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Tragedy & Elation: The History Of Circuit Gilles Villeneuve

Tragedy & Elation: The History Of Circuit Gilles Villeneuve

This coming weekend will see the Formula One circus descend on the Saint Lawrence river for the Canadian Grand Prix. The circuit, renamed in 1982 to honour Gilles Villeneuve, is one of the few tracks on the Formula One calendar that I truly like. WIth this interest came the urge to learn more about it, and what better time to share the history of the host of 2008’s seventh round of the championship then now, here, on BlogF1.

Situated on a man-made island on the Saint Lawrence River in Montreal, Canada, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve has hosted the Canadian Grand Prix since 1978 and has only missed one season in its Formula One career; a sponsorship dispute in 1987 meant the round couldn’t be held. Canada had previously hosted rounds of the championship, starting out in 1967 at Mosport Park in Ontario. The first few years saw the event alternate between Mosport Park and Mont Tremblant, situated in Quebec. But with Mosport Park (which held the most races prior to Circuit Gilles Villeneuve) coming under critcism, Canada went looking for an alternative venue for their race.

In the late seventies, Montreal’s mayor suggested the park on the Ile Notre-Dame island. The purpose-built island was previously host to the 1967 Expo World Fair, and the basin also hosted the rowing events for the 1976 Olympic Games. The park, now renamed in honour of the city’s mayor at the time – Parc Jean-Drapeau – was put forward and the city drew up plans for the circuit.

With previous events being held on the site, and the convenience of the city and all the amenities, Ile Notre-Dame seemed like a great location. And in only a few months, it became the circuit that we know today. Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is considered a road circuit, but unlike Monaco or the upcoming Valencia and Singapore, the public use of the roads was considered secondary to the circuit during construction. Although it may sound odd, the roads were initially built with the track in mind, and when races aren’t being held, the highway is opened up for the public.

This makes Circuit Gilles Villeneuve very interesting. With Monaco, a massive operation is undertaken each year to convert the local roads of the principality to a safe environment for Formula One. The roads are closed and you can’t even imagine to disruption caused to the local residents. And believe me, despite property prices being quite high in Monte Carlo, there are a lot of residents to consider. However, Ile Notre-Dame is somewhat more peaceful, with the park only really being used for exercising French-Canadians, running or skating around the landscaped scenery.

Because the circuit’s roads aren’t used by the public that often, the condition of the tarmac remains in good order, and the setting up of the race is less of an operation as it is in Monaco, and will be in Valencia and Singapore later in the year. The lack of intense public use means the circuit can be maintained and updated easier, however, the track has become increasingly popular in recent years. In 2002, the Champ Car World Series visited the track for the first time, and this allowed fans to get a glimpse of the American cars and compare them directly to the Formula One machines. Although it is perhaps not entirely fair to make a direct and blunt comparison, the last Champ Car race in 2006 had a pole time of 1m20.005s, set by now Scuderia Toro Rosso driver Sebastien Bourdais. In the same year, Fernando Alonso took pole in his RenaultF1 with a time of 1m14.942s. Of course, Formula One fans like quoting those times while Champ Car fans point out the variety of differences and conditions that may have hampered Bourdais on his lap.

Getting back to the circuit’s history though, the first race, held in 1978, was perhaps its most famous. On the grid for the inaugural event was a young Canadian driver making a name for himself in Formula One, and he went by the name of Joseph Gilles Henri Villeneuve. A local boy, Joseph became more commonly known as Gilles, or that crazy driver with equally crazy skills, lined up third, but by lap 50 of the race was in the lead. The young Villeneuve remained in first until the the chequered flag, the event being his maiden victory. To the roar of the crowds, Villeneuve stood proud on the podium to accept his trophy.

To date, Gilles Villeneuve is the only Canadian driver to win his home race, and with a distinct lack of Canadian talent in Formula One and lower formulae at the moment, it will be a while before we can even see a potential home-race winner in Montreal. The circuit’s most notable winner was Michael Schumacher, the German world champion having succeeded in Montreal a total of seven times. Interestingly, two of the sport’s most successful drivers in the late-eighties and early-ninties – Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost – only won three Canadian events between them, Senna getting the upperhand on his French rival.

In 1982, just five weeks after the tragic death of Villeneuve, the circuit was renamed by the city of Montreal from Ile Notre-Dame to Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, and Ferrari, Villeneuve’s team, brought only one car to the race. That car belonged to Didier Pironi; a great rival of Villeneuve right up to his death.

On the grid for the ’82 race, Peroni stalled his car in pole position, and the drivers behind struggled to swerve around the stationary vehicle. Raul Boesel clipped the stranded Ferrrari and caused a minor impact for himself and two other drivers, but after everyone had thought that all drivers had cleared the immobile car, disaster struck. Riccardo Paletti, who had started from the back of the grid, smashed into the back of Pironi, causing his Osella to strike Geoff Lees’s Theodore.

Paletti was extracted from his battered car after a fire had engulfed the wreckage and had been extinguished by marshals. Paletti was rushed to hospital, but unfortunately the Italian died later that day with his mother by his side. Surprisingly, Riccardo suffered no burns despite the fire, but massive chest injuries and heavy intoxication from the exhausting foam all contributed to the driver’s passing.

Considering the high-speed nature of Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, and the uncompromising barriers that line some parts of the track, it is perhaps surprising that Paletti is, as far as I wish to research, the only fatality at the track. However, the track does occasionally come under fire from Formula One fans and authorities as being dangerous. In 1997, Olivier Panis suffered a very large accident on the back leg of the track, clouting the barriers on either side before coming to a rest at the track’s side. The safety car was deployed and Panis received medical attention at the scene. After a short while the race was stopped and milions around the world looked on in horror as the popular French driver was carted away in a ambulance. Panis suffered two broken legs from his impacts, but impressively only missed seven races before returning to Formula One and driving just as well as hie had before his accident.

Last year, in 2007, Robert Kubica became the second driver in my memory to have a huge accident at the track, the Polish driver clipping the rear of Jarno Trulli’s Toyota as he came down to the hairpin. Kubica’s BMW was catapulted into the air, almost grazed an advertising hoarding before thumping back down onto the grass and spinning violently across the circuit and smashing into the barrier. Like with Panis’s accident, the world held its breath and willed Kubica to get out. Alas, feeling concussed and disorientated, Robert couldn’t remove himself from his car and medical assistance was quick on the scene. A sprained ankle and sore neck was all Kubica suffered though, and after missing just one race the resiliant driver was back at the helm of this BMW.

But not wanting to end this post on a down moment, Canada has seen highs that easily surpass the lows. In 1995, after wowing the Formula One fraternity with his dazzling pace and car control for six-and-a-half years, Jean Alesi took his maiden grand prix victory at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. The win was justly deserved, but sadly became his only in a long career that surely merited more. The event was so emotional for the French-Sicilian driver he admitted to crying so hard on his slow-down lap that each time he braked into a corner, his tears were lifted from his face and splattered on the inside of his visor. Only Rubens Barrichello I think has cried so much after winning a race.

I have a great fondness for Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, its speed, corners, overtaking possibilities and of course, the passionate Canadian and American fans who line the track each year. The circuit also catches out the very best of drivers, just as Monaco did last week, the Wall Of Champions claiming the pride of many world champions over the years. Fortunately, the track rarely comes under heavy, consistent fire from Bernie Ecclestone, and its future looks rosey on the calendar at the moment. Next weekend will see the thirtieth race at the track, and no doubt the race will continue to be on Formula One’s calendar for much, much longer.

Oliver White

3 comments

  • Umm, that’s Pironi, not Peroni.

    Kubicca’s accident could have happened anywhere on the F1 calendar – Canada drew the short straw, I guess. He hit the back of Trulli’s Toyota in a moment of inattention and this threw the BMW’s nose into the air. From then onwards Robert was just a passenger and the car was going to go where it was going to go. So I don’t think we should ascribe the severity of the accident to the track – although the concrete walls certainly made for an unforgiving impact, there are plenty of those on other circuits.

    Panis’ crash was another oddity and may well have been caused by mechanical failure rather than a misjudgement on Panis’ part (I can’t remember what they decided afterwards). Accidents just don’t happen on that stretch of track. Which is all just to say that Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is not accident-prone and has caused very few problems over the years. Long may it continue!

    And a final minor disagreement: I think that accident changed Olivier Panis completely. He was damn good before it and only competent thereafter – which is noticeable in his results.

  • What really surprised me the only time I was there (not during a race weekend sadly) was the track itself, it doesn’t look like much …better suited for motorcycles I’d say, I mean there is barely any space for overtaking maneuvers or anything … I recall going all around the track and the speed signs reminding me not to go over 30 km/h … it was quite amusing.

  • Hi Clive, just to clarify a couple of things. I wasn’t intending to suggest that Circuit Gilles Villeneuve was a particularly dangerous place. I did mention that it only occasionally comes under fire, and to the credit of the circuit owners, they do seem to update the track whenever and wherever possible. Panis and Kubica (that’ll be with one ‘c’ and I’ll correct my spelling error in just a moment (I have Nastro on the brain)) crashed at different places. Kubica had his incident on the straight going down to the hairpin (between 10 and 11), Panis hit the walls between 5 and 6 (or 3 and 4).

    I would agree that Panis’s accident changed him, but I also think the cars he drove after the accident were inferior to the ’97 Prost (which was really a Ligier with a half-decent motor in the back middle). He did well on his comeback, and well for the rest of the season all things considering. But ’98 onwards he didn’t do so well. Perhaps partly him, perhaps partly the car and team. It was a shame, but at least he won a race in his career, a moment I’ll never forget.

    @underdog: Thanks for commenting. If there’s one thing I love it’s photos from Albert Park and Monaco of cars whizzing by road signs saying “30km/h”. Strangely, despite the signs you speak of, you never see them in photos from Canada. Maybe they remove them for the race and put them back afterwards?

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