Editors Note: Renowned for its outright speed and reliance on intense aerodynamic preparation, the Canadian Grand Prix heralds the prestigious arrival of Formula One to North American shores and Iain Robertson contemplates a fixture that usually provides a turning point in the F1 calendar.
Prior to the Canadian race settling on the Québécois island that is now its home, the country’s first Grand Prix took place at the purpose-built Mosport facility located near Bowmanville, some sixty miles east of Toronto, not far from the shores of Lake Ontario. Originally just farmland, its contours lent themselves ideally to creating an interesting and challenging racing circuit. Communications were acceptable, when the seeds were sewn in 1958, but it took another three years and substantial earth clearing before the area would ring to the sounds of unsilenced racing cars of that era.
Not quite 2.5 miles in length, the circuit hosted several Grand Prix races and even witnessed the introduction of the infamous CanAm sportscar series prior to the arrival of Formula One in 1967. Coincidentally, that was also Canada’s centenary year, so it was most fitting that the prestigious F1 circus should lay on a performance by way of national celebration.
It was a race plagued by foul weather and the legendary Scots driver, Jim Clark in a Lotus, lay down the gauntlet to his international rivals. Sadly, while in the lead, his car broke down, a factor that was almost inherent to a team that lived life on the edge of unreliability. Colin Chapman, the team principal, made racing cars that were designed to win but they were often so flimsy that, were they to reach the chequered flag after a couple of hours of flat-out competition, they were almost guaranteed never to run again.
Australian Jack (now Sir) Brabham and New Zealander Denny Hulme gave the Brabham team an historic 1-2 finish, which placed the Mosport venue securely on the motorsport map. However, the following year would witness a relocation to the spectacular mountain resort venue of Mont Tremblant, in Quebec.
This was truly a driver’s delight, in the days prior to concerns about safety and survival. Renowned for its almost extreme changes in elevation, while it could be and remains a wonderful place to visit during the height of summer, with its lakes, acres of woodlands and both leisure and sports opportunities, it was bitterly cold when subjected to Canada’s intense winters for at least three months of the year. They would play havoc with the 15 turns and 2.65 miles of track surfaces, making them rough and demanding on the cars. Despite the appeal to drivers, Mosport provided greater race consistency and the Canadian GP reverted to the Bowmanville circuit, with only one further expedition to Mont Tremblant prior to taking up residence at Montreal in 1978.
// AN APT NAME
It was Gilles Villeneuve, in a Ferrari, who delivered the first dream victory on the island parkland circuit, to the inevitable delight of local fans. Of course, Gilles was already a local hero, having commenced his professional racing career driving snowmobiles to Quebec championship successes. At that year’s event, he was still just 28 years old and was driving for one of the most charismatic teams in the F1 series.
His previous single seater experiences had rewarded him with both US and Canadian Formula Atlantic Championship titles in 1976, before McLaren offered him an inaugural F1 drive in the following season’s British Grand Prix. It had been engineered for him by James Hunt and a third (much older) team car was entered in a race that gave him an unremarkable 11th overall, despite starting from 9th on the grid.
Team owner, Walter Wolf, a fellow Canadian, had already employed Gilles in the CanAm series and contemplated offering him a drive in the new Wolf Racing team. As fate would have it, he also recommended him to Enzo Ferrari, who was enamoured enough, following a fraught test session at the company’s Fiorano test facility, to compare Villeneuve with another GP great, Tazio Nuvolari, and offer him a contract that would take in the final two races of 1977 and the next season. He would remain with the team until his premature death at Zolder just over four years later.
It was Niki Lauda who referred to Villeneuve as a ‘crazy devil’, although the Austrian had to concede that he was also one of the most likeable and engaging characters away from the circuits. Never a big-earner in the early days, the affable Canadian was renowned for taking his young family with him to races, arriving in a motor home as a means to reduce his costs. Many commentators have remarked that he was exceptionally grounded, an aspect that Gilles believed was developed from the grassroots sport of snowmobiling.
By his own admission, the thrills and spills of being ejected at 100mph from a bucking bronco of a motorcycle-engined, rubber-tracked vehicle provided more than enough skills for circuit racing. He often joked that the complete lack of close quarters visibility in a snowmobile event made circuit racing look like a ride in the park. In fact, it led to him building a strong reputation as a ‘rain-master’. Similarly, his slewing about on ice and snow-covered tracks certainly helped with his ultimate car control and there has seldom been another Formula One driver capable of recovering from the prodigious oversteering slides for which Gilles became famed.
Sadly, Gilles never lived to claim his World Championship title, unlike his son, Jacques, who also failed to win his home GP, leaving his father’s record untarnished thus far. However, to US Grand Prix fans, Villeneuve remains a remarkable anachronism, never more so than when, as a team-mate to South African driver, Jody Scheckter, he was forced by team orders to relinquish his 1979 title-winning prowess. Scheckter was declared the Champion, just four points ahead of Villeneuve.
However, the season closing race was held at Watkins Glen, New York State. It was the 22nd US Grand Prix. It was raining hard during practice and qualifying sessions. So hard, in fact, that few of the teams even wanted to set a lap-time on the Friday. Villeneuve was undeterred. Despite awful conditions, he went onto the circuit and established a time that confounded everyone present. Depending on who you asked for confirmation and a lot of that was occurring, Gilles was anything between nine and eleven seconds faster per lap than Scheckter, his nearest rival.
Was he a ‘madman’? No. Not really. He was just darned quick, regardless of what the weather flung at The Glen. Saturday’s sunny qualifying flipped the times around and Australian, Alan Jones, set the pace in a Williams. Already declared World Champion, Scheckter struggled with engine problems, qualifying in sixteenth place, just ahead of the previous season’s Champion, Mario Andretti.
Raceday on the Sunday, October 7th, was blighted by showers and, demonstrating an immensely gutsy performance, managing to avoid spinning fellow competitors in the process, Villeneuve grabbed the lead of the race by the end of the first lap. He was followed by Jones, Carlos Reutemann, Jacques Lafitte, Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Clay Regazzoni, Rene Arnoux, Didier Pironi, John Watson and Jean-Pierre Jarier. By the second lap, Villeneuve was a remarkable five seconds ahead of Jones. However, a tyre gamble would play into both Jones’s and Villeneuve’s hands.
As the circuit had started to dry by half distance, several teams pitted for new slicks. It was the right choice. Yet, Jones remained on track, closing the gap on the faltering Villeneuve, eventually passing the Ferrari driver and opening up a 3.2 seconds gap in just two laps. Facing Hobson’s Choice, Villeneuve had to stop for a tyre change and emerged from the pit-lane some 39.5 seconds behind Jones, who was still on wet weather tyres.
When Williams signalled their man into the pits, it was envisaged that he held a strong enough advantage over the French-Canadian to make victory a foregone conclusion. However, apart from the reappearance of the sun, it was clear that the ‘gods’ were shining on Villeneuve. Although Jones sped from the pits, it was obvious that not all was well with the right rear fitment. On the back straight, the wheel departed the car and Jones was sidelined, frustrated and furious with his team.
By the time that the 59 laps had been completed, Villeneuve had taken another victory, with a substantial 49 seconds lead over Arnoux, who was just five seconds ahead of Pironi. In the post-race press conference, Gilles admitted that he had been nursing low oil pressure on his Ferrari’s engine since the 25th lap, further underscoring the talents of the legend from Quebec, who was considerably more sympathetic towards his car than many of his rivals believed him to be.
// A FITTING VENUE
As last year’s Canadian GP showed, a maritime climate can possess its demerits. Torrential rain may have dampened more than a few spectators’ spirits but, those that remained, following a near four hours delay, were treated to a classic race. Despite a nerve-wracking clash between the two McLaren-Mercedes drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, one apparently unsighted by the other in the atrocious, pre-stoppage conditions, Button held off a hard charge from Sebastian Vettel, the eventual Champion for the 2011 season, and continued to a soul-stirring victory.
As mentioned earlier, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is an amazingly fast track in the dry. As qualifying cars enter the start-finish straight, Turn 14 meets them with a rather formidable ‘Bienvenue’, a welcome to Montreal, a wall so close to the circuit that drivers tempt fate as they accelerate away from the pit-lane entrance chicane. It has become known as ‘The Wall of Champions’, for the number of top racers that have clashed with its unforgiving concrete.
A short but fairly wide straight courses past the start-line, before it becomes necessary to brake hard for the gentle flick right-left, into the Virage Senna, a hairpin bend that is a slow but purposeful means to prepare for a mad blast towards Turns 3 to 7, a marvellous complex that causes speeds to build up to around 160mph, although the chicane at Turn 6 is a relatively slow 55mph. Any early bunching at Turns 6 and 7 are forgotten as the cars hit close to 180mph before braking for the long right-left at Turns 8 and 9.
Another full-throttle assault whisks the cars to Turn 10, also known as Épingle, the slowest hairpin bend on the circuit. This is also where the vast majority of grandstand fans are situated, with massive video screens ahead of them to watch the rest of the race. The drivers say that they can hear the cheers or jeers quite clearly, as they are seldom passing this point at more than 40mph.
Turns 11 and 12 are scarcely worth noting as the cars course along the fastest stretch of the circuit, Droit du Casino, beside the river. By the time they start to brake severely for the chicane at the pit-lane entrance, they are travelling in excess of 200mph. Should you happen to be looking back along the straight, you would see the plumes of carbon brake dust, as the Formula One cars slam on the anchors to negotiate the 80mph chicane and the process repeats itself.
Never less than enthralling, always challenging and possessing plenty of space for overtaking, the 2.7 miles Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is the rightful home to the Canadian GP and a guaranteed must-attend for all ardent F1 fans.