Gilles Villeneuve was first magician of Montreal - an F1 circuit that still demands commitment


Unpredictable weather delivered much-needed drama at the 2024 Canadian GP. As Mark Hughes recalls, a similar day in Montreal over 40 years ago helped create a winning-opportunity for Gilles Villeneuve on a circuit which would later bear his name

Gilles Villeneuve Canadian Grand Prix 1978

Villeneuve wins his home GP in 1978 — on his first attempt

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The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, in combination with Montreal’s capricious weather, did F1 a massive favour last weekend, coming as it did on the back of the totally stalemated Monaco race.

With the drivers able to race and having to improvise around ever-changing conditions at a circuit where it is possible to race wheel-to-wheel, we saw a great range of complexions in their individual performances. While differing circumstances and demands still provide differing opportunities between drivers – it’s never a straight comparison of merit in any race – at least here they were not all locked into the same straight jacket demand of merely circulating to a stipulated lap time.

We saw a coolly professional performance from Max Verstappen to prevail in a race in which the Red Bull was only the fastest in the last stint. We saw an intoxicating performance from Lando Norris who was justifiably frustrated that he didn’t win a winnable race. There was the high-octane George Russell making a few key pressure errors but being quite audacious in trying to put them right. We saw an under-par performance from Lewis Hamilton which he described as ‘one of my worst ever races’ in a Mercedes which was seriously quick all weekend. Then there was the incomprehensibly bad performance of Sergio Perez, failing to make it out of Q1 in a Red Bull and retiring after spinning out all on his own from near the back of the field.

That’s just five of the drivers. The other 15 all had tales to tell far more interesting than was the case at Monaco. It’s just that sort of place – and always has been, demanding commitment and precision to be fast but to stay out of the unforgiving walls, with heavy braking zones presenting both opportunity and jeopardy, with a sky of sudden mood swings to bestow either favour or penalty.

2024 Canadian Grand Prix

The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve delivered much needed drama in 2024

Red Bull

It was just like that at the very first grand prix here, in 1978. The track had only just been completed in time for what was the last race of the season, held on a very chilly October weekend. That’s perilously close to the advances of a Montreal winter and there were even forecasts of snow which thankfully proved inaccurate. But it was never anything other than uncomfortably cold all weekend – and very often wet too.

Last weekend we lost most of the first practice session as the lakes were cleared from the track following a severe downpour. 46 years ago it was a similar story, with both Friday sessions (which potentially counted for the grid) held on a fully wet track. The cars ran around 20sec off the pace but the Michelins on the Ferraris gave them a clear advantage over the Goodyear-shod opposition, helping Carlos Reutemann and the near-rookie home hero Gilles Villeneuve to 1-2 in both sessions. The lone turbocharged Renault of Jean-Pierre Jabouille was the only other car on Michelins, but the serious turbo lag of its first-generation single turbo engine saw it stuttering off boost every time it had to exit one of the slow corners. It would just¼ begin to get into its stride and it would be time to brake again. Under these conditions it could barely get its tyres warmed up and Jabouille was nowhere all weekend.

Which just underlines the point of how you can never make straight comparisons in this sport. How incredibly low must the ceiling of performance have been for Jabouille in those circumstances? If you’d put Mario Andretti or Niki Lauda in that car, would the outcome have been significantly different on this weekend? Almost certainly not.

Jean-Pierre Jabouille

Jean-Pierre Jabouille pilots his troublesome Renault at Kyalami earlier in the 1978 season

Grand Prix Photo

Behind the Ferraris, the conditions combined with everyone having zero previous experience of the track made for an interesting snapshot of improvisation. Hans Stuck was renowned as a great wet weather driver but not one of the F1 elite otherwise. In these conditions he was flinging the uncompetitive Shadow around with great power-sliding abandon, totally in his element. He was the quickest Goodyear runner in the first session and second only to world champion Andretti’s Lotus in the second. More typically towards the back of the grid in this car, his form in the wet led Goodyear to offer him a set of their qualifying tyres for the next day, a privilege usually confined to only the Lotus and Brabham teams plus Emerson Fittipaldi (at Copersucar), James Hunt (at McLaren) and Patrick Depailler (at Tyrrell). Just as in 2024, the track was finally dry – but still very cool — for the Saturday session.

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Stuck’s wet weather skillset, reactions over feel, was largely irrelevant in the dry, but those qualifying tyres his wet track performance had earned him helped him put the Shadow an untypical eighth-fastest in the single dry session. He’d be starting between the megastars Lauda (Brabham) and Andretti. Stuck, who’d scored a meagre two points all season, would be starting ahead of the recently-crowned world champion.

Andretti had been at a loss to understand why his normally dominant Lotus 79 felt all at sea as soon he got out onto Saturday’s dry track. “The side bite through the turns is bad and it’s unstable under braking,” he reported. Later, it was found that in the rush to change from wet settings to dry, the camber was set incorrectly. With the car like that, he wasn’t able to generate the tyre temperature threshold at which the rubber began to work.

Tyres still behave like that today of course. In the post-qualifying analysis at Ferrari last weekend, in looking at why neither Charles Leclerc nor Carlos Sainz could make it out of Q2, it was noticed that over 50% of their pace deficit to the front came in Turns 1-2. Further analysis suggested the tyres were under-temperature at the start of the lap because they were under-pressured. From pole and a dominant victory in Monaco to mediocrity two weeks later.

Just as it was with Ferrari last weekend, so it was for Andretti 46 years ago. So even a Lotus 79 which habitually qualified 0.5sec or more clear of the field was effectively uncompetitive on this day at this track. That’s not a driver shortcoming. But if you look at the history books, you’ll see one Lotus – that of the stand-in driver Jean-Pierre Jarier – on pole, with Mario in the other 1.2sec slower in ninth. As ever, the circumstances need to be fully appreciated to give any perspective to that.

Andretti Lotus 79 2024 Canadian Grand Prix

Hero to zero: Andretti and Lotus struggled at finale despite a season of dominance

Grand Prix Photo

That said, Jarier was performing magnificently. There really isn’t a current equivalent of his bizarre mixture of regularly electrifying pace but apparently casual indifference to putting the pieces in place in his environment. It was as if he had an incomplete picture of the constituent parts to success and the more his obvious talent went unrewarded, the more embittered and non-caring he became. But in the tragic circumstances of Ronnie Peterson’s death at Monza, Jarier – who had been out of a drive since being dropped by ATS mid-season – suddenly found himself in a car worthy of his talent. Which put him in place to remind the F1 world of just what he could do. It seemed a long time since he’d been on pole for the first two races of ’75 and cruelly robbed of a dominant win in Brazil by a mechanical failure. He was about to get that rarest of things in F1: a second chance. Here he sat on pole ahead of Jody Scheckter’s Wolf, John Watson’s Brabham, Villeneuve, Fittipaldi and the Williams of Alan Jones.

Aside from Stuck, there were a few other stand-out performances on that wet Friday track. Didier Pironi, completing his rookie F1 season in an otherwise mid-grid Tyrrell, was just behind Stuck in the opening session, the second-fastest Goodyear runner. Pironi was ahead of another rookie, the spectacular Keke Rosberg, who had the car of the tiny ATS team at all angles in full attack mode. That year’s British F3 champion Nelson Piquet – who’d done a couple of grands prix with little teams earlier in the season – was making his first appearance for Brabham, in a third car alongside Lauda and Watson.

Unencumbered by any previous experience of the car and not knowing that it wasn’t handling as well as usual, he was seventh-quickest in the opening session, with Watson 18th and Lauda 24th. Team boss Bernie Ecclestone suggested to his two superstars that perhaps it was time they gave thought to retiring. Watson was already on his way out of there for ’79, to replace McLaren’s original signing Peterson. Piquet would be Watson’s replacement – and the foundation of his two world championships with Brabham were put in place on that cold, wet Montreal session.

Nelson Piquet 1978

Nelson Piquet in his Ensign-Ford earlier in 1978 at Hockenheim

Grand Prix Photo

Without the qualifying tyres of his senior team mates (worth around 1sec), in the dry Piquet was well behind them on the grid. Similarly, neither Pironi nor Rosberg could repeat their wet track form. Rosberg found himself without rear brakes as soon as he took to the track but realising there may not have been time to fix that just stayed out there in the ATS, attacking like crazy in between wild spins. He scraped onto the back row of the 22-car grid, faster than the six non-qualifiers. It was the sort of rough-hewn improvisation and commitment which would come to win him races in the future and the world title of ’82. How good was the performance which put him on the back row of the grid that day? Those on the team who understood the circumstances would probably have judged it to be comparable with the best. But the onlooking world would barely have registered it.

Rosberg would be without a drive going into ‘79 but would be picked up by Wolf mid-season after James Hunt decided suddenly to retire. Here, in his last race for McLaren, Hunt was nowhere, 20th on the grid and out-qualified for the one and only time by team mate Patrick Tambay. But again, it was circumstantial. With his race chassis misbehaving at the start of practice, he swopped to the T-car, which then had its throttle linkage fall apart before he’d done a representative lap.

McLaren James Hunt Patrick Tambay

Neither Hunt (left) or Tambay (right) had a particularly memorable Canadian GP

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The fairytale of Gilles Villeneuve’s famous first victory unfolding on his home track came at the expense of Jarier. He’d led from the start, was well clear of Stuck taking out himself and Fittipaldi at the first corner, and by half-distance he’d had the Lotus half-a-minute clear of the field. A holed oil radiator brought him into the pits after 49 of the 70 laps.

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Who today even remembers Jarier, let alone how devastatingly brilliant he could be? An F1 career of 11 seasons and a single third-place podium. He can’t have been much good, eh? He was one of the brightest talents of his era, with more raw pace than many a world champion, if only he could have marshalled it better out of the car.

Villeneuve had driven a great charging race, passing Jones and Scheckter despite choosing a Michelin compound which the company’s Pierre Dupasquier had advised him was too marginally soft. Gilles knew better, could conjure speed without stressing the rubber even at this early stage in his career. “He was like a magician with tyres,” Duspasquier told me many years later.

The circuit is now named after that magician. Back on that cold day, he’d been given an opportunity to give a realistic display of his ability and he took it by the scruff of the neck. Tragically, he wouldn’t get enough of those days but had he done he was quite capable of rewriting the record books. The record books that say just six grand prix victories and a second place in the championship.

1978 Canadian Grand Prix Gilles Villeneuve

Villeneuve celebrates his first F1 victory at the 1978 Canadian GP alongside his wife (right) Joann