Friday 6 October 1978: 28 Formula 1 drivers went out on track for practice for the Canadian GP, the last race of the season, which was held for the first time on the perimeter roads of Ile Notre-Dame in Montreal, Quebec. The track replaced Mosport Park, famous for its climbs and drops but now too dangerous to race on.
The two championships were already decided. Lotus had won the Constructors’ title and Mario Andretti the Drivers’. The British team had been extremely motivated because they wanted to win in honour of poor Ronnie Peterson who had passed away in a terrible accident at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. There were a lot of driver changes in store for 1979. It was Carlos Reutemann’s last race with the Scuderia before he moved to Lotus, while Jody Scheckter was about to part ways with Wolf. His future lay with Ferrari, where he would join Gilles Villeneuve. The Canadian had been confirmed for the following year despite being beaten by Reutemann in the championship. The Argentine was battling with Niki Lauda in the Brabham for third place in the championship. He had won in Brazil, Long Beach, Great Britain and at Watkins Glen. Villeneuve on the other hand had only scored eight points, finishing third in Austria, fourth in Belgium and sixth in Holland. However Enzo Ferrari believed in him and decided to give him another chance.
In the first sessions, in pouring rain, Ferrari were ahead, although Jean-Pierre Jarier, replacing Peterson in the Lotus, topped qualifying. Scheckter took second followed by Villeneuve. On race day the track was wet and the temperature never rose above one degree, making snow a real possibility. Jarier got away perfectly, followed by Jones who was lightening fast in getting from fifth to second, passing Scheckter and Villeneuve. The Lotus had the lead and was incredibly fast, speeding away. Jones however was struggling more and more, having to fend off the future Ferrari 1979 pairing. On lap 18, Scheckter found a way past the Williams and Villeneuve did not have to be asked twice and was up third on the next lap. The Canadian easily closed down the gap to the Wolf and on lap 25, the moment the 130,000 fans had been waiting for arrived. Villeneuve overtook Scheckter and immediately upped the pace.
With 20 laps remaining, the television cameras captured Jarier struggling to shake off Jacques Laffite in the Ligier who he had just lapped. The race leader was forced to brake much earlier than usual. The problematic braking system on the Lotus only allowed the Frenchman one more lap in the lead before he was forced to return to the pits. Villeneuve, watched by Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his wife Margaret, was leading the Canadian GP for the first time ever.
Gilles was in the lead of a Grand Prix for the fourth time in his career. The first was at Long Beach, where he ended up out of the race after a clumsy attempt at lapping Clay Regazzoni. He had lead for several laps in Austria and for a long while in the tragic Italian GP, when he was penalised for a jump start. Villeneuve was worried that something else would go wrong and after the race talked about those moments: “The last laps were torture. I was driving like an old woman. I changed gear at 10,000 rpm instead of 11,500, I was listening to every vibration and saying to myself: ‘Come on, you’re driving a Ferrari, Ferrari is the best, a Ferrari never breaks down.’” The first Canadian GP to be held in Montreal ended with Gilles in the Ferrari first past the chequered flag. The roar from the crowd was deafening: it was not only the Canadians cheering but also the many Italians who lived in Montreal, where the passion for Ferrari is almost as strong as in Italy.
It was a race of firsts: the first in Montreal, the first win for a Canadian racing in Canada, Gilles’ first in Canada, the first live BBC transmission and the first and only time where rather than champagne on the podium, they celebrated with a magnum of the beer produced by the race title sponsor, whose name, quite by chance, Gilles also had on his helmet. Villeneuve took a victory that many had predicted and which silenced his doubters in Italy and abroad.