McLaren Toronto Road to the Canadian Grand Prix
It’s sometimes difficult to remember how lucky we are at Pfaff, working with and driving the cars we do on a daily basis. For the rest of the world, the sight of a McLaren supercar is a rare and precious event outside of a dealership, and to see a whole group of them is something special indeed. You don’t realize how special it is until you drive a McLaren in a rally full of McLarens, like we did recently. The event was called the Road to the Canadian Grand Prix – a two-day event put on by the team at Pfaff Automotive and McLaren Toronto, which brought together paying customers, their guests, and the team from the dealership and McLaren North America, in the week leading up to the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal.
The rally began early on a rain-soaked Tuesday morning at McLaren Toronto, where participants gathered for a quick driver’s briefing before hitting the road for Peterborough along scenic back roads. Supported by the dealership’s Audi SQ5 service loaner carrying a spare tire, excess luggage, and other supplies, a half-dozen McLarens caused a sensation at every intersection. It’s rare that you see one McLaren anywhere, so for the residents of some of the small towns we passed through, seeing a number of them all at once became quite an event. Our lunch stop was at the excellent Ashburnham Ale House in Peterborough, where a small crowd gathered at the parking lot across the street to shoot photos of the cars in the pouring rain.
After lunch, the afternoon’s drive took us north and east along some of Ontario’s prettiest two-lanes, cutting through the Kawartha Lakes region. While the rain never quite stopped, it did let up a bit, and drivers stopped a couple of times for photo opportunities and to chat with interested onlookers about their cars and the rally. One of these onlookers happened to be a friendly Ontario Provincial Police officer, who stopped the group to learn more about the rally and the minor sensation it was causing, and not because it was speeding. Indeed, the group of supercars, whose lowest power output was in the realm of over 560 horsepower, and whose most powerful participant had over 650, maintained a tame pace throughout the day – partly because of the weather, partly because they knew they’d have a chance to scratch their high-speed itch at the racetrack the next day.
The afternoon’s route took drivers along some of the great roads around Calabogie Motorsport Park to the Calabogie Peaks hotel for refreshments and snacks before swinging towards downtown Ottawa along highway 417, the group always surrounded by cars jockeying for position as a million camera phone images were shot. At day one’s end point, the Andaz Ottawa Byward Market, it was as if every car spotter in the city had been alerted about our arrival, a group of photographers gathering across the street from the hotel to snap photos. Everyone was unerringly friendly, and rally drivers spent time chatting with passers-by about their cars, explaining technical details to them and often letting them take a seat inside. It was then off to the excellent Restaurant E18hteen for dinner in a private back room before a good night’s sleep.
On day two, we were joined by a few more cars, Ottawa-area McLaren owners that were heading to Montreal for the Grand Prix weekend – one of which was driving an incredibly rare 650S Le Mans edition, one of only 50 in the world. After an early start, the group made a beeline along highway 50 for Circuit iCAR at the old Mirabel airport outside of Montreal, a multi-faceted complex for motorsport enthusiasts that features a dragrstrip, road course, driving simulators, and more.
For a couple the McLaren drivers, it was their first time at a racetrack of any kind – and for almost all of them, it was their first time at a dragstrip. Sam Henry, from McLaren North America, coached drivers on how to invoke launch control on their vehicles (drivetrain and suspension in Track mode; left foot hard on the brake until indicator lights up in the instrument panel; full throttle with the right foot; release left foot) to deliver a perfectly-executed standing start with just the right amount of wheelspin. Even for drivers used to high horsepower cars, a full-throttle, quarter-mile run is a huge rush, and a reminder of just how much performance is contained within the McLaren’s lightweight carbon-fibre structures: even the “entry-level” 570S is capable of running the quarter in under 11 seconds!
After lunch, the group headed out onto iCAR’s technical, challenging road circuit for a few controlled laps, which gave everyone a taste of the incredible stability and control the McLarens deliver when cornering. It was just a taste of the racing action to come at a nearby go-kart track, SR Karting, where everyone had a chance to unleash their inner hooligan in the fastest arrive-and-drive go-karts any of us had ever driven. Naturally, competition was fierce, especially in the final race where the starting grid was reversed, forcing the fastest drivers in the group to battle their way to the front. After three on-track sessions, every driver was grateful for the McLarens’ cosseting ride in comfort mode for the drive into Montreal.
One thing is for certain: the entire population of Montreal, whether or not they are car fans the rest of the year, completely embrace the grand prix weekend. The car culture during the lead-up to the big race is incredible, with supercars, vintage cars, and tuner vehicles running all over the city’s streets. We rolled into town during the most beautiful afternoon, and all felt like rock stars in the McLarens with their event decals. Check-in at the W Montreal was slowed by the crowds that gathered around the cars, and we caused similar chaos at a local car wash as the cars were cleaned up for the weekend.
The Road to the Canadian Grand Prix ended officially on Wednesday evening at Garde-Manger, one of Montreal’s best known, but most intimate restaurants, with a spectacular meal, amazing camaraderie, and stories being told about the last couple of days’ driving. Most participants stayed in Montreal for the rest of the weekend to take in the sights at the track and cheer on the McLaren Formula 1 team. But even for those who turned around and headed for home the next day, everyone agreed that – because of the drive, but also the company of the team from McLaren North America, Pfaff, and McLaren Toronto – it was one of the finest driving events they had ever participated in.