MONTREAL — The rhythm and routine of each Formula One race weekend is the same, whether the teams find themselves in Melbourne or Monza, Monaco or Montreal.
This season, the F1 travelling circus will visit 21 different countries, but the general outline of each event is always the same: press conference, practice, practice, press conference, practice, qualifying, press conference, race, press conference. Throw in a few media and sponsor commitments—and perhaps the occasional fashion show or yacht party—and you have a grand prix weekend.
Before all of that, though, before the drivers jump into their cars and begin lapping the circuit at speeds in excess of 300 km/h, comes a ritual known as the track walk.
It is exactly what the name suggests: the drivers and their engineers walk around the entire circuit, giving them a chance to examine the track close-up at low, low speed.
But what exactly goes on during a track walk? How important is it for the drivers, and what are they looking for?
To answer those questions, I joined Mercedes protege Pascal Wehrlein and his Manor Racing team for a stroll around the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on a cold, windy Thursday before the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal.
In fact, it was so cold, and threatening to rain, that the track walk was nearly scuttled before it began. I was waiting in the Manor hospitality unit with Tracy Novak, the team's PR and communications director, when Wehrlein appeared.
The average high temperature for Montreal in June is 23 degrees Celsius, per the World Weather Information Service. As we prepared to walk the 4.361-kilometre circuit, it was just a few degrees warmer than the 5-degree-Celsius race day in October 1978 when Gilles Villeneuve won the inaugural grand prix at the track that would eventually bear his name.
Not the most enticing weather for an hour-long walk.
But, following a brief scramble to find toques for Wehrlein and his team-mate, Rio Haryanto, we were off (how no one had thought to bring extra winter hats for a June weekend in Montreal is a mystery).
I asked Novak whether track walks were ever cancelled.
"Not really. Maybe if it's really pouring with rain."
Teams often post photos from their track walks on their social media accounts and, based on those, you might have a romantic idea of the drivers out there, scouring every inch of the circuit, looking for any possible tiny advantage.
The first thing I learned, though, is that the drivers are not really looking at the track—not in great detail, anyway. The real benefit of the track walk, according to Wehrlein, is to get away from the many, many distractions of the paddock and spend time alone with his engineers.
"It's good to spend time with the engineers with no interruptions," he said. "We never have an hour together with no distractions."
There were a few distractions before we actually made it to the track, though. On the Thursday of race weekend in Montreal, the organisers host an open house where fans can wander up and down the pit lane, watching the teams prepare the cars for Friday practice and meeting some of the drivers at an autograph booth.
Wehrlein's engineers, Edward Regan and Roberto Garcia, and his personal trainer, Fabrizio Maganzi, formed a cocoon around him so the young German could make it through the crowd without too many photo requests.
As we exited Turn 2, the Virage Senna, with the huge, empty grandstands looming over us, the noise from the pit lane started to fade. Soon we were surrounded by trees filled with singing birds, a reminder that, for the other 51 weeks each year, the Ile Notre Dame is a public park.
Novak and I hung back a short distance to give Wehrlein space to chat with his engineers. Meanwhile, every few minutes a packed bus drove by, loaded with fans heading to the open house. As they approached our small group, which also included Manor racing director Dave Ryan, they would strain to see who it was.
When they recognised Wehrlein—and the fans at the open house are the diehard type who would instantly recognise a 21-year-old rookie with just six F1 races (at that point) on his resume—their heads turned and smiles lit their faces. Some called out and Wehrlein would give a quick smile or wave to acknowledge them.
At Turn 6, the beginning of a long, left-right combination, Wehrlein walked up on the kerb on the inside of the corner, getting a feel for the height—perhaps not quite as high as Monza's, but definitely more substantial than the painted kerbs on some newer tracks. Everyone else stopped to look around.
Haryanto later said one of the most important things he is looking for while walking the circuit is the camber of the corners. "Sometimes watching a video, it doesn't look so dramatic, but walking the corner, you can see it," he said.
At the next chicane, Turns 8 and 9, Wehrlein dragged his feet over the kerbs and Ryan bent down to touch the newly installed, bright orange speed bump (or sleeping policeman), designed to keep drivers from cutting through the corners.
"It looks different, walking and driving it, always," Wehrlein said.
"Walking the track, you think you can drive over a kerb, but the first time you do it in the car, you realize you can't."
Wehrlein's engineers sandwiched him for most of the lap, referring constantly to the papers they carried, reminding their driver about engine modes and brake balances and other adjustments he needed to make at various corners.
As we made the turn at the hairpin and started up the long straight to the pit entrance and the final corner, we saw Sebastian Vettel and his Ferrari engineers following us on the other side of the track.
I asked Ryan if he usually accompanies his drivers on their track walks. "Very rarely," he replied, "but this track is so neat."
And indeed it is. Just a 10-minute subway ride to downtown Montreal, but separated from the city by the quick-moving Saint Lawrence River, the circuit is built on a man-made island just barely big enough to house all the infrastructure necessary for an F1 race (in fact, part of the paddock is built on stilts over the adjacent Olympic rowing basin). The track is so close to the city that, back in the V10 engine era, you could hear the high-pitched roar of the cars across the river in the downtown streets.
Upon reaching the final chicane, Ryan felt the tyre barriers at the Wall of Champions (Wehrlein, remember, is the reigning German touring car champ). The covering over the tyres looked soft, but it wasn't.
"It would still break a car," Ryan said.
Meanwhile, Vettel passed us and stopped to say a quick hello to Wehrlein, who was born in Sigmaringen, near the Swiss border, about 250 kilometres south of Vettel's hometown, Heppenheim.
I asked Wehrlein if he ever learned anything from a track walk that he was able to use during the race, but he said no.
"When I was younger, maybe 16 or 17, I thought, 'Maybe I can do a corner differently from what I saw guys doing in the onboard video,'" he explained, "But once you drive the circuit, you realize you can't."
The track walk is important to the drivers and their engineers, but for different reasons than you might think. "It's good to refresh the mind and see some changes to the circuit," Haryanto said.
By the end of our walk, the crowd had started to thin in the pit lane. As Wehrlein wound through the fans waiting for buses to take them back to the subway station, he stopped occasionally for a quick photo before disappearing back into the paddock, probably looking for a hot coffee or tea.
After an hour of relative quiet and solitude, the young German was quickly enveloped back into the noise and bustle of a typical F1 race weekend.