It was like the old days of Expo 67. Huge crowds all excited and all going in the same direction. Packed subway trains released their cargo of spectators on Ile. Notre-Dame. Instead of pavilions, they had come to see the spectacle of Grand Prix car racing. Already the air was full of screaming engines upshifting and downshifting their gears through the corners, bright colors traversing the visual field. The cars moved with the speed of cannon shells. Somehow the helmeted figures inside were controlling these mobile rocketsleds. The air was filled with swirling scents of racing oil. Big-time auto racing had hit Montreal, the new Monaco of the North.
The sleek black Lotus-79 of JeanPierre Jarier made the fastest time in the qualifying races. The Lotus car incorporates an inverted wing design for its body, a design first used in the Second World War on the wing of the Mosquito aircraft; the faster the car goes, the more suction effect develops beneath the car to pull it down, giving greater traction in the corners.
Jody Scheckter was second in qualification, driving the WR-5 Walter Wolf car. His driving style suited the sliding and slippery conditions of the track. Third fastest was Gilles Villeneuve of Berthierville, Quebec, in his Ferrari 312 T-3. A Canadian car and a Canadian driver both in the top three, the debut of the new Grand Prix circuit Ile. NotreDame was off to a flying start.
Montreal is a city of flair and exuberance. Witness the way the Olympics were pulled off despite the difficulties and pundits. And with an eye on the upcoming municipal elections, what better way than for Mayor Jean Drapeau to peacock his way into public attention by staging a premiere sporting event, the Grand Prix of Canada. He jumped at the opportunity when presented to him by Grand Prix du Canada Inc., an umbrella company of Labatt Breweries.
Prime Minister Trudeau landed in his white Jet Ranger helicopter, with a great flourish, to start the race. The cars made one warm-up lap before arriving at their staggered grid positions and the engines reached a frenzy as the starting light was given by Trudeau. The pack of cars swarmed toward the first chicane and after one lap, Villeneuve had been passed by Alan Jones.
In the back of Villeneuve’s mind were his instructions to go easy on the first 15 laps to allow his tires to warm up.
The order was Jarier pulling away from a small train made up of Jones, Scheckter and Villeneuve. Alan Jones began to have one of his rear tires go flat and on the 20th lap of the 70-lap race he was passed by Villeneuve. At the last hairpin turn of the course the fans were out-yelling the noise of the cars. “Go, Gilles, go,” they chanted Coming into the turn the two cars were side by side, Villeneuve suddenly accelerated, then applied maximum force to his brakes. He slid in front of the Wolf car and now was occupying second posi-
tion. Recalling the incident later he quipped, “Yeah, I really had to grit my teeth on that one.”
Meanwhile Jarier’s Lotus had built up an immense lead of over 30 seconds. Suddenly on the 48th lap, Jarier pitted his car. The gearbox had ruptured an oil seal; he had driven his car too hard. His day was over. Just then Villeneuve passed by the pits and glanced quickly at his pit signal.
A shiver went up his spine. He realized that he was leading the race. As he circled the twisting course around the perimeter of the island he kept saying to himself, “Ferrari is the best car, Ferrari is the best car.” He began to get anxious. He recalls the experience; “Those were the longest laps of my life. I kept hearing extra noises from the car.” Controlling his steering wheel, gearshift and brake pedal, he talked himself deeper into concentration. “My car won’t break now, it will never break.” He was pacing himself; the pain in his back from the constant brusque movements and over 2,000 gear changes had vanished. He was aware,out of the corner of his eye, of the partisan crowd waving him on.
As the bright red Ferrari made its last lap, it was swept along by a wave of outstretched hands» When Villeneuve crossed the finish line he flung both his hands in the air in jubilation. He had won his first Grand Prix. A Canadian champion appears to be in the making.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.