Return of 'Great Montreal Raft Race' put the fun back in F1

MONTREAL (AP) It's time to put the fun back in F1.

Formula One's new owners are hoping to dial down some of the intensity of the high-power and high-pressure racing circuit this season, swapping the paddock for paddling at the Canadian Grand Prix this month with the return of the Great Montreal Raft Race .

Just hours before strapping rock star drivers into multimillion-dollar cars traveling at more than 200 mph, team crews - and executives - traded their firesuits for life preservers in a beer-soaked beach party on the erstwhile Olympic rowing venue next to the Circuit Giles Villeneuve.

There were no protests, no post-race inspections, no constructor points.

Just a few dozen team members - from mechanics to principals - soaked but smiling as they paddled their hastily assembled crafts across the murky lagoon with nothing at stake except bragging rights.

''We take Formula One very seriously; that doesn't mean we should take ourselves seriously,'' said Sean Bratches, F1's managing director of commercial operations.

''We let our hair down a little bit - or let our hair get wet today,'' he said after toweling off and taking a swig from a beer bottle to wash the taste of the lagoon from his mouth. ''And it was quite enjoyable.''

Since taking over Formula One this year, new owner Liberty Media has said it wants to liven up race week with a more American - meaning fun - approach to the events. (Executives were also careful to stress that they want to maintain the cachet that makes the races popular with its European base.)

So when the traveling circuit returned to Canada this month, so did the raft race.

A staple of the Canadian Grand Prix until the late 1990s, the raft race fizzled out when the demands on the mechanics increased and they became too busy to design and build their own crafts. Before it was discontinued, the ''rafts'' grew increasingly complicated; in 1990, for example, Ferrari brought in a one-man craft with an outboard engine .

To eliminate the technological arms race and maintain the focus on fun, this year's competitors were each given a couple of wooden pallets for the structure and some empty plastic water jugs for flotation. (There also was no shortage of beer.)

They had 45 minutes.

''Please build with the spirit of the event in mind,'' teams were told. ''Utilization of that secret America's Cup project file you have tucked away on your laptop will be frowned upon.''

They were required to have seven people on the boat and encouraged to include the team principal among them. (Haas worked around this by having a life-sized cardboard cutout of principal Guenther Steiner, in full yacht club attire, at the stern.) Toro Rosso wore silly wigs, Renault had jaunty sailor's caps, a third group went with a pirate theme.

Formula One management also floated a team, as did the media relations department. Crews were given rope to hold the craft together, a megaphone for taunting opponents and paddles.

Other than the mandatory life vests, and the goal of paddling up and back across the canal, there didn't seem to be many rules. Tennis balls were lobbed back and forth like inert cannonballs; a fire hose sprayed teams that got too far in front or otherwise looked too comfortable.

''There may be something you think is a shark in the water,'' they were warned by the announcer, who also served as the DJ and gave updates during the race. ''Please don't get too violent with it. It is a bloke in a black suit.''

Micah Desforges, who waved the checkered flag, was part of the Tribu event-planning team that was hired by Red Bull.

''Everyone is in a good mood, and we'll try to get some funky stuff happening,'' he said. ''It's good to get the community together, have a good vibe, good event. Get the pressure down, and that's what it's all about.''

McLaren easily won the race - good for a chuckle, since the team has struggled all season in Formula One itself . That didn't stop them from celebrating with the traditional champagne spray from a makeshift podium.

''It's a good message for Formula One: To all work together to make Formula One great,'' said Ross Brawn, the circuit's managing director for motorsports. ''It's a serious business; we know that. But evenings like this make it all worthwhile as well.''

Bratches said the raft race was a natural, because it had a history and the lagoon was already there next to the track. He said he'd like to see other fun events added during the season, ''taking advantage of unique circumstances like rowing lakes that somebody else might have.''

''This is just a Montreal thing. But I think there's other creative things where we can engage one another and really extend the community,'' he said. ''It's a great community of people at Formula One, and this was a fantastic event.''

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More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

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