It wasn’t too long ago that the Formula 1 circus’ visit to North American was something of a mid-season double-header, feasting on two fantastic races in Montreal and Indianapolis.
Now, it’s a quick four-day jaunt across the Atlantic – and at a time when it feels like the season has still to find its groove, let alone be headed for the mid-point and beginning its sprint towards the finish-line.
But the Canadian Grand Prix – especially at Montreal’s fantastic Circuit Gilles Villeneuve – has developed into one of grand prix racing’s marquee events, developing as it has from a cold, end-of-season affair into a summer spectacular. In many ways, it’s the race that kickstarts the championship – it’s an explosive, often unpredictable affair, and very often a place that gives you an idea of the intent of the championship protagonists. After all, a year-long campaign is very often less about the size of the dog in the fight, and more about the size of the fight in the dog.
Lewis Hamilton often used the weekend in Montreal as the springboard for his year. He was truly energised by the buzz, vibe and atmosphere that inhabit this great city, and it propelled him to some of his most stratospheric performances. It’s no surprise that he won his very first grand prix here back in 2007; he won in 2010 and, magnificently, in 2012, too. And in ’08 and ’11, he failed to finish – possibly due to the fact that there was simply too much fight in the dog on those particular weekends!
If Hamilton was very much in the right place at the right time to record those wins, he’s very much in the pound seats for this year’s race, too. Call it luck, call it judgment – but manoeuvring oneself into the best car is very much part of the art and armoury of an grand prix driver.
Sometimes, it can seem like a lucky break when a much-fancied driver – or a wild and impressive outsider – gets their backside firmly installed in the car of their choice. Equally, you would have to say that McLaren has, taken as a whole over the past few decades, not missed too many worthwhile driver choices either.
Yes, I know that Teddy Mayer’s decision to hire Patrick Tambay for 1978 instead of the dazzlingly skilled Gilles Villeneuve now looks like a mistake, but at the time we racing scribes all reported it as a pretty sound move, simply because Patrick had been so impressive in the Ensign in the latter half of 1977.
Now, of course, hindsight tells us that, although Patrick was no mean pedaller, he wasn't in Gilles' league. But the fascinating aspect of it is that McLaren's mistake need never have been made.
For why? Because Mayer had been given an unequivocal heads-up about Gilles’s talent after James Hunt’s brilliant showing in 1976’s non-championship Canadian Formula Atlantic race at Trois-Rivieres, a street circuit through the rural riverside city in Quebec. Afterwards, Hunt told Mayer to immediately sign Gilles, who had dominated the race, winning from 1980 world champion Alan Jones and Hunt himself.
Hunt’s was a piece of advice Mayer willingly and singularly ignored, much to James’s fury and frustration. James always said that Teddy’s specialty was making sure he always ignored any idea that came his way – on the basis that it had not been conceived by him.
This trait somehow managed to wind up his McLaren colleagues to an intense level of irritation – particularly on this notably baffling occasion.
At least Teddy partly saw sense, choosing to grant Gilles his Formula 1 debut by offering him a third works McLaren M23 at the 1977 British Grand Prix at Silverstone – a tale that has been widely and often discussed.
To cut a long story short, he drove brilliantly, looking immediate as though he were born to life in an F1 cockpit. Yet, when the negotiations got into top gear, Villeneuve ended up at Ferrari, alongside the great Carlos Reutemann. Like Gilles, Carlos would end his grand prix career without winning the world championship, but Gilles was a dynamic star right up until the last day of his life – that fateful afternoon at a bleak Zolder circuit when he somersaulted over the back of Jochen Mass’s March-Ford. He was killed instantly.
While Gilles’ battling performances in a string of box-like Ferraris rightly became the stuff of legend, one must wonder what Gilles would have been like had he got his hands on a more malleable car. His turbo-powered Ferraris may have been prodigiously powerful, but those big flat-12s had terrible throttle lag, and the big burly chassis were far from what you’d call nimble.
So while messrs Rosberg, Piquet et al were tearing it up in svelte and nimble Cosworth DFV-engined British garagiste entries, Villeneuve was lugging huge red buckets around with the sort of dexterity you’d more commonly associate with the driver of a Peterbilt haulage truck, far less a legendary Italian sportscar manufacturer.
It’s tantalising to consider what might have been had Gilles got his hands on a chassis truly worthy of his talents. Indeed, there were rumours swirling round the paddock in the summer 1982 to the effect that Gilles would have signed to drive one of Ron Dennis’s upcoming McLaren-TAGs – alas, had he lived to ink the deal.
Had the contract been signed, it’s fascinating to consider what might have been. If we assume that Gilles had joined for 1984, the first year of the TAG-Porsche deal, one wonders what would have become of Alain Prost, opportunistically signed at the end of ’83 after acrimoniously parting company with Renault after the pairing failed to secure the world championship together.
One also wonders what might have been had Gilles been paired against Niki Lauda, who went on to win that ’84 championship by just half a point from team-mate Prost.
Lauda/Villeneuve would have been a real fire and ice combo. While Prost and Lauda enjoyed a largely harmonious relationship, doubtless due in part to their sharing the opinion that the car was the tool that needed refining to a sharp point in order to allow them to get the best from it, Villeneuve was merely happy to use the car as a blunt instrument, pulling the laptime from it with a sheer, brutal physicality that has never been seen before or since.
While it’s easy to imagine that, such was his raw speed, Gilles would have sailed to the 1984 championship, there’s a part of me that also wonders (and fears) what might have been had he failed to find the sweet-spot of a John Barnard-penned car that famously required the lightest of touches to get the best from it.
The closest we got to see a McLaren-TAG being ragged was when Keke Rosberg got behind the wheel of 1986’s MP4/2C, but, even then, famous Flying Finn conceded that there simply wasn’t enough inherent oversteer in the car to satisfy his need to fling it about. He retired at the end of that season having failed to win a race; Prost, meanwhile, won four and his second world title – an achievement that caused Rosberg to graciously concede that Prost was simply the best man out there.
As the circus heads to Montreal next week, Gilles will never be far from our minds. The circuit itself remembers his legacy, and images of his red, tank-like Ferrari – its tyres pushed beyond screaming point and its steering cocked at a seemingly impossible angle as it careened like a snowmobile towards the apex – will adorn shops, restaurants and hotel lobbies throughout the entire city.
It’s an absolutely unforgettable image – one seared into the consciousness of every red-blooded Formula 1 fan – yet I do sometimes wonder what might have been if he’d done the same with one of those immortally famous red and white McLarens.
He would have changed history.