In October, 1978, in the cold of the Canadian fall, Montreal staged its first Grand Prix. The race also enabled a young driver from nearby Berthierville to win his first Grand Prix. And so the legend of Gilles Villeneuve was born. We join that momentous week in the newly-completed Hyatt hotel, headquarters of the Labbat’s Grand Prix of Canada
Wednesday, October 4
The Hotel Hyatt Regency is a $50m tower in the south of downtown Montreal. It is one year old; it is in keeping with the newness of this part of the city. It is also serving as “Grand Prix Headquarters”, which means that you collect your credential from the basement of the Hyatt, that the pre-race festivities, like the Gilles Villeneuve Ball, are held at the Hyatt, and that most of the Grand Prix teams, including mechanics, stay at the Hyatt. Some remain aloof – Walter Wolf’s team for one, Michelin for another – but, otherwise, this is already a Grand Prix with a difference: the paddock area is effectively marble-floored and graced with Muzak.
This morning, with most of the teams together again after two or three days in New York, or brief trips to the Goodyear factory in Akron, Ohio, is to be much like any other. Emerson Fittipaldi is clad in a red-and-white track suit as he sits down to breakfast, and Jody Scheckter is wearing his white outfit from TV’s “Superstars”. Emerson will later train at the nearby, indoor athletic track; Jody will hit a tennis ball or two. Everything is within easy reach, within calling. Clay Regazzoni, with “Klippan seat belts” emblazoned on his track suit, has booked a court for two hours. Patrick Tambay will play with John Watson, Jacques Laffite and Riccardo Patrese. Lauda and Hunt? They are to stay at the hotel today, recovering from what must best be described as a quick trip to New York. The weather was better down there – but that would appear to be all. Here, in Montreal, only two miles from the circuit, there are facilities to make out-of-town Grands Prix look positively ancient. The shopping malls are so large you need a golf cart to cover them.
This, then, is a glimpse of the future: the more the Grand Prix business expands, the more inclined will be the business to stage its races near or in major cities. Who wants to camp at Mosport when you can be in the Hyatt ten minutes after practice? At Montreal, you do your next Goodyear deal in the air-conditioned bar, 30 minutes before dinner (and not in sokme steamed-up, hired motorhome). Is there a downside to it all? Will the Montreal “street” circuit justify the Hyatt? We shall see on Friday, when practice begins.
There is an end-of-year feeling in the Hyatt this winter’s morning. The Championship has been won; for drivers like Niki Lauda the race is of only academic interest, even if this is his – and also Carlos Reutemann’s 100th GP start – even if second place in the title chase is still wide open. For drivers like Jean-Pierre Jarier, Keijo Rosberg and Rene Arnoux, by contrast, there is everything – including a good drive for 1979 – for which to fight. And for teams like Ligier this is the time to say goodbye to the Matra engine. Indeed, this is the over-riding, pre-practice mood: such has been the dominance of the Lotus 79 that a good number of cars will be having their last race at Montreal: next year they’ll all be going ground-effect.
That’s your first glimpse of this first Canadian GP in Montreal: it is at once a glimpse of the future and a last look at the past.
Thursday, October 5
You reach the track by turning left out of the Hyatt, driving 500 yards on the freeway and taking the “Ile Note Dame” ramp. Over a bridge, onto the island – and you are there, at the sight of Expo 67 and the 1976 Water Olympics.
The island is small – artificially built out of earth moved when the city’s underground railway was constructed. And, necessarily, the circuit seems small. It stretches the length of the island, with hairpins at either end and six chicanes in between. It is also brand new: the timber is still light-coloured, the grass verges recently-placed, the paint still tacky. Everywhere, artificiality prevails.
The cars are garaged in the old rowing sheds, back-to-back and side-by-side, as at Monza. And the pits are a short walk away at the exit of the hairpin, before a quick chicane.
We are out on the course now, tooling around in a road car, when up comes Hans Stuck Jnr, completely sideways in his Mercury Monarch. A grin splits his face: it must be Hans’ sort of circuit. Then Mario Andretti passes us, his station wagon on opposite lock out of the hairpin, avid journalists round about him. (And ready to cause him some bother, it turns out: remarking the circuit seems a little tighter, and a little slower than it might have been, and concluding lightly that the track seems designed for Gilles Villeneuve, he subsequently is quoted out of context by the local press. Mario is impressed with the organizers and with the circuit build overall, but the locals whack him hard re his Villeneuve comments. By Sunday morning he is saying to the media: “My criticism was over-emphasised and mis-directed. I am not critical of the race organizers. I am more critical of our own FOCA officials who were sent over here to approve the track”.)
Gilles in the wet on Friday, when his team-mate, Carlos Reutemann, had the advantage
Friday, October 6 Read more…