The Forgotten Streets

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David Phillips examines the prosperity of Trois-Rivieres, a classic street circuit which is unlikely to be foremost in European minds

Trois-Rivieres, Quebec may lack the glamour of Monaco, the mountainous backdrop of Pau or the exotic atmosphere of Macau, but the annual Grand Prix de Trois Rivieres certainly ranks among the world’s great street races. It’s got lust about everything one could ask for, including some three decades of history, a deceptively tough little circuit and, most of all, a gloriously festive atmosphere.

No less important is what Trois-Rivieres doesn’t have: a so called ‘major’ racing series on its schedule. And therein lies its particular charm. Devoid of the prima donnas of Formula One, the superstars of IndyCars and the celebrities of NASCAR, Trois-Rivieres has nothing to offer but the racing and the personalities of the TransAm, Toyota-Atlantic, Indy Lights and North American Touring Car Championships, who enthusiastically embrace the role of headliners.

Like the Grand Prix of Canada itself, the Grand Prix de Trois-Rivieres dates back to its nation’s Centennial Year of 1967. And, like Canada’s Formula One race, Trois-Rivieres has had its ups and downs and changing venues. Launched on a budget of $17,000, the inaugural event featured local sports car drivers on a cramped circuit running around the city’s exhibition grounds and passing through the Dunlessis Gate.

In 1968 the organisers expanded the circuit to include nearby city streets and added small, single-seater Formula Bs to the schedule. These (aka Formula Atlantic and, ultimately, Toyota Atlantic) would subsequently prove to be the focus of the event as the promoters imported a succession of European stars to compete against North America’s best small formula drivers. Thus Trois-Rivieres’ history is marbled by the likes of James Hunt, Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, Patrick Depailler, Jacques Laffite and Vittorio Brambilla, as well as Bobby Rahal and Michael Andretti.

But the man who put the Grand Prix de Trois-Rivieres on the map, and whose presence will forever permeate the event, was Gilles Villeneuve. A native of nearby Berthierville, Villeneuve won the Trois-Rivieres Formula Ford race in 1973 and went on to dominate Formula Atlantic in the mid-1970s, beating world champion-to-be James Hunt at Trois-Rivieres in 1976 and prompting Hunt to declare him a future world champion.

Of course, Villeneuve was destined never to join Hunt as an F1 champion, although his place in the pantheon of racing’s greatest drivers is quite secure. A few years after his death, the Grand Prix de Trois-Rivieres having added CanAm monsters to its programme as Formula Atlantic entered into a decline fell on hard times and was eventually cancelled.

The race was revived in 1989 and, fittingly, was won by Gilles’ brother Jacques. With support from Player’s the reborn event matured into a premier attraction on the North American racing scene, adding TransAm to the schedule in 1990 while this year the Indy Lights series made its debut. Indeed, Trois-Rivieres marked an Indy Lights coming-out party of sorts, for it was the first time the series ran on its own, away from the lndycars proper.

When the Indy Lights competitors completed the 80-mile drive up the St Lawrence River from Montreal, they found a town and a circuit little changed from the glory days of Villeneuve and Hunt. To be sure, the timber industry is not what it used to be, but the local economy is alive and well and the streets of the charming, if vaguely rustic, town bustle with the influx of race fans that swell the normal population of 50,000 by half again.

A goodly proportion of those fans were on hand early on a grey and soggy Friday morning, staking out the prime spots in the bleachers across the track from the Trois-Rivieres Hippodrome. The circuit runs past an ice hockey arena and pint-sized baseball stadium before turning square right to a quicker left hander and plunging to the trademark 90-degree left through the narrow Duplessis Archway. Then it’s up the track’s longest straight, with a nunnery/orphanage on the drivers’ left and a sprawling cemetery to their right . .

Another tight left leads onto a curving high-speed run to the most technically demanding turn on the circuit, a quick left requiring the drivers to cross crowns on the entry and exit, followed by a short blast to the Ryan hairpin and another burst up to the Virage Villeneuve.

It’s a tough little circuit, with seven significant changes of direction packed into 1.6 miles. But there are a couple of clear overtaking zones; one or two more for the brave, the desperate and the foolhardy . . though just what it must have been like to drive a CanAm car here boggles the mind.

“It’s not only the atmosphere here that reminds you of Macau,” says former F3 racer Helio Castro Neves. “The feel of the track is similar. It’s not so long of course, but the sensation of racing on a narrow track with the barriers and the Archway so close is very similar. It’s a very technical course, one where you control the attitude and direction of the car not only with the steering wheel but with the power.”

Neves did a superb job of controlling his Indy Lights car at Trois-Rivieres, taking pole and leading every lap to score his first win from Tasman Motorsports team-mate Tony Kanaan. Later that day, Canada’s own Ron Fellows passed pole-sitter (and IRL co-champion) Scott Sharp to earn his second victory of the year in the troubled TransAm. Earlier, Chevrolet had revealed 1996 will be its last year of support for the series, prompting speculation that Ford will soon follow suit rather than compete against itself.

The TransAm’s future will have little effect on Trois-Rivieres, however, for the Atlantic cars remain the principle attraction. So much so that Trois-Rivieres features championship races on both Saturday and Sunday. To the delight of the unashamedly partisan crowd, Patrick Carpentier won at will both days, for his third and fourth straight wins of the season.

Carpentier would stretch his streak to five the following weekend at Mid-Ohio amidst growing speculation he will Join Greg Moore on the Forsythe IndyCar team in 1997, giving Players a dual Anglophile/Francophile presence in the PPG series. That Carpentier is a talent is beyond doubt: that he is winning in a series bereft of serious competition is also indisputable.

Equally clear, however, is the fact that the Grand Prix de Trois-Rivieres is alive and well, regardless of the health of any one series. As with the world’s other great races, while the names, faces and machines go through inevitable changes, it’s the event itself which provides the main attraction.