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Race Day : June 15th 1997

Villeneuve favourite to take the 19th Canadian Grand Prix in front of a home crowd. Jordan headed for the podium..

Situated on the Isle Notre Dame in the middle of the St Lawrence Seaway the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is laid out in parkland amidst the ‘retro futurism’ of once thrilling pavilions of the 1967 Montreal Expo. It was designed by Roger Peart as a quick remedy to fulfill the requirements of the ever increasing speed of the new breed of Formula 1 cars, too fast for the outdated road circuit at Mosport Park in eastern Ontario. The requirements of rising local hero Gilles Villeneuve had to be fulfilled after his trouncing of James Hunt and Alan Jones in the Formula Atlantic ‘round the houses’ at Trois Rivieres in 1976 and he repaid the faith of his fans by winning his first Grand Prix at the inaugural race in 1978. Paid for in part, by the Canadian brewers Labatts, it was severely criticised by drivers for being too slow. It was subsequently modified but, with its ultra long straits interrupted by slow corners and chicanes, it is extremely hard on the cars, especially under braking.

Montreal is no stranger to tragedy as the events in 1982 showed, when the track was renamed just a month after Gilles Villeneuve’s death in Belgium, in his honour. Ricardo Paletti drove his Osella Ford into the back of Didier Peroni’s stalled Ferrari on the grid and, after being pulled from the burning wreckage, died a short while later.

Whilst it seems to be generally liked by drivers 20 years on, it is often regarded as a ‘stop ‘n go’ track. As Mika Salo said last year, " have to have really good brakes and super traction. What you really need is a dragster..." For this reason the ‘point and squirt’ technique can produce rather dull racing.

Jordan Peugeot, currently the fastest car in a straight line should be extremely optimistic about a podium this weekend. Technical Director Gary Anderson says of the circuit, "The Montreal track should suit our car quite well as the important things are good traction, braking and lots of power. As a circuit, it is similar to Imola - lots of chicanes, but it is much dirtier since it isn’t used very often. The exit of the corners is more important than the entry, which makes things tricky." He continues, "Braking is the key and there is a good deal of pressure on the brakes especially in the last chicane where you are approaching at speeds of 310Kmph and brake down to 70Kmph in the middle of the corner. It’s easy to miss the chicane and find yourself in the pits!"

The omens look good for Jordan generally. Not only was it in Montreal in 1995, that the team achieved its best ever race result with a second and third finish for Rubens Barrichello and Eddie Irvine but it was there last year when current driver Giancarlo Fisichella scored his best Grand Prix finish of 1996 with an eighth place in a Minardi. Despite his guarded praise for the circuit, Fisichella said, "The long sweeping curve after the first chicane is very difficult and also quite dangerous. And I am not so keen on the hairpin bend.." Always one to take his racing seriously, he did express his desire to go shopping and take advantage of Montreal’s excelent R&R facilities to mix with the girls.

Barrichello, now driving for Stewart Ford, has less reason for optimism this year, the car and engine package is not ideally suited to such a power circuit. But, undaunted by his team’s disadvantages he said, "Canada will cause us problems because the circuit does have a long straight, but on the other hand the surface is different from the abrasive one we have just raced on in Spain. I think Montreal could suit our car very well."

His expectations are not shared by Stewart’s Technical Director, Alan Jenkins who sensibly thinks that if anything will make a difference to their chances it will be the Bridgestone tyres and their performance in race conditions. The long straight, now with the chicane removed (installed to reduce speed, in one of many knee-jerk reactions to Ayerton Senna’s death in 1994), could prove to be their undoing. "It’s very much a horsepower track these days and will be no easy trip." He said. "In recent years, Montreal with it’s slow corners and long straights has changed and become a low downforce track. We shall be taking advantage of further development of the two-plane rear wing and a low downforce front wing flap originally intended for Hockenheim."

The team to savour the optimism this weekend is undoubtedly Williams. With every chance of either Jacques Villeneuve or Heinz Harald Frentzen taking the chequered flag, the victory will be even sweeter for Boss Frank Williams as it will give him his 100th victory, making him the third most successful team in F1 behind Ferrari (109 wins) and McLaren (105) since the Championship was first staged in 1950 and at his current strike rate, by the end of the season, he could (just), be top.

Damon Hill took the French Canadian’s home Grand Prix from him last year but there looks little likelihood of a repeat performance despite the decision to run the new marginally improved Yamaha D-spec engine in the Arrows in practice on Friday. If all goes well, they will use it for Saturday qualifying, but it is doubtful that confidence in the engine will be such that they would dare use it for the race. Like all the teams Steve Clark, Arrows Technical Director, is worried about the braking. "Braking puts a lot of energy into the discs and heats them up to about 1000 degrees and it’s when they are hot that they wear a lot." He said, "With the long straights they will cool down and with the short straights between the chicanes they will overheat."

Keen to produce a better show than last year, when his Ferrari lost a half-shaft and a load of assorted nuts and bolts pulling away from a pit stop, is Michael Schumacher. His team mate Eddie Irvine, fared no better with a broken front push rod on the second lap. Better prepared and seemingly more reliable this year, Ferrari should be in contention for a podium finish. "if our excellent reliability continues the way it has been this season, I am sure we can stay in strong contention for the title even though we might not have the quickest outright package at the moment." Schumacher said recently. "I am confident that with the things we have coming throughout the season our chances will be getting even better,"

Benetton Renault seem to be rediscovering themselves after their poor performances in the early part of the season. Fundamental design flaws in the B197 have been addressed and modified and in recent testing at Magny Cours Jean Alesi set the pace and the fastest times. He will no doubt remember his one and only win in Canada in 1995, for Ferrari, after 91 tries, breaking a winless drought for the Scuderia.

After such a brilliant start to the season McLaren are desperate to prove that after a string of poor yet inexplicable performances, the win for David Coulthard was not a flash in the pan. The new high revving Ilmor prepared, F-spec Mercedes could be run for the first time in a race this weekend. After proving so impressive during qualifying in Barcelona last month, temptation is high but confidence in it’s reliability under racing conditions is not unanimous and the decision will be made after qualifying on Saturday.

Olivier Panis must be in with a shout in the Prost Mugen-Honda. Bridgstone will be taking great care to provide their teams with the correct tyres, a harder compound seems to be the current choice for the Japanese shod cars. Rumours of a new link with Reynard the chassis manufacturers for next year could also link Villeneuve with the French team despite his recent announcement that he will be driving a Williams. But when money talks a driver walks, so nothing can be certain until you see their name painted on the side of the cockpit.

Several teams have indicated their desire to run a one stop race strategy, but much will depend on the relationship of fuel load to tyre performance on the bumpy track. Also ‘grippy’ tyres will be of a distinct advantage. Eddie Irvine commented, "You have to qualify well ‘cos you can’t overtake. But you need to have tyres that are hard enough to take you through the race with just one stop. It could be a casino out there."

Of course he’s right. As usual the smart money is on the Williams and especially Villeneuve, after his rude defeat last year. But if you’re really clever you would lay down a few dollars on the Jordan team to get yet another podium position and possibly a water tight contract for three more years of Peugeot power.

But one can’t but help wanting the young Villeneuve to win if only for the sake of his countrymen. "I am really proud of my father," He said last year, "and no matter what success I have as a driver, it will not diminish his accomplishments or what his memory means to F1 fans." He will be the first to tell you that there is no pressure to win just because he is his father’s son, but the desire to win in front of a home crowd is probably the greatest motivation there is.


Chris Richardson



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