“I just kept saying to myself: ‘Ferrari is the best! Ferrari is the best! It doesn’t break. It never breaks!”
The first race held at the current home of the Canadian Grand Prix was in 1978 when, after spells at Mosport and Mount Tremblant, the event pitched up at the Île Notre-Dame circuit in Montreal. There was hope of a home winner, with Quebec native Gilles Villeneuve now a full-time Formula One driver for Ferrari. He headed to the season closer in Montreal seeking his first F1 victory; surely that would be too perfect a story?
Frenchman Jean-Pierre Jarrier was on pole, driving the title-winning Lotus 79 in place of Ronnie Peterson, the Swede having lost his life a few weeks earlier. With Lotus winning over half of the grand prix run that year the Frenchman entered race day as favourite.
Jarrier led away from the start and quickly built a comfortable advantage. Villeneuve meanwhile was putting in a determined drive, and sent the crowd in to delirium as he passed Jody Scheckter’s Wolf-Ford for second place – but they were about to get an even bigger reason to cheer.
Because on lap 47 the all-conquering Jarrier was suddenly unlapped by two backmarkers. He was clearly in trouble, and soon retired in the pits. He had been by far the quickest man on the track, but Jarrier now surrendered his lead to the local hero.
With the home crowd willing him on Villeneuve went on to win by 13 seconds from Scheckter and Carlos Reutemann in the second Ferrari. He had claimed his first F1 win, and he’d done it on home soil.
“To win a Grand Prix is something. But to win your first Grand Prix at home is completely unthinkable,” Villeneuve said afterwards. “I have to thank Mr Ferrari and all the team. It’s an enormous satisfaction. This is the happiest day of my life!”
There was to be no repeat victory in Canada – though he did finish on the podium in both 1979 and 1981 – but Gilles had already done enough to win himself an adoration from Canadian motorsport fans that would last for the rest of his life and beyond.
He died in practice for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder in 1982. When F1 arrived at Île Notre-Dame just over a month later the track had a new name: The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. In Canada and across the world Gilles will not be forgotten.