Hungarian F1 journalist Károly Méhes remembers his first race outside Europe, the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix. As well as witnessing Lewis Hamilton’s first win (and Robert Kubica’s big crash), the trip was also a personal pilgrimage to mark the 25th anniversary of the death of his childhood hero, Gilles Villeneuve.
Montreal became a Grand Prix host city in 1978, when the Canadian Grand Prix moved from the outdated Mosport Park to its new home on the Ile de Notre Dame. And what a fairy tale result the first race delivered! Local driver Gilles Villeneuve, who was on the rise for Ferrari, took a popular win on home soil, his first F1 victory.
His new local hero status with the Canadian fans was cemented by a hug and handshake on the podium from Prime Minister Trudeau. Villeneuve would taste more success at home with second in 1979 and third in 1981, also for Ferrari. Tragically, he was killed in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix on May 8, 1982. When the teams arrived for the Canadian Grand Prix just over one month later, the Montreal circuit had already been named in his honor, complete with “Salut Gilles” inscribed on the start-finish line.
Visiting Circuit Gilles Villeneuve
Montreal was much more European than I had expected, especially after visiting the USA. It may have been more French than English, but this was no problem for me. I was happy to enjoy the French flair, cuisine and of course the scent of Formula 1 in the air. Staying in a downtown hotel I only had to walk a short distance to get the media shuttle heading to the track. Passing the world-famous Habitat 67 buildings, I recognised all the places I knew from TV and photos, such as the Montreal Biosphère and the Casino. It felt a bit like stepping into a fairy tale world.
Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is not a modern facility compared to Yas Marina or the Red Bull Ring, but it has a unique ambience. There were no fancy motorhomes, just American-style caravans for the teams. The paddock is beside the St Lawrence river where the rowing competitions took place during the 1976 Olympic Games. It is a nice place for a day out when the weather is good. Indeed, most fans take the metro and then walk to the circuit, which means less traffic and no huge car parks.
The paddock was buzzing on race day. The big question on everyone’s mind was whether newcomer Lewis Hamilton would secure his first ever Formula 1 win in Canada after finishing his first five races on the podium! Everything was set for an exciting race after Hamilton secured his first pole ahead of McLaren teammate Fernando Alonso. Watching the race from the rather outdated press building (still in use today), everybody was ready for the sensation of Hamilton’s maiden victory…until the horrific crash of Robert Kubica in his BMW-Sauber on lap 26.
It was a shocking feeling since I had spoken to Robert just a few hours earlier, and it didn’t look like the kind of crash that he would have survived. The atmosphere in the press room was very sombre until Ann Bradshaw, Sauber’s press officer, came to announce that Robert was quite OK and had no life-threatening injuries. Hamilton did indeed go on to win the race; the first big step on his way to some extraordinary F1 achievements. After the race, Hamilton was over the moon. A young man enjoying the moment.
A personal pilgrimage
I headed to Berthierville, Gilles Villeneuve’s home town, on the day after the race. Another chapter of the fairy tale for me was about to come true. When Villeneuve died, I was 17 years old and living in a Communist country. I truly never even dared to dream about visiting his hometown and grave. After making a short tour around the small town, I headed to the museum dedicated to Villeneuve’s life and achievements. A friendly local, Gaetan, offered to show me Gilles’ grave in the local cemetery and even took me past his childhood home. What a day!
I became a teenage boy again, admiring Gilles’ daredevil driving style and hoping that his exceptional abilities would be honoured with a World Championship one day. It never happened, but he remains loved by his fans, perhaps more than many drivers who did win the crown. The 2007 Canadian Grand Prix will remain with me forever, having witnessed the historic first win by Lewis Hamilton and paid my respects to the memory of Gilles. They completed each other in a perfect way.