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Flashback: Canada ‘78 - Villeneuve scores fairy-tale maiden win 04 Jun 2013

Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari 312T3), receives his trophy from Pierre Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada. Canadian Grand Prix, Montreal, Canada, 8 October 1978. Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari 312T3) 1st position for his maiden Grand Prix win. 1978 Canadian Grand Prix. Montreal, Quebec, Canada. 6-8 October 1978 Pole sitter Jean-Pierre Jarier (Lotus 79) leads the field away at the start of the race. Canadian Grand Prix, Montreal, Canada, 8 October 1978. Hans Stuck (Shadow DN9) spins out of the race on the opening lap as the field takes avoiding action, including Jacques Laffite (Ligier JS9), who heads to the catch fencing. Canadian Grand Prix, Montreal, Canada, 8 October 1978. The crowd cheer of local hero Gilles Villeneuve. Canadian Grand Prix, Montreal, Canada, 8 October 1978. Eventual winner Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari 312T3) trails Alan Jones (Williams) and Jody Scheckter (Wolf) in the early stage of the 1978 Canadian Grand Prix. Montreal, Quebec, Canada. 6-8 October 1978 Jean-Pierre Jarier (Lotus 79) took his third and final F1 pole position, but retired from a commanding lead with technical problems. Canadian Grand Prix, Montreal, Canada, 8 October 1978. Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari 312T3) on his way to 1st position in the 1978 Canadian Grand Prix. Montreal, Quebec, Canada. 6-8 October 1978 Lotus mechanics attend to Jean-Pierre Jarier Lotus 79 after the long time leader is forced to pit with technical problems.Canadian Grand Prix, Montreal, Canada, 8 October 1978. Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari 312T3) celebrates 1st position in the 1978 Canadian Grand Prix. Montreal, Quebec, Canada. 6-8 October 1978

On the eve of the Formula 1 Grand Prix du Canada 2013 in Montreal, we remember the historic first race at the circuit which yielded a very popular winner…

As Gilles Villeneuve hoisted the large Canadian Grand Prix winner’s trophy above his head, tears filled his eyes.

Not only had the Ferrari driver just achieved a lifetime’s ambition by taking his maiden Grand Prix victory, but he’d done it at home in Montreal in front of an adoring crowd of thousands. The script couldn’t have been written any better…

The scene of Villeneuve’s triumph was the new Ile Notre-Dame Circuit (later renamed Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve in his honour following his death in 1982), built on the same manmade island that had hosted both Expo ’67 and the 1976 Olympic rowing regatta.

Situated just outside of downtown Montreal, the circuit was about as close to home as you could get for the 26-year-old Quebecois who was hoping to end an up-and-down first full season with Ferrari on a high at this, the 16th and final round of the 1978 championship.

Although he’d led races, unreliability and accidents had blighted Villeneuve’s campaign, leading to murmurings from certain sections of the Italian media that the Scuderia should consider ditching him. But Ferrari kept faith with the Canadian and they were rewarded with some promising results towards the tail end of the season.

Third in Austria was followed by sixth in the Netherlands and second on the road in Italy, before a time penalty for a jump start dropped him to seventh. Then, the week before the Canadian race, Villeneuve had been running a strong second at the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen before the flat-12 engine in his 312T3 went pop.

Could Villeneuve carry his promising form into Canada? The early indications were ‘yes’. In the cold, wet conditions that greeted the drivers on Friday, the Michelin-tyre shod Ferraris of Carlos Reutemann and Villeneuve comfortably set the pace as other drivers spent time investigating the new circuit’s muddy run-off areas, particularly at the three chicanes.

Lotus’s Mario Andretti was best of the rest behind the Ferraris, with Shadow’s Hans Stuck just behind, but all three Brabhams were in danger of not qualifying after a disastrous first day left them all outside the top 22 with heavy rain expected on Saturday.

Saturday did indeed start wet, but the track was dry for what turned out to be a tense and thrilling final qualifying session. In the end it was Jean-Pierre Jarier who claimed pole in Lotus’s fabulous downforce-generating 79.

The Frenchman, drafted into the black and gold car for a second race in place of the late Ronnie Peterson, had Wolf’s Jody Scheckter alongside him on the front row, with Villeneuve and Brabham’s John Watson completing the second row. Reutemann, meanwhile, went from fastest in the wet on Friday to 11th a day later in the dry.

Race day dawned icy cold (it was October) but dry, and a sense of anticipation hung in the air as over 100,000 fans began to file into the circuit. On the grid many of the drivers wore thick winter coats as they waited to get into their cars, several layers of fireproof clothing not enough to guard against the Canadian chill.

At the start, Jarier made a perfect getaway and immediately raced into an impressive lead. Behind him the first chicane - which many had complained was too narrow - was quick to cause problems as Stuck tangled with Emerson Fittipaldi’s Copersucar and in turn thwarted the progress of Jacques Lafitte’s Ligier.

But Jarier was having no such problems and by the 20th lap he had accrued what already looked to be an unassailable lead. His advantage over second-placed Scheckter was more than 20 seconds, whilst Villeneuve had made amends for a bad start and moved up to third, overhauling the Williams of Alan Jones in the process.

Having nursed his car through the opening stint of the race, Villeneuve then began to ratchet up the pace, easing onto the back of Scheckter’s black Wolf WR5, before lunging his number 12 Ferrari inside the South African’s car to roars of approval from the bulging grandstands.

He began to streak away from Wolf, but despite his relentless pace, Jarier maintained his monumental half-minute lead, even lapping world champion team mate Mario Andretti who was still struggling after an earlier clash with Watson.

But then, around lap 46 with the race result looking utterly inevitable, Jarier’s lap times took a sudden dip. ‘Jumper’ was renowned for his oversteer style, but observers could see the Lotus’s rear end sliding ever more vigorously and he seemed to be having particular trouble under braking.

Sensing the Frenchman’s troubles, the capacity crowd began to roar Villeneuve on in his pursuit, but it wasn’t necessary. On lap 49 Jarier reluctantly entered the pits and clambered from his stricken vehicle, his chance of a maiden victory over thanks to a cracked oil cooler that had leaked fluid all over the rear tyres and brakes. It was little wonder he’d had trouble stopping the car…

To the home fan’s amazement, their hero was now in a comfortable lead and in with a real chance of becoming the first ever Canadian winner of a world championship race. With his wife Joanne watching on, Villeneuve reeled off the remaining laps, each accompanied by deafening encouragement from the partisan crowd.

The odd snowflake hung in the air as Villeneuve finally crossed the finish line - a Canadian victory in the most Canadian of conditions. Scheckter, who’d signed to lead the Ferrari team in 1979, came in 13 seconds behind the scarlet car to claim second, whilst Reutemann finished a satisfied third on a glorious day for the Scuderia.

You could argue that Villeneuve had been lucky - that he wasn’t the fastest man on the day - but as Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau handed him the winner’s trophy, the delirious home crowd didn’t care a jot - they had just witnessed an F1 fairy tale.

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