As the Formula 1 season moves to Canada this weekend, we look back on the 1978 Canadian Grand Prix; the historic first race at the Montreal circuit, the final for the season, with a victorious hometown hero.
The 1978 Canadian Grand Prix moved from Ontario’s Mosport Park to the newly built and then-named Circuit Ile Notre-Dame in Montreal, due to safety concerns at the former circuit. The new track, constructed on a man-made island in the St. Lawrence River, was not without controversy; drivers complained it was too narrow and that overtaking was difficult, while Lotus driver Mario Andretti suggested it was designed to favour Canadian Gilles Villeneuve.
Ferrari’s Villeneuve was competing in his second year in Formula 1, but it was his first full season after racing in only three Grands Prix the previous year. He had secured just the one podium in his career, a third place four rounds earlier in Austria and sections of the Italian media had suggested he be dismissed, but Ferrari stood by him.
It was a cold and wet October weekend in Montreal, and Villeneuve and his teammate Carlos Reutemann set the pace during a rain delayed Friday practice session. There was intense competition during qualifying as 28 cars fought for a restricted 22 starting places, despite the Championship having been secured by Andretti three races earlier. The rain continued into Saturday resulting in uncharacteristically poor performances from the usual front-of-the-grid drivers. As the weather cleared towards the end of the qualifying session, the Canadian secured a third place start behind future teammate Jody Scheckter (who would join Ferrari in 1979) and pole-sitter Jean-Pierre Jarier.
Race day was cool and overcast; and the local favourite did not get off to a good start, immediately dropping back to fourth place after Alan Jones shot up from fifth to take second. The race saw a total of nine retirements from accidents and car trouble, including that of Jarier. He had appeared seemingly unbeatable, until an oil leak caused him to retire, sending the Canadian fans into raptures of applause as it gave Villeneuve the lead and, eventually, his first Formula 1 victory; the fact that it was on home soil made it all the more rewarding.
As Gilles Villeneuve stood on the podium in front of a cheering home crowd at the circuit that four years later would be named after him, holding the winner’s trophy above his head, tears of pride and joy filled his eyes. History was made that cold October day in Montreal and has yet to be repeated.
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