Formula 1

F1 fans fuming over lack of refunds for cancelled 2020 Canadian Grand Prix

www.theglobeandmail.com

Racing Point driver Lance Stroll of Canada steers his act down the pit lane during qualifying at the Canadian Grand Prix Saturday, June 8, 2019 in Montreal.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The company that stages the Canadian Grand Prix is refusing to explain why it has not yet issued refunds to some fans who purchased tickets to last year’s race, almost nine months after it was cancelled because of COVID-19.

Fans from the United States, Canada, Britain and elsewhere are fuming after Octane Racing Group Inc., the promoters of the Montreal F1 race, repeatedly failed to follow through on a promise to refund tickets, which can cost upward of $3,000 each. After the June, 2020, race was pulled from the F1 schedule, ticketholders were told refunds would be processed before the end of October, 2020. Since then, however, Octane has said only that “unforeseen delays in the refund process” have occurred.

Some fans have launched lawsuits, while others have turned to social media and online petitions to try to force the company to act.

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It is unclear how many ticketholders are still waiting for refunds.

But even as it has refused to shed light on the situation, Octane has lashed out at critics, telling The Globe and Mail in a statement that “sensationalist” news coverage led to company executives being subjected to threats and harassment.

The annual race is subsidized by the Montreal, Quebec and federal governments with almost $20-million annually. In 2017, when the three levels of government announced more than $98-million in support of a five-year contract extension with F1, then-federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau said the “return on investment is excellent,” because the event “brands Montreal around the world.”

But the refund debacle has some F1 fans pledging to never again attend the Montreal race. Richard Gomez-Lee, a fan in London, bought two premier tickets to last year’s Grand Prix for about $1,200 from F1.com, a third-party reseller. When provincial restrictions due to COVID-19 prompted organizers to officially cancel the race last July 24, ticketholders were given until August 27 to either roll over their tickets to 2021 or request a refund.

But months after Gomez-Lee elected to get a refund, the company that operates F1.com e-mailed him to say it could not return his money because it was “still awaiting the funds from the Race Promoter [Octane Racing Group Inc.].” When he pursued the matter with Octane directly, Gomez-Lee received an e-mail in January from a senior ticketing manager who said the company was “extremely sorry for this inconvenience,” but she was “not at liberty to discuss the nature of the delay.”

On Tuesday of this week, he received another e-mail from F1.com advising that it is “currently awaiting the promoter’s guidelines to establish an estimated timeline for your refund to be issued.”

Gomez-Lee shared the correspondence with The Globe.

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The lack of information has left him frustrated and disenchanted. “If I ever get my money back, as much as I really would still love to go to the Grand Prix, I don’t know if I’d want to do business with the people in place like that,” he said. “That’s not how you treat people.” He suggested Formula One should bar Octane from staging another Grand Prix until all 2020 ticketholders have been reimbursed.

At least one ticket retailer says Octane’s inaction forced her to issue refunds to customers out of her own pocket. Nicola Denbigh, the co-owner of London-based Motor Sports Travel Ltd., which offers package tours to motorsport competitions, told The Globe that even though “we can’t sell travel, we can’t make any money, we’ve effectively been closed for a year, we still have an obligation” to make customers whole.

She added that all of the other cancelled F1 races quickly reimbursed ticketholders. The Singapore race, scheduled for last September, was cancelled on Friday, June 12, “and we had that money on the Monday [June 15th]. They prepared themselves in advance, they knew [cancellation] was a possibility and they were ready to go and they refunded everybody.”

In a statement e-mailed to The Globe on March 19, an F1 spokesperson said, “Discussions are ongoing with all the relevant parties and we remain committed to helping fans who have requested refunds secure them. We’ll be able [to] share more information in the coming weeks.”

Some fans who have made a lot of noise have received refunds. Warren Liebmann of Toronto got his money back after starting a petition on Change.org and having his case covered by GrandPrix247.com, a racing news site. One man told CBC that he received a refund after filing against Octane in small claims court. A fan in Ohio who had purchased three VIP tickets for himself, his wife, and son for more than $12,000, told The Globe he received a refund in February after sending e-mails to senior executives of F1 and Liberty Media, which owns F1.

But others who have spoken with The Globe, including fans in the United States and Canada, are losing hope of ever seeing their money again.

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Last December, Francois Dumontier, the CEO of Octane, told Le Journal de Montreal that all ticketholders would be reimbursed by Dec. 22.

But last month he responded to a request for comment by The Globe with a statement that he would not be giving any more interviews on the matter, in part because an online CBC news story published in December prompted a number of “serious threats.”

“We promised to issue refunds to the ticket holders who have requested them and we will honour our promise,” Dumontier said. “I am sorry but we have no comments to add.”

He has, however, spoken with The Canadian Press in recent weeks to discuss the prospect of the 2021 Canadian Grand Prix going ahead. The race is currently on the F1 schedule for the weekend of June 11-13, though tickets are not on sale to the general public.

Denbigh said she would be wary of selling Canadian Grand Prix tickets in the future. “We cannot run the risk of the same thing happening again,” she explained.

On Tuesday afternoon, Sandrine Garneau-Le Bel, the director of communications and marketing for Octane, reiterated in an e-mail to The Globe that the company would not comment on its failure to reimburse fans in a timely manner. “We promised to issue refunds to the ticket holders who have requested them and we will honour our promise,” she said.

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