The Montreal paddock seems a strange place, insofar that it doesn't really exist in comparison to the European races. A rowing pond runs behind the pits - remnant of the economically crippling 1976 Olympic games - and instead of a row of gleaming, multi-coloured motorhomes each of the teams have a couple of caravans along its length with picnic furniture in between to sit down.
You could see the relative wealth as you walk down the paddock: Ferrari have a jungle of plants in theirs, necessitating a guide or a machete to find your way through to the seats, and the floral life dwindles along the way until you reach Minardi's hospitality area, which has a couple of chairs, no flowers on the table, and some umbrellas that they might have found somewhere else.
There is a laneway running the full length of the paddock, and walking along it is like walking down a back alley between some houses in the suburbs: wooden lattice fences hide the actual pits from the lane so that you cannot peer over into the neighbour's house, and the picnic tables are on the other side of the lane. Last weekend, it was hard to tell which enclosure belonged to which team, as there weren't any signs up anywhere, and other than remembering the order of the 2002 Constructors' Championship the only way to tell them apart was to look at the uniforms on display. Which made it tricky when someone from another team came to visit.
The media centre in Montreal is also very different from what I've become used to. It's far smaller than those on the European circuits, broken over two floors in the control tower for the race, and with everyone squeezed together wherever they could find a seat. We found a place on the second floor and immediately over the podium, which brought a smile to my face as soon as I looked out the window. We were surrounded by the Italian media, and their non-stop chatter made me feel at home immediately.
At Montreal, I started to feel that I belonged in the paddock at last. Walking anywhere, I recognised people I had seen at the other races and they recognised me - I would get a nod here or a hello there, and some people actually remembered my name. The original idea for this column was thought up during the Canadian Grand Prix last year by la redattrice, and by a nice quirk of fate I could sense that I was starting to be accepted in the paddock a year on from that fateful trip.
Montreal is generally seen as a bit of a holiday for those not attached to a race team, a chance to relax after the hectic blur of Monaco, to soak up the sun before the silly season of driver moves starts in earnest. It rained pretty much non-stop all weekend, other than race day, and the gloom this brought was elevated by what became known as The Press Conference.
I was out stalking in the rain, collecting quotes, when the team principals' Friday press conference was held, because I didn't think anything of note would come of it. Walking back from the cafeteria at lunchtime, we had wondered if an entire race weekend could go by without any news to report, and while talking to Antonio Pizzonia I decided that it could, until I started listening to the television in the Jaguar enclosure and heard Paul Stoddart talking. Some of the mechanics came over to see what I was watching, and we all stood there transfixed.
The end result was a story about politics, money and intense inter-team rivalries, which didn't get reported in the daily newspapers (too difficult to explain in the limited space available) but had the entire paddock in uproar all weekend.
I spent the rest of the weekend standing under an umbrella being held by Stoddart, getting drips down my neck while I asked him what it all meant to his team, or transcribing the resultant interviews in the media centre until after nine every night. I will be happy not to hear another Australian accent for a month or two - it's lucky that we can't hear our own voices as others do.
On Friday evening, Minardi's beleaguered press officer Graham Jones stepped into the media centre, handing out the post-qualifying comments sheet as usual. "Hey Graham," veteran journalist Mike Doodson called towards him, "have you ever had a boss commit suicide live on television before?" Members of the press around the room snickered joyfully, as Jones smiled before replying: "Err, no... Not that I recall."
The joy of having a press pass was never more evident than in Montreal, where I could get out of the rain occasionally by going upstairs to the media centre. All weekend there were a few hardy souls in the opposite grandstand looking as miserable as a sack of rats in a river, waiting in vain for some action on the track. At least they all had hats on - praise the Lord for BAR, who have been helping Canadians dress better since their rebrand last year.
The support races were doleful affairs due to the weather, with everyone running as slowly as possible so as to avoid falling off the road, and most of them failing even at this task. In fact, the quality of driving on the Formula One grid can be seen in the relatively small number of incidents they had in their highly powered cars, in comparison to the young pretenders in their lower quality steeds.
But the best thing about having a race in a place like Montreal is that it's right in the heart of a city, with all the distractions this implies.
It's hard to have a social life when you're a Formula One journalist, and the opportunity to have some fun with friends becomes a rarity. One guy I know prints out special calendars with the races marked off so that his friends and family don't organise anything important on those weekends. Another guy circulates a spreadsheet by e-mail, which is funny in a computer geek kind of way. They complain when somebody arranges a function on a race weekend that they can't attend because of work. Well, I live in Milan while amore mio lives in New York; the way I see it, all the other journalists can just shut the hell up.
Atlas F1's Will Gray had his birthday over the weekend - another unavoidable hazard for an F1 journalist - and this became our excuse to go out as often as possible (were an excuse was needed). If you must have your birthday during a Grand Prix weekend, Montreal is certainly the place to have it, with any number of restaurants and bars fighting for your custom (of course, being British, Will demanded a curry buffet for his birthday feast). And so, a late finish at the track translated into later nights on the town, and our local friends made sure we avoided the tourist traps and saw some of the places the natives keep to themselves.
Canadians are like Americans with politeness set to stun. At Dorval airport, for example, I noticed a sign stating 'fire, do not enter', and I thought how very Canadian that was - I'm surprised they didn't say 'please' at the end.
Montreal itself is a fantastic city - it's as though the East Village in New York got fed up with the East River one day and went for a walk, found a nice clean river and sat itself down next to it and declared itself a new town. There's the downtown area, which they grudgingly tolerate because every city has to have somewhere for people to work; the old town filled with small cobblestoned streets and expensive knick knack stores for overly moneyed tourists; the Saint Laurent area with its restaurants and bars all waiting to be featured in a photo shoot in Wallpaper magazine (and, usefully, it gives all the models somewhere to hang out so as not to annoy real people); and further up the hill there is Mont Royal, my favourite part of town, where all the artists and writers live in their terrace houses, the iron railed stairs winding around the buildings along every street.
One night we were taken to a bar on Saint Laurent called GoGos, a dayglo delight where we were introduced to the owner before pushing through the heaving throb of a crowd. It was brilliant - stuffed full of kids from the local universities dancing ironically to early eighties songs that you don't usually hear outside of bad weddings, on every available space, including tables and the bar. Somehow we were shoved into a booth and drinks appeared at regular intervals, and we all grinned like we were teenagers again, getting into a club with a friend's driver's licence.
We stayed until the DJ made the fatal mistake of playing Bon Jovi and Aerosmith back to back - every man has his limit, and that was mine. But it was fun, and it made me think about the older journalists in the paddock who often complain that the Formula One lifestyle isn't what it once was. Maybe the drivers don't go out and hit the town with the journalists anymore, but the life is there if you want to enjoy it. We are living a life that I could have only dreamed of before the end of last year, and as hard as it can be, it's also fun. And I want to lead a life of few regrets.
So we shipped in every day by media shuttle along a potholed dirt road at the back of the island, worked non-stop, and then shipped out again in the late hours of the evening to hit the town. Almost every race on the calendar has shuttles for the media from the parking lot to the media centre. Sometimes it's a short trip and the shuttle merely saves you the hassle of carrying your laptop up the hill; in Montreal, it was really the only feasible way of getting to the paddock.
The shiny silver Mercedes vans used for shuttles at the European races, with their slick F1 logo in place of a license plate, were replaced with ugly maroon-coloured vans on rent from a local hotel in downtown Montreal. Every morning we'd go to the pick-up point, squinting and yawning, as other journalists would gather and wait for the van to fill up. The vans never left less than full, so we would wait outside while the van's driver gasped down a cigarette and waited.
"Excuse me, you're in our seats," la redattrice huffed one morning at a woman who walked into the shuttle and sat herself down next to our bags, left to mark our territory. "So sorry!" the woman breezily replied before moving up front next to the driver.
"That was Frank Williams's wife, by the way," I advised la redattrice when we finally got to the paddock. "Oh…" came the stoney-faced reply, and oddly enough she kept insisting thereafter that I go to the Williams media meetings, and was herself never seen again around their hospitality area.
The media shuttle also gave us an unexpected treat when on one of the nights, with the Montreal sun fighting meekly through the clouds to give us a watery sunset around the downtown sky scrapers, we took a shortcut to the main road through the race track itself. For the second race in a row that we found ourselves, without warning, driving on the route that just a few hours later would see 20 v10 engines screaming through. I don't think this is something you can get used to.
The Canadian Grand Prix was certainly the most intense weekend we've had this year - and by far the race where we managed to get the most work done, as well as having the most fun. My Dad used to tell me that hard work is its own reward, and I'm starting to see his point - every night I was tired but happy, and keen to get back into work again the next day. There's not too many jobs that give you that sort of satisfaction.
And on Sunday I had the three top finishers dancing around in a champagne shower two metres away from me. It's a strange thing to see at such close quarters - I've seen them celebrate like this hundreds of times before on television, but standing so close they seem so normal, so happy to be there, and it seemed almost rude to intrude on their glee. I looked at the monitors a few times out of habit before realising that it is filming the men just next to me, that I didn't actually need to look at the television. Sometimes things don't seem real until they're on a screen.
Over the next few hours there was a steady stream of people walking up to the podium to take their photo to prove to the folks back home that they were there. It was always the men that had their photo taken by their girlfriends, never the other way around; perhaps women don't have the requisite foolish gland required to jump around like an idiot for a photo. I was the only one in the press room to notice them - all around me I could hear nothing but a hundred hands striking laptop keyboards, the keystrikes sounding like a rainstorm on a window.
We left the track for the last time as the dusk was drawing its cloak around us. The grandstands so recently full shone bright like a steel guitar, and the seagulls were already gliding and swooping, looking for a meal left behind. We walked around the rowing pond to the shuttle as darkness descended, the lights coming on over the remains of the paddock and the casino behind it. It was beautiful, like a postcard you'll never see, and a perfect finish to the weekend. We hopped into the shuttle and let the town wash past us on the way to another restaurant and another night on the town.
I'm getting the hang of this life.