CIRCUITS: MONTREAL (CIRCUIT GILLES VILLENEUVE)

Name: Montreal (Circuit Gilles Villeneuve)

 

 © Inside F1, Inc.

The Formula 1 World Championship began visiting Canada in the mid 1960s but because of the rivalry between the French-Canadians of Quebec and the English-speaking population the race was held at Mosport Park one year and at Mont-Tremblant the next. The arrangement was short-lived because the Mont Tremblant track was deemed to be too dangerous in 1970 and so Mosport ended up with the race every year.

In 1977 the French-Canadians, inspired by the success of rising star Gilles Villeneuve (who had been signed to drive for Ferrari in 1978) decided that they needed a new circuit in Quebec. Building a completely new facility was out of the question. It was too expensive and would take too long and it was suggested that the problem could be solved quickly by linking up the roads on the Ile Notre Dame to form a race track.

The island had been built in 1967 between the free-flowing St. Lawrence River and the St. Lawrence Seaway (a ship canal which had been built in 1959 to bypass Montreal's treacherous rapids so that ships could sail from the Atlantic Ocean right through to the Great Lakes and the industrial cities of Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago). The island was designed to be the home of the World Fair in 1967 - known as Expo 67 - and it was dotted with futuristic pavilions, designed by the different nations, and with gardens and lakes. The new island, which was situated just a few minutes from downtown Montreal, was the site of the rowing basin for the 1976 Olympic Games but then the Ile Notre Dame reverted to being a public park. The city found $2m for upgrading work and after a period of frenzied rebuilding the circuit (which was designed by Roger Peart) was ready for its first Canadian GP on October 8 1978.

When the Formula 1 circus arrived Villeneuve had yet to win a race. The season had been dominated by Team Lotus with the ground-effect Lotus 79 and Mario Andretti had been crowned World Champion at Monza, although, on the same day, his team mate Ronnie Peterson had been involved in a huge crash and died the following day. The F1 teams had gone to Watkins Glen where Carlos Reutemann won for Ferrari and expectations were high that perhaps the local hero might even win his home race. There were 73,000 people there to cheer him on. The race was dominated by Peterson's replacement at Lotus, Jean-Pierre Jarier, who led 49 of the 70 laps but then the Lotus failed him and Villeneuve went through to win amid scenes of mass rejoicing.

The following year Alan Jones won the race for Williams, but the racing was overshadowed by Niki Lauda's decision to retire from the sport. The 1980 race witnessed another victory for Jones and this time he took the World Championship despite a collision with Nelson Piquet, his championship rival at the start of the race. The accident triggered a multiple crash which caused the race to be red-flagged. One of the victims was Mike Thackwell - who became the youngest ever GP starter that day - but covered only a few hundred meters. He avoided the crash but both his Tyrrell team mates were involved and there was no spare car for the restart. Later in the race Renault's Jean-Pierre Jabouille suffered serious leg injuries when his car suffered a suspension failure and crashed heavily.

The autumn date meant that the weather could not always be guaranteed and in 1981 the race took place in torrential rain with Jacques Laffite winning for Ligier thanks to Michelin wet tires and the easy-to-handle Matra V12 engine. Villeneuve as usual kept the crowds amused as he took an uncompetitive Ferrari to third place after a series of incidents.

For 1982 the race was scheduled for June but it was to be sad affair because a month before the event Villeneuve died in a qualifying crash at Zolder. His Ferrari team mate Didier Pironi put his car on pole position but stalled at the start and was hit from behind by the Osella of Riccardo Paletti. The young Italian suffered multiple injuries and died later in hospital. The race was won by Piquet in a Brabham-BMW, the first win for the Munich company's turbocharged engine. BMW would win again in 1984 while Ferrari won with Rene Arnoux in 1983 and with Michele Alboreto in 1985. The 1986 race provided a victory for Nigel Mansell's Williams-Honda.

In 1987 the race fell victim to a dispute between the F1 authorities and the local organizers which had clashing sponsorship deals with beer companies Molson and Labatt. The dispute led to the removal of the Canadian Automobile Sports Club as the national sporting authority of Canada but the race was back on again in 1988, after the track had undergone considerable modification. The race continued to throw up the occasional surprise with Thierry Boutsen winning for Williams-Renault in the wet in 1989 and Nelson Piquet surprising himself with victory for Benetton in 1991 after Nigel Mansell broke down on the last lap. The 1995 race was another surprise with Jean Alesi inheriting victory after Michael Schumacher ran into trouble.

In 1996 there was much excitement as Gilles Villeneuve's son Jacques became a Williams driver but he was beaten by his team mate Damon Hill that day. In 1997 and 1998 the race belonged to Michael Schumacher (although he was lucky to win the second after the race was stopped because of a serious accident which left Prost's Olivier Panis with serious leg injuries). In 1999, however, Schumacher made a rare error and crashed, leaving victory to go to his title rival Mika Hakkinen.

Schumacher made up for it by winning in 2000 and was second to brother Ralf the following year.

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