf / MONTREAL GAZETTE)  Pierre Obendrauf/Montreal Gazette

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Cars on René Lévesque try to negotiate orange cones as they make their way east on Wednesday, July 26, 2017. The road will be part of the E Formula race over the weekend.  Pierre Obendrauf/Montreal Gazette

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A thin crowd in the stands the Formula E qualifying on René-Lévesque St., on Saturday July 29, 2017. (Pierre Obendrauf / MONTREAL GAZETTE)  Pierre Obendrauf/Montreal Gazette

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Race fans pack the paddock during the open house for the Formula E in Montreal on Friday, July 28, 2017.  Allen McInnis/Montreal Gazette

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A race fan explains the action in the pits to his young son as the Virgin racing team prepares their cars during the open house for the Formula E in Montreal on Friday, July 28, 2017.  Allen McInnis/Montreal Gazette

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A large screen displays race action along Viger St. during the open house for the Formula E in Montreal on Friday, July 28, 2017.  Allen McInnis/Montreal Gazette

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Sam Bird of Virgin Racing speaks with team members as mechanics assemble his race car during the open house for the Formula E in Montreal on Friday, July 28, 2017.  Allen McInnis/Montreal Gazette

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Race fans pack the paddock during the open house for the Formula E in Montreal on Friday, July 28, 2017.  Allen McInnis/René Lévesque

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Neighbouring residents get to watch the Formula E qualifying from their balcony on René Lévesque St., on Saturday July 29, 2017. (Pierre Obendrauf / MONTREAL GAZETTE)  Pierre Obendrauf/Montreal Gazette

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Empty concession stands at the Formula E track, near the corner of Papineau Ave. and René-Lévesque St., prior to the practice round on Saturday July 29, 2017. (Pierre Obendrauf / MONTREAL GAZETTE)  Pierre Obendrauf/Montreal Gazette

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A man is silhouetted against the screening on one of several layers of fencing surrounding the Formula E race track in Montreal on Friday July 28, 2017.  Allen McInnis/René Lévesque

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An Audi team mechanic dives head first into car preparation during the open house for the Formula E in Montreal on Friday, July 28, 2017.  Allen McInnis/Montreal Gazette

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A Jaguar Racing mechanic puts the finishing touches on a car during the open house for the Formula E in Montreal on Friday, July 28, 2017.  Allen McInnis/Montreal Gazette

“Coderre is an egoist,” said Jean-Pierre Labonté, 71, who lives in a subsidized housing project for seniors in the Centre-Sud neighbourhood, near the temporary racetrack along René Lévesque Blvd. and Viger St., between Berri St. and Papineau Ave.

“He takes himself for Mayor (Jean) Drapeau,” added Labonté, a retired postal clerk, referring to the mayor responsible for giving the city the métro, Expo 67 and the 1967 Olympics.

“There’s no comparison, come on! We have every nation in the world here (during Expo),” Labonté said.

But other Montrealers were happy to get a peek of the action.

Abdelhak Zerguini, 28, was among a small crowd outside the racetrack watching through the metal fence.

“It’s not the same adrenaline (as F1),” said Zerguini, a PhD student in telecommunications.

But he said the new sport is “surely better for the environment.”

Laurent Heard, 64, a retired Bell Canada technician from Repentigny, was also curious about the sport.

“It’s worth the trip,” said Hérard, who drove downtown with his bicycle in his car, and then rode it to the site.

Sitting in the stands, Allison and Rick Cwiakala of Boston and their children Aberlin, 8, and Ethan, 5, were enjoying the sights and sounds.

“It’s better because it goes faster,” Ethan said of the brightly coloured electric cars.

His father Rick is an engineer with a professional interest in electric cars because he works for a manufacturer of advanced batteries for the electric grid.

“It’s new and exciting,” he said.

Related

Even though the crowd looked sparse in the early part of the day, Renato Bisignani, a media spokesperson for Formula E, said organizers were happy with attendance.

“I’m in the E Village now and it is packed,” he said.

Attendance figures would not be calculated until the end of the day, he said.

Usually, 70 per cent of spectators for the sport are local residents, with the remainder coming from outside, he said.

“On the basis of our experience through this event it is a mix of both, but predominantly local because we are a new event,” he said.

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