by Steven Bochenek
On the surface, Canada’s Grand Prix history seems as robust as its presence in World Cup soccer. But scratch beneath the asphalt and you’ll find a microcosm of Canada itself.
Consider this litany of ancient hoser rivalries: Quebec versus Ontario; Labatt versus Molson (they’re no longer Canadian but they’re still hosers); nature versus road conditions; and finally, as is de rigeur, Canada’s self-perception and world-class inferiority complex versus international indifference.
Statistics aren’t stories. If you’re just looking for who won what when, enjoy. If you’re looking for great Canadian heroes, enjoy. But if you’re a student of history, looking for the greater story, well—keep reading.
Revenge for the Plains of Abraham?
It seems most every year, save this one, Les Canadiens are fated to battle it out in the NHL’s Eastern Conference Final while the perennially disappointing Leafs continue to raise ticket prices and celebrate 1967, a time when the two teams were genuine rivals. It’s almost a parallel of the race’s story.
The Canadian Grand Prix began in 1961 at Mosport, now known as Canadian Tire Motorsports Park. Just 70 kilometres east of Toronto, it’s a track still loved by many world-famous drivers. Though it wasn’t yet officially part of F1 championship, many F1 drivers participated in races there and won. Other greats cut their teeth there before joining F1.
So it was hardly surprising when the Canadian Grand Prix also joined F1 in 1967. That year, our nation’s centennial, Montreal hosted the world fair — Expo! — and Toronto won the Stanley Cup (whatever that is). To balance rivalries between French and English Canada, the race initially alternated annually between Mosport and Mont-Tremblant.
Unfortunately, though, Tremblant was a terrifying series of potholes that could give Montreal’s decaying bridges construction envy. With fewer than half the racers even finishing in 1968 and 1970, the venue was moved ‘permanently’ to Mosport.
Take that, Jacques Cartier!
However, conditions at the (albeit fast) Mosport circuit were hardly the paragon of safety. In 1977 drivers Ian Ashley and Jochen Mass each suffered spectacular wipeouts due to a bumpy track and weak guardrails. The following year, the race moved to a new track on Montreal’s Notre Dame Island – where Expo, and the 1976 Olympics, had taken place – making the city an unparalleled destination for race fans and pleasure-seekers.
Zut alors, King George!
Glamorous and exclusive, F1 is trumped internationally only by World Cup soccer. Indeed, it’s hard to underestimate what a feather in Montreal’s cap this was (and still is) or how much the annual event means to Montrealers.
Gilding that feather with the sort of Disneyesque impossibility that only professional sports can create, Québecois legend Gilles Villeneuve won the race that inaugural year! It was first F1 victory and the only time a Canadian’s ever won in Canada. Unbelievable!
Not all champagne and chocolats
All that glamour and celebrity does seem a bit out of place here in Canada, the land of the double-glazed and double-double. So we haven’t shone much since 1978. In the decade between 1994 and 2004, Michael Schumacher won the Canadian Grand Prix seven times.
Canadians though? Well, only 11 have ever even started an F1 race. So Villeneuve’s achievement shines even brighter in our Grand Prix history. Indeed, Montreal celebrates it to this day, having named the track the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in 1982. Tragically, that was after he’d died qualifying for a race in Belgium.
Then, within weeks, tragedy struck again at the Canadian race. Villeneuve’s erstwhile teammate Didier Pironi couldn’t start his car and was ploughed into by Riccardo Paletti, who succumbed later to injuries in a local hospital. He was just 23.
The next year, F1 switched the Canadian Grand Prix from October to June and it’s remained more or less fixed there since. Little wonder, given our climate.
Mother Nature not always a fan
There have been some wicked storms interrupting the races over the years. Indeed, in 2011 the Canadian Grand Prix earned the dubious distinction of being the longest-ever F1 race, due to a two-hour rain break. But at least there wasn’t the snow that could easily come during an October race date in its earlier days.
Other events and circumstances, natural and manmade, have threatened the very survival of the Canadian Grand Prix over the years. Groundhogs and gophers — you can’t make this stuff up — have found their way onto the track, been hit, and caused much larger collisions.
In 1987, a Molson and Labatt pissing war, so to speak, shut the race down altogether. Harsh winters also continually wreak havoc on track conditions—but they have nothing on the politics.
Doesn’t Mother England love us anymore?
In 2009 the race was canceled and only came back in 2010 after repairs were made that met with F1 übermeister Bernie Ecclestone’s demands. In 2013, that same British billionaire (and other b-word what rhymes with custard) managed to wring $15 million out of three levels of Canadian government.
He doesn’t really care about any proud traditions surrounding the Canadian Grand Prix. Ultimately, Ecclestone is strictly about money. His original demand was for $35 million from the government, so who knows how long he’ll let the race stick around?