It was Friday 6 October 1978. 28 Formula 1 drivers took to the track for the tests of the first Canadian Grand Prix on the new circuit, created on the side roads of the island of Notre-Dame, in Montreal, Quebec. The track replaced the one at Mosport Park, famous for its ups and downs, but that was too dangerous.
It was the final race of the 1978 season – the two championships had been decided, with Lotus taking the Constructors’ title with its ‘79 model, and Mario Andretti the Drivers’. However, the British team was highly motivated because it wanted to dedicate a victory to Ronnie Peterson, who died following an accident at the Monza Grand Prix. There were many driver changes to come in 1979 – it was Carlos Reutemann’s last race for the Scuderia before he joined Lotus, while for Wolf, Jody Scheckter was on his way out. His future was at Ferrari, where he would partner Gilles Villeneuve. The Canadian stayed on despite being outclassed by Reutemann. The Argentinian fought with the Brabham of Niki Lauda for third place in the world championship, winning in Brazil, Long Beach, the UK and Watkins Glen. Villeneuve however collected just eight points, with a third in Austria, a fourth in Belgium and sixth in the Netherlands. But Enzo Ferrari believed in him and decided to give him another chance. The Ferraris led in the first sessions, held in the pouring rain, although Jean-Pierre Jarier, who had replaced Peterson at Lotus, got the better of them in qualifying. Scheckter was second, followed by Villeneuve. On race day, the track was wet and the mercury below zero. Jarier led, followed by Jones, who shot from fifth to second, then Scheckter and Villeneuve. The leading Lotus was very fast and pulled away, while Jones increasingly struggled to keep behind the Scuderia pair for 1979. On the 18th lap Scheckter found a way through to overtake the Williams, but Villeneuve didn’t hang around and took third position on the next lap.
The Canadian easily made up the gap with the Wolf and on lap 25 did what the 130,000 fans were expecting – Villeneuve overtook Scheckter and then immediately put his foot down. There were 20 laps to go when the cameras showed Jarier struggling to pull away from the Ligier of Jacques Laffite, having just lapped him. The race leader was forced to slow down noticeably earlier than usual. The Frenchman still led for a while despite the death throws of the Lotus braking system, but he was eventually forced to make a sad return to the pits. Villeneuve, watched by Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, led the Canadian Grand Prix – a first. Gilles was out in front for the fourth time in his career. The first was at Long Beach, when he came off track in a misguided attempt to lap Clay Regazzoni. He had been in the lead for a few laps in Austria and many more in the tragic Italian Grand Prix, where he was penalised a minute for jumping the start. Villeneuve feared that something would go wrong again and after the race spoke about those moments and said, “Those last laps were torture. I could hear all kinds of noises in the car. […] I was having to drive like an old woman, shifting at 10,000rpm instead of 11,500 and I just kept saying to myself: Ferrari is the best. It doesn’t break. It never breaks!” The first Canadian Grand Prix held in Quebec concluded half an hour later and it was the Ferrari of Gilles first past the chequered flag. It was a race of firsts: the first in Montreal, the first by a Canadian in Canada, the first by Gilles, the first to be broadcast live by the BBC and the first, and only, where the podium was celebrated by a magnum bottle of beer and not champagne. Labatt was the main sponsor of the Grand Prix but it was also the personal sponsor of Gilles, who, on that occasion, silenced his critics in Italy and abroad.