How Montreal has established itself as a Formula 1 favourite

F1 champion Mario Andretti, ex-McLaren team manager Alastair Caldwell and their contemporaries reflect on the enduring home of the Canadian Grand Prix

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The Formula 1 fraternity and fans do not agree on much. Not least the choice of circuits, with even the jewel of Monaco receiving further criticism after, what was widely perceived as, a dull race. But when it comes to the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, host of the Canadian Grand Prix, it is met with widespread positivity even 40 years since it first hosted F1 back in 1978.

Hemmed in by walls which themselves are crammed into a small island amid parkland and quirky architecture, the circuit’s roots are similarly peculiar, as explained by its designer and then Canadian GP race director Roger Peart. ‘There had been a Canadian Grand Prix held prior to [1978] for a few years at Mosport,’ he notes. ‘The track needed some work and the owner was not all that keen to do it.

‘The rights to Formula 1 for Canada had been held by the Labatt brewery and they had just spent a lot of money in the Toronto area buying the Blue Jays baseball team, they’d set it up.

‘So politically they wanted to spend money on Montreal to balance things up.

‘One of my pals happened to be quite friendly with the president of Labatt and the president explained the situation to him and said, “we’d really like to run the Grand Prix in Montreal if we could”. So my friend called me right away.’

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Peart wasn’t starting from scratch, however. ‘I had in fact studied the possibility of having the event in Montreal; I lived in Montreal at that time. I had a few ideas and thought one of them surely would work.

‘Of the various possible sites, by far the best one was Ile Notre Dame, the island in Saint Lawrence river which had been developed for the World’s Fair in 1967. It was sitting there doing nothing and it had a network of roads on it.

‘So we went to the City of Montreal and asked if we could build a race track on it, and they didn’t know what to do with it. They quickly said, “go ahead so long as it doesn’t cost us anything”, and Labatt agreed to foot the bill. So we got the go ahead!’

Following approval from F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone and the FIA, an intense task was given to the civil engineers, and then the track was ready to host the final round of the 1978 season.

‘It was a very stressful time for me because, not only was my neck on the line for the design of the thing, I was also the race director for it!’, Peart adds.

But as Mario Andretti, the ‘78 world champion with Lotus, reflects, Peart needn’t have worried. ‘It was a welcome sight to see a circuit of that calibre finally springing up in Canada.

‘It was very interesting and very exciting to go there because it was new,’ adds former McLaren team manager Alastair Caldwell. ‘The island was a bit of a logistical problem but not too much. And it was a good race track.’

Derek Daly raced at the venue in ’78 for Ensign. But, as he reflects, the new destination had a whiff of familiarity at first. ‘Although it was Canada, it was very American,’ he reflects.

‘We expected big and bold and brash every time we went to America and even though it was Canada it was very American looking.

‘A predominant feature of that track was switchbacks : left-right, right-left. It was an unusual design feature in those days.

‘It’s a gorgeous layout, a very attractive venue,’ Andretti continues. ‘You could see that’s why it’s been so successful. I think you just want to be there, it’s not just a great motor race but it’s a great event there to be part of.’

Another major attraction was Montreal itself. ‘You had the proximity of this beautiful city,’ Andretti says. ‘It is a great host for the Grand Prix, everyone thoroughly enjoys going there, no question about it.

‘What I loved whenever I attended when I was out of the cockpit the city really comes alive.’

‘It’s very cosmopolitan,’ Caldwell adds. ’It’s sophisticated, and the French influence and the food and the language and the culture and so on was good.

‘[The first visit was] massively helped by the fact that the local hero [a certain Gilles Villeneuve] was coming to drive for Ferrari and was competitive.’

There was, in this first visit to Montreal, another break from the norm: the weather. F1’s North American tour was then at the season’s end; Montreal in October is bitter. ‘It was -1C on race day. Seldom did we race in Formula 1 when it was that cold. I remember ice running down,’ remembers Daly.

Furthermore, Practice was soaking as there was only an hour’s dry running at the end of the session to set the grid. Andretti, who’d never started outside the top four that year, languished in ninth. Many assumed it reflected not tailoring a set-up in time, but later more was discovered.

‘I just couldn’t get the thing right for some reason,’ he says. ‘We found out a lot of issues in the car, a lot of flexing in the tub. I can only rate a weekend based on the success; I could have been in utopia somewhere and still I would not have been happy!’

His race wasn’t much improved, he finished a lap down in 10th after colliding with John Watson’s Brabham. There also was a surprise polesitter with Andretti’s team-mate, Jean-Pierre Jarier, standing in after Ronnie Peterson’s tragic death two rounds earlier. Jarier’s F1 career had been haphazard, but at Montreal he dominated and disappeared up the road in the race. But after 49 of the 70 laps a punctured cooler put him out.

‘He did a great job just coming in from the cold and performing the way he did,’ Andretti notes. ‘I always had a lot of respect for Jean-Pierre, for his ability and he showed his capability no question.’

Daly, who later paired with Jarier at Tyrrell, agrees. “[He] was pure, raw talent and probably a driver who did not realise his potential. When he was in the right car: dynamite fast.’

Cementing the track’s charmed existence, Villeneuve took the win – his first F1 triumph.
The outcome wasn’t just important though for the Ferrari driver and Montreal as Daly bagged sixth and his team’s first point of the season.

‘For team Ensign it kept them in the Formula 1 travel budget package, and that was the difference between being able to race the following year and not,’ Daly says.

‘I got out of the car and [team boss] Mo Nunn walked over to me and bent down, gave me a bear hug and lifted me off the ground.’

Despite producing a now iconic result, it was hard for those involved at the time to foresee that the track would still be used – and so popular – decades on.

‘I don’t think anybody could have imagined 40 years later it would still be one of the classic races,’ Daly says. ‘I’ve spoken to Roger [Peart], he didn’t imagine all these years later that the race track that he had a significant hand in designing would still be there. None of us thought that at the time.’

Daly concludes, ‘Amazingly drivers still love going to Montreal because it’s a challenge unlike these homogenised super-safe circuits that have been built. Montreal still stands as being a classic great race track design even though it was unusual when we got there.’

Pictures courtesy of Motorsport Images

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