Changing tracks: Circuit Gilles Villeneuve

Changing tracksPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

Mansell crosses the old finishing line at Montreal, used for the last time in 1986
Mansell crosses the old finishing line at Montreal, used for the last time in 1986

The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve was first used for the Canadian Grand Prix in 1978.

The track on the Ile Notre-Dame was originally thought of as a rather sterile facility, compared to the undulating Mosport and Mont Tremblant tracks which held the race before it.

But after 30 F1 races the circuit is now one of the most popular venues. Here’s how the track has changed since its first race in 1978.

Circuit Ile Notre-Dame: 1978

Length: 4.41km (2.74 miles)

Circuit Gilles Villeneuve: 2010

Length: 4.361km (2.71 miles)

How the track has changed

Moving the start/finish line and pits

The original start line and pits was at the exit of the tighter of the two hairpins at the north end of the track at the north end of the track. It was moved to its current location in time for the 1988 race – following the circuit’s one-year absence from the calendar due to a sponsorship dispute.

The run towards the new first corner was also altered. The straight previously had an extra kink which was straightened out.

But the combination of a tight left flick followed by a hairpin remains one of the more unusual first corner sequences in F1 – and one that has been the scene of several first-lap accidents.

The old first corner sequence had seen one famous first-lap collision as well. In 1980 championship contenders Alan Jones and Nelson Piquet tangled there, and Piquet had to switch to his spare car for the restart. Its engine let him down in the race, and Jones won the title.

But those fast, bumpy curves with little run-off where the collision took place were eradicated in the mid-nineties.

The 1994 changes

The circuit originally included a sequence of fast bends which were taken flat-out. Following the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna in 1994 a new emphasis on circuit safety led to the corners behind removed.

Martin Brundle, who was the chairman of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Assoiation in 1994, inspected the circuit before that year’s race and explained the decision to change the corner in his book “Working the Wheel”:

In May 1994, the month before the Grand Prix, I walked the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve with Normand Legault, later to become the president of the Grand Prix but, at the time, the general manager of the promoters. I had a map marked with the various speeds – which was just as well because, otherwise, I might not have believed what I was seeing. […]

When Normand and I reached the very fast right-left-right leading onto the back straight, we decided immediately that something needed to be done. As a temporary measure, we created a chicane with piles of tyres just before the start of the sequence of bends. It was not elegant but we had to do something in the limited amount of time before the 1994 Grand Prix. Not long after that, they got rid of the curves completely and simply made it a quick but open right leading onto the fastest part of the circuit.
Martin Brundle

The temporary chicane was used in 1994 and for the 1995 race the run to the final corner was straightened out.

Pit lane exit and changes at the final hairpin

The most recent changes to the circuit were in 2002. The pit lane exit previously led cars onto the track in the high-speed run to turn one. This led to some near-misses, and a controversial collision between Michael Schumacher and Heinz-Harald Frentzen in 1998.

To remedy the problem the pit lane exit was moved to its present location at the exit of the Senna hairpin.

The confines of the island presented problems when the race organisers tried to extend the run-off at the second hairpin. There simply wasn’t any room to build more run-off without knocking down spectator stands.

Instead, the organisers shortened the track slightly by moving the hairpin back, allowing the old tarmac to be used as extra run-off.

The lack of space to build additional run-off has meant the circuit remained relatively unchanged for over 30 years.

In 1997 Olivier Panis crashed heavily at turn five, breaking his legs. Robert Kubica survived an even higher-speed crash heading towards the hairpin at the end of the lap in 2007. He escaped without serious injury, demonstrating the advances made in F1 car design in the intervening decade.

This year the race organisers had converted more of the run-off area to tarmac as well as repairing several patches of track which broke up during the 2008 race weekend.

In its current form, Montreal’s F1 track is loved by fans and drivers alike. Here’s hoping it never changes.

Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, 2010 Canadian Grand Prix
Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, 2010 Canadian Grand Prix (click to enlarge)

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Image (C) Honda