Aside from the great European powers, few nations have given more to Formula One than Canada.
The country can lay claim to one title-winning driver, another whose name frequently finds its way into the 'legends' column, and a fantastic circuit that always delivers great racing. The wider world may think of mounties and ice hockey, but here are five of the best that Canada gave to Formula One.
Though he never won a world title, Gilles Villeneuve has become one of the sport’s great legends. The Quebec-born racer was committed, utterly fearless, and at times downright crazy.
Villenueve is best known as a Ferrari driver, contesting 67 of his 68 grands prix for the team. He won six times for the Scuderia, including his home race in 1978 and Monaco in 1981. In 1979 he came close to winning the title, but narrowly missed out to team-mate Jody Scheckter.
At the fourth race of 1982 he fell out with team-mate Didier Pironi, who replaced Scheckter in ’81, after the Frenchman allegedly went back on a pre-race agreement. Two weeks later Villeneuve was killed in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix, aged 32, but his legacy has grown significantly in the intervening three decades.
Circuit Gilles Villeneuve
Originally known as the Île Notre-Dame Circuit, the Montreal-based venue first hosted F1 in 1978 when Gilles Villeneuve took a famous win there in his Ferrari. It was renamed after the great man following his death in 1982.
Today the track is acknowledged as one of the best on the F1 calendar, with excitement almost always guaranteed, and is a firm favourite among fans. Located on a man-made island in Montreal’s St. Lawrence River, its most notorious spot is the final turn, christened the Wall of Champions after Michael Schumacher, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve all crashed there in 1999.
Born in Austria, Walter Wolf moved to Canada as a teenager and eventually took citizenship. A successful businessman, he began investing in Frank Williams' F1 team during its early years. When Williams left to set up a new squad in 1976 Wolf took full control and the team became Walter Wolf Racing.
They enjoyed instant success, with Jody Scheckter winning the season-opening Argentine Grand Prix in 1977. The South African won twice more, in Monaco and at Wolf’s adoptive home event in Canada, on his way to runner-up in the world championship. The team ended the year fourth in the constructors’ standings, a remarkable achievement given that they only fielded one car.
Unfortunately they would never hit those heights again. Scheckter scored four podiums in 1978, including second spot in Canada, but there were no more wins. In ’79 they ran James Hunt and then Keke Rosberg, but the car was not up to scratch and they ended the campaign without scoring a point. Wolf exited F1 at the conclusion of the season.
Between the late eighties and early nineties the Canadian maple leaf was clearly visible on a number of race-winning cars.
But it wasn’t because of a Canadian in the cockpit - the symbol belonged to Labatt’s, an Ontario-based brewing company who sponsored the Williams team
The most famous and successful car it appeared on was the 1992 Williams-Renault. Driven by Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese, it was the class of the field, earning 10 wins. Nine of those were for Mansell, who also claimed the world title. But for all their success, the car had a torrid time at Labatt’s home race, with both drivers retiring at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
Jacques Villeneuve was already a racing superstar when he entered F1 in 1996. Not only did he bear one of the most famous names in the sport, he’d also enjoyed significant success in American single-seater racing, winning the IndyCar championship and Indy 500 in 1995.
For ’96 he joined the Williams team and made an instant impression, taking pole on his debut in Australia and winning four races that season. He eventually missed out on the world title to team-mate Damon Hill at the season-closing grand prix.
In 1997 he went one better, defeating Michael Schumacher for the title after a year-long battle that culminated with their infamous collision at Jerez.
Thereafter Villeneuve never made it back to the top - in fact he never won another race - eventually leaving Williams for the BAR team and then having short stints with Renault and Sauber. Since leaving F1 in 2006 he has raced in a wide variety of series, including NASCAR and World RallyCross. In 2014 he returned to the Indy 500, 19 years after his victory at the event.
While his career peaked early, Villeneuve does hold the distinction of being Canada’s first - and to date only - F1 champion. The old man would have been proud.