FEATURE

Why I look forward to... Canada

Since the very first Canadian GP, at Quebec's gorgeous Circuit Mont Tremblant in 1967, the race has only taken place at three venues: Mont Tremblant, Mosport and Montreal. The first two may have been dodgy in terms of safety, but when it comes to visual appeal, no other country can challenge Canada's claim to have had the prettiest F1 race tracks in the world.

My first Canadian GP was in 1970, the last F1 event at Mont Tremblant. Situated in a ski resort a couple of hours' drive north of Montreal, it is set in pine forests with a big lake - le Lac Tremblant ("the trembling lake") - nearby. There must have been some spectators, I suppose, but they all seemed to have got lost in the woods. The teams and drivers, with no more than a couple of dozen journalists and photographers in tow, had the place to themselves.

The 1970 race, my first in North America, was run back-to-back with the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen in October, dangerously late at that northerly latitude, but in Canada the weather was great: warm, sunny days and crisp autumn evenings. Our hotel was a log cabin with comfortable beds, cheerful open fireplaces and an excellent restaurant.

Having only recently graduated to F1 reporting, via Formula 2, from a regular menu of covering clubbies from Mallory Park and Brands Hatch, I had never seen a racing venue as wonderful as this. It became even more magical on Sunday morning as some of the wealthier race fans arrived in float planes which landed on the "trembling" lake (in fact it was glassy smooth) and moored under trees whose leaves had turned fiery red and gold in the autumn sunshine.

It should have been a happy weekend, and the Canadian conviviality certainly helped to make it so. But it was also the first event since the death of Jochen Rindt, who had been leading the championship points table when his Lotus crashed at Monza three weeks earlier. Jochen had become unusually popular, not just for being the only contemporary of Jackie Stewart who could regularly challenge the wee Scot, but also for his sharp-edged sense of humour

With three races still to go after Monza, the driver with the best chance of taking over the championship lead was Jacky Ickx, whose flat-12 engined Ferrari 312 had suddenly found speed and reliability. With 24 points required to overhaul Jochen's total, the Belgian had to aim for three victories. Adding a rather bitter note to the chase was the fact that Ickx was a man for whom Jochen had nursed a deep (and inexplicable) venom.

Pole position in Canada went to Jackie Stewart, driving Ken Tyrrell's secretly-built new car, but he was an early retirement, leaving the win to Ickx. His curious name generated a memorable headline ('ICKX CLICKS, NICKS PRIX') in Toronto's Globe & Mail newspaper. Two weeks later, the threat to Jochen's posthumous title would be extinguished by a 22 year old Emerson Fittipaldi - Rindt's Lotus team mate at Monza - whose victory at The Glen put the title out of Ickx's reach before the final round of the World Championship in Mexico.

In later years the Canadian race moved to Mosport, near Toronto. Yes, it was pretty with its spectacular corners and lots of pine trees, but run-off areas were non-existent. The press facilities were distinctly primitive (I seem to remember a beaten earth floor, and just three pay-phones on the wall), and it took hours to get through the traffic on race day. Later, in 1973, the circuit gained some notoriety for a race which was run in rain and heavy fog. The results remained unofficial for several hours after the finish, before desperate journalists with an early European deadline discovered that the timekeepers had packed up and gone home.

In 1978 the race found its current home in Montreal, on the Ile Notre Dame, in the middle of the St Lawrence river. That first race, won by Gilles Villeneuve, will stay in my memory forever. I'm told it is still the only time that anyone has won his home country's GP at the first attempt, and to make things even more nationalist the winner's trophy was presented by Pierre Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister.

This is French-speaking Canada, remember, and the Quebec papers were full of reports about the province's threatened attempt to secede from the federation. On race night I had been invited to the race winners' party, held in the banqueting room of a large city hotel. It all seemed to be getting a bit noisy, so I poked my head in to see what was happening. What I saw was a flat-out celebration of Francophone pride, fueled by the invective of various pro-independence politicians. It was probably as close as you could get to a Nuremberg-type rally, and it made me feel genuinely afraid. I departed hurriedly to finish my race report.

Well, Quebec didn't secede and we're still going back to Montreal. The race is adored by the locals, and the visitors love the city, with its solid granite buildings, excellent subway and terrific restaurants. The local strip clubs are justly famous among certain pressmen. One year a prominent English-speaking journalist was so anxious to make contact with old friends that he went directly from the airport to his favourite strip joint, complete with suitcase and computer bag, and didn't emerge until early the following morning.

Yes, we all love Montreal and its people. And over the years we have discovered that it's not just the country's race circuits which are easy on the eye.

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