When F1 fans talk about Canadians they invariably speak first of Gilles Villeneuve. Perhaps the finest driver never to win a world title, Gilles lost his life aged 32 after a grand prix career that didn’t even span five full years and brought him six race wins.
After Gilles we think of his son, Jacques, the 1997 world champion. Never the driver his father was, JV was nevertheless a mega talent on his day: witness his pass on Michael Schumacher around the outside of Estroli’s final corner back in ’96 for evidence of that.
One man who we don’t think of – no surprise being as he never started a grand prix – is Greg Moore. But, had he not lost his life at the tragically young age of 24, we may well have talked of Moore in the same breath as the Villeneuves.
Because Moore was a driver of supreme talent, and one destined to win mountains of silverware until his life was cruelly ended at California Speedway in the autumn of 1999. What better time than the run up to his home grand prix to talk about Canada’s lost champion?
Born in British Columbia, Moore excelled at both racing and ice hockey from a young age. That he would eventually pursue the former was both a blessing and a curse.
After building through karts and Formula Ford he stepped up to CART feeder series Indy Lights in 1993, and in ’94 a switch to the Forsythe team saw him win the season opener (aged just 18) and take third in the standings. In ’95 he utterly dominated the series, taking a record-breaking ten wins from 12 races. The step on to the big stage of CART was now inevitable.
And it was quickly obvious that such a transition was no big deal for Moore. Remaining with Forsythe, he was on the podium at only his third race, taking P3 at the tricky Surfers’ Paradise street circuit, and went one better with runner-up spot at the Nazareth oval. Two more different tracks are tough to find, but Moore had dazzled on both. Another podium in Cleveland left him ninth in the standings. Only Alex Zanardi – ten years his senior, armed with F1 experience and driving for title-winners Ganassi – beat him to rookie of the year honours.
1997 brought more progress. This time he was second at Surfers’ and second in Rio before taking a mid-season breakthrough: back-to-back wins at the Milwaukee Mile and Detroit. Moore was still just 22-years-old.
The second half of the campaign was tough: seven DNFs from eight races, with a solitary second in Mid Ohio to take comfort from, but the writing was on the wall – Moore was a champion in the making.
1998 was to be Moore’s most successful campaign: second in the season opener, he was third at round four at Nazareth, claimed victory in Rio and then scored another P3 in Illinois Yet again the second half of the season was beset with DNFs, but thanks to another win (Michigan) and runner-up in the season finale he ended the year fifth overall.
His final year was a continuation of the previous three, and so it is little surprise that by summer he’d signed a deal to leave the Forsythe team and switch to series powerhouse, Penske. He won the ’99 opener and scored points in all of the first seven races, but again hit the skids mid-season. However he travelled to the season-ending race at the Fontana oval knowing his future was in good hands.
On qualifying day Moore was knocked off his scooter in the paddock, the resulting fall leaving him with an injured wrist. His participation was doubtful, but the Canadian was determined to contest his final race for Forsythe, the team who’d taken to the Indy Lights crown and made his name in CART. After convincing the medical crew he was allowed to start from the back of the grid wearing a brace on his right arm. Nine laps in to the race Moore suffered one of the most devastating accidents in recent American open-wheel history. His trip to hospital was merely a formality; Greg was pronounced dead shortly after arrival. He was 24.
Images from the post-race press conference of the top three finishers, who’d just been informed of the Canadian’s death, tells you everything about his popularity among his peers. The trio were speechless; Juan Pablo Montoya’s title win was a sour one, the Colombian fighting back tears after the race; the entire paddock was crushed.
For the 2000 campaign Moore had signed a deal to race for the legendary Penske team. His team-mate to be, Gil de Ferran, would win the next two titles and the 2003 Indy 500; the man who filled his seat, Helio Castroneves, has won three 500s and remains with the team to this day. There is little doubt that had Greg lived he would have amassed his own haul of silverware. Given his age F1 was a possibility – if Cristiano da Matta got the break Greg certainly would have – but we can’t speculate on that.
On the same day that Moore died his close friend and competitor Dario Franchitti missed out in the title to Montoya. Today Dario is a three-time Indycar champion and one of the most respected men in the American racing world. However he has not forgotten his old friend. After winning his second championship in 2009, Franchitti had Moore on his mind.
“On the cool-down lap, I was thinking of my buddy Greg. I was in a championship fight ten years ago but it didn’t matter because we lost him – this one’s for him.”
Other drivers paid their tributes, then and in the intervening years. Montoya said he was “going to be one of the greatest”; Michael Andretti called him “a great race car driver with tremendous talent…a great role model and friend”; double Champ Car title-winner Alex Zanardi described Moore as “a great driver”; and 2003 Indycar champion Scott Dixon recently said “We would get our butts kicked so bad if he was still around.”
Gone but never forgotten, Greg Moore is remembered as Canada’s other great lost racing icon.