Montréal is a fair city. Its Grand Prix circuit ain’t too shabby either: interesting location, quirky backdrop; layout conducive to good racing. The Wall of Champions, the big stops, the changeable conditions – it’s a true test of men and their magnificent machines. It’s hosted some crackers – not least Jenson Button’s Rindt-ing of ‘Black Jack’ Vettel in 2011.
It helped that Gilles Villeneuve gave the place the start every Canadian fan craved, winning its – and his – first Grand Prix there in 1978.
Finance has been a problem, and nothing is sacred, but it’s hard to imagine the Formula 1 calendar minus Montréal. It would be poorer without it: Jones versus Piquet; Mansell’s presumptuous wave; Alesi’s emotion – win or lose; super-rookie Hamilton’s calm amid the Safety Cars for his first of many.
Canada has been blessed by its GP venues, whereas America has not. (Why F1 never bothered with Elkhart Lake I cannot imagine.)
Point-and-squirt Long Beach, Detroit and Dallas – even Phoenix, ferchrissakes! – had their moments but in neither sufficient quantity nor quality to keep the gig. And F1 at Indy never did feel right. I only hope its golf course is better than its road circuit. Which wouldn’t be difficult.
Austin proved to America last year that it’s great tracks that make for great racing that makes for great events – a fact that its nice northern neighbour grasped from the off.
O Canada: Mosport and St-Jovite, aka Mont-Tremblant. Wow!
It’s here that I must reveal my inner ‘anorak’. (A gilet?) Telephone doodles chez Fearnley have a habit of morphing into circuit maps. Not the Nordschleife – I’m not that geeky – but the old and new Spa, certainly, and Barcelona’s Montjüich Park, and Riverside. The flowing stuff I find makes for ‘happier’ shapes. And I count Mosport and St-Jovite among those.
What’s noticeable is that my ‘happy’ tracks tend to have challenging topography in the flesh. If it looks right in 2D, it is right. Both Mosport and St-Jovite have a roller coaster element that provides the drivers and their suspensions with an extra dimension of difficulty. Both also have long Turn 1 right-handers – one downhill, the other up and over a crest – that rank among the all-time great corners.
The remainder of their laps consist of an alluring sinousness of a freehand pen. They have a naturalness that no computer can recreate. Never mind the width of the pit lane, feel the quality.
Mosport, near Toronto, got in on F1 first. After six years spent hosting the Canadian GP for sportscars – won by the likes of Pedro Rodríguez, Masten Gregory, Jim Hall and Mark Donohue – it stepped up to celebrate the country’s centennial and its hosting, on an artificial island in Montreal’s St Lawrence Seaway, of Expo 67.
The first wet race of the year was a Duesie. Jim Clark was unmatchable whenever conditions improved, but the smoother power delivery of the Goodyear-shod Brabham-Repcos of the real ‘Black Jack’ and Denny Hulme were superior to the Scot’s Lotus 49-DFV on Firestones in the rain. Eventually water got in Denny’s goggles – twice – and Jim’s electrics, and Brabham took the victory.
Two weeks later he was Rindt-ed by John Surtees’s Honda at Monza. Germany, Canada, Italy, USA: illogical scheduling is not new.
There had been a suggestion that 1967 would be a one-off. Thankfully F1’s caravan returned 13 months later, this time at the head of a three-GP sequence in the Americas. And this time its Canadian destination was Québec’s St-Jovite in the Laurentian Mountains northeast of Montréal. Think Augusta without, thankfully, the golf.
Actually, the circuit was not looking its best because of safety works insisted upon by the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association. Motor Sport’s correspondent likened it to Morocco’s Ain-Diab circuit, which seems odd.
Built in the ski resort founded in the late 1930s by Joe Ryan, father of Grade A student, Olympic-standard downhill skier and winner of the first Canadian GP (in 1961), Pete, the full 2.65-mile circuit was narrow and rhythmic: perfect for Chris Amon.
The Kiwi had driven one of his finest races here two years before, unlapping himself after a first-lap moment caused by a stuck throttle to finish third behind McLaren team-mate Bruce McLaren and the victorious Lola of Surtees at the first Can-Am race.
Amon was again in prime form, this time at the wheel of a Ferrari 312. Designer Mauro Forghieri was insistent that a wing amidships was the ticket; the unconvinced Amon at least had some control over its pitch via a hydraulic motor. He could trim it while flat in fourth and top gears – for about three seconds per lap at this ultra-busy layout. DRS enabled.
Matched on time but pipped to pole by Jochen Rindt’s tri-winged – a twinned affair at the back, a single job at the front – Brabham-Repco, Amon took the lead from the start, albeit harried by the other front-row starter: Jo Siffert in Rob Walker’s Lotus 49. It was Brands Hatch all over again, except this time the Ferrari appeared to hold the advantage in terms of acceleration. Siffert’s engine was smoking badly, and his set-up was chomping through the left-front tyre, but the redoubtable Swiss pressed on regardless until the inevitable happened: out of oil, he retired on lap 30.
Amon, too, was not without problem: he’d lost the use of his clutch. He continued to pull away, even so – until the inevitable happened. The Ferrari’s final drive pinion wore itself smooth and Chris coasted in on lap 73.
Such was the relentless nature of the circuit, the GPDA had proposed a motion that the race be shortened from 90 to 75 laps. The McLaren drivers denied it a unanimous vote and the race went ahead as planned. But for this Amon’s agony would have been even more acute – and McLaren would have saved itself 30 laps of petrol: Denny Hulme and Bruce McLaren finished 1-2.
St-Jovite hosted the 1970 GP, too. Jackie Stewart took a rare gamble – which shows you how much he disliked the March 701 – and led in the still troublesome Tyrrell 001 until a front stub-axle sheared on lap 32, leaving the field open for Ferrari’s Jacky Ickx.
This was recompense for the Belgian: he had broken his left leg during practice at St-Jovite in 1968 when his Ferrari’s throttle stuck open and plunged him over a bank and into the trees. It also marked his second consecutive Canadian GP victory, his Brabham having nerfed Stewart’s Matra into a ditch at Mosport in 1969.
Stewart would win for Tyrrell in 1971 and 1972 – the 50th victory for the DFV – as Mosport cornered the market; St-Jovite was too remote for its own good.
McLaren won again in 1973 – Peter Revson declared the winner after the first and ever-loving Lulu of Safety Car mix-ups. It won again in 1974 – Emerson Fittipaldi benefiting from leader Niki Lauda’s late crash on unflagged debris. And it won again in 1976 – James Hunt, driving as if the night before had never happened, holding off the faster six-wheeled Tyrrell of Patrick Depailler, who finished ‘drunk’ on fuel misting from a faulty pressure gauge.
In 1977, Jody Scheckter gave Canadian businessman Walter Wolf’s team a fortuitous victory. And in 1978, Villeneuve won at the circuit that now bears his name. It’s a fitting honour and Île Notre-Dame is a fitting place for it but, and I’m guessing here, I bet he preferred St-Jovite. Or Mosport. Or both.