Special feature

Autosport writers' favourite F1 Canadian Grands Prix

Formula 1 makes its long-awaited return to Canada this weekend, with Montreal's Circuit Gilles Villeneuve hosting its 41st Grand Prix on Sunday. Here are Autosport writers' favourite races from the previous 40.

Podium: race winner Robert Kubica, BMW Sauber

In all, there have been 50 Canadian Grands Prix since 1967, with the race alternating between Mosport and Mont-Tremblant until 1971 when the former became its home.

But since 1978, it's the Montreal circuit later renamed after its favourite son Gilles Villeneuve with which the race is most closely associated, having only dropped off the calendar in 1987, 2009 and the last two seasons due to COVID-induced travel restrictions.

The former Île Notre-Dame Circuit has produced several first-time winners, unforgettable moments of drama such as Nigel Mansell's infamous final-lap retirement that gave Nelson Piquet victory in 1991, and controversies aplenty - not least during F1's previous visit in 2019 when on-the-road winner Sebastian Vettel was demoted to second by a post-race penalty.

Here, Autosport's team of writers pick out their favourites.

1979, The greatest duel – Kevin Turner

Jones and Villeneuve put on a stunning victory fight at the 1979 Canadian GP

Jones and Villeneuve put on a stunning victory fight at the 1979 Canadian GP

Photo by: David Phipps

Two drivers at the top of their games, in strikingly different cars, rarely more than a second apart. And with an on-track pass for the lead. It’s the sort of race we often hope for and rarely get, but that was the story of the 1979 Canadian GP.

Although Ferrari’s Jody Scheckter wrapped up the drivers’ crown at the Italian GP, the final two rounds of the season were all about two other names: Alan Jones in the Williams FW07 and Canadian hero Gilles Villeneuve.

Jones was the man to beat at the end of the campaign and had won three of the four races heading into the Montreal event. He admitted that qualifying wasn’t his greatest strength, yet took pole by nearly 0.7 seconds from Villeneuve, who was 1.7s quicker than team-mate Scheckter.

Typically, Villeneuve used the torque of the flat-12 to overtake the Cosworth DFV-engined Williams at the start and the two immediately headed off into a race of their own.

Jones kept up the pressure and, finally, on lap 51 of 72 he got close enough on the run to the hairpin. The Australian dived down the inside, they touched wheels and the Williams was through.

One of the things that makes this duel special is that Villeneuve then tenaciously hung on, never letting Jones get out of sight. But the future world champion held firm and took the flag just 1.080s ahead.

PLUS: Gilles Villeneuve’s greatest F1 drivers

The pace and quality of their battle was underlined by the fact that third-placed Clay Regazzoni’s Williams was more than a minute behind – in a dry race. Everyone else, including Scheckter, had been lapped.

1989, Boutsen kickstarts Williams-Renault era - James Newbold

Boutsen's first F1 win also started a new era for Williams

Boutsen's first F1 win also started a new era for Williams

Photo by: Sutton Images

There’s always something satisfying about a race that produces new winners, and Canada has had its share of those. But as well as being the occasion of underrated Belgian Thierry Boutsen’s first win, the 1989 race also marked the beginning of an era-defining Formula 1 partnership.

Held in wet conditions, the race was a typical swashbuckling performance from Ayrton Senna - only this time the Brazilian maestro didn’t see the chequered flag, as his Honda engine failed on lap 67 of 69. On hand to reap full reward was Boutsen, who took his first of three Grand Prix wins and the maiden victory for the Williams-Renault alliance that would yield four drivers’ titles in the 1990s. And it was a Williams 1-2 too, for he was backed up by Riccardo Patrese, as Andrea de Cesaris took his final F1 podium in third.

Boutsen’s win came at the 95th time of asking, which was then a record beaten subsequently by Mika Hakkinen, Rubens Barrichello, Mark Webber and Sergio Perez. Those final three laps were the only ones he’d lead all day in an unpredictable race that might also have been won by Derek Warwick’s Arrows, who was second to Senna when he pulled off when his Ford DFR let go on lap 41.

PLUS: When Boutsen beat Senna fair and square

It started with high drama when Nigel Mansell (Ferrari) and Alessandro Nannini (Benetton) both gambled on switching to slicks at the end of the second formation lap. Finding no red light, they powered out of the pitlane before the field had started. Both were disqualified.

“[The officials] should also have disqualified themselves from positions of authority at a world championship GP,” rebuked Nigel Roebuck in Autosport’s report.

Rain, poor officiating and unreliability made it a dramatic Canadian GP

Rain, poor officiating and unreliability made it a dramatic Canadian GP

Photo by: Sutton Images

Senna had quickly cleared polesitting team-mate Alain Prost, who retired soon after with a suspension fault, before pitting for slicks. Boutsen followed suit, with Senna closing on new leader Patrese, but it was poorly-timed as the rain returned almost immediately. Senna and Boutsen duly pitted again for fresh wets, then began a charging comeback although Boutsen was fortunate to escape a spin.

After Patrese pitted for fresh wets, Warwick briefly led before being usurped by Senna, while Patrese dropped into Boutsen’s clutches when problems with his undertray cost him valuable downforce. Then, Senna was out too and Boutsen - who some believed to be even better in a Group C sportscar - swept home.

“What a delight to see someone new win a GP, someone not blasé about it,” concluded Roebuck.

Could that winner have been an Arrows without Warwick’s engine woes? We’ll never know…

1999, The wall and the safety car finish - Jake Boxall-Legge

The 1999 Canadian GP began the legend of the

The 1999 Canadian GP began the legend of the "Wall of Champions"

Photo by: Motorsport Images

This was the race that earned the Turn 13 exit wall the “Wall of Champions” nickname, after Michael Schumacher, Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve and, erm, Ricardo Zonta (1998’s FIA GT champion) biffed it into the barrier. “If half of the drivers finish the race, I will be mighty surprised,” opined commentating royalty Murray Walker, in a wonderful piece of foreshadowing for events due to unfold at Montreal.

The start had been a near carbon-copy of 1998’s Canada race; Jean Alesi and Jarno Trulli collided at Turn 1 and were out on the spot – with Rubens Barrichello also tagged by the wayward Prost. Meanwhile, Schumacher attempted to scamper off from Mika Hakkinen, before a short-lived safety car was brought out solely for the second lap. On the restart, Zonta became the first victim of the Wall of Champions, clunking the exit barrier with his rear wheel – belatedly bringing out the safety car.

Hill was next to visit the wall on the 15th lap, immediately ending the 1996 world champion’s race in a miserable swansong season. Then, all was calm for a few laps; Schumacher serenely built a break over Hakkinen and began to pick his way through traffic as the race approached half-distance. Coming around to end lap 30, the race leader uncharacteristically crunched heavily into the barriers at Turn 13, bringing a close to what had seemed to be an easy victory.

Villeneuve dumped his BAR into the wall five laps later, bringing out a safety car – which then played havoc with David Coulthard’s strategy as the McLaren driver crossed a red light on the pit exit to earn a 10-second stop-go penalty. Coulthard then tried to pass Irvine for second, which resulted in contact.

From there, Hakkinen was untouchable, with Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Giancarlo Fisichella was promoted up to second and third. But Frentzen’s late-race brake failure closed out the race under a safety car – for the first time in F1’s history – to give Fisichella second. Irvine recovered to third, setting his sole F1 fastest lap in the process. And Murray, as ever, called it – 10 of the 22 cars finished. But the less said about the late commentary maestro's Jarno Trulli impression...

2007, Hamilton gets off the mark after Kubica's lucky escape - Matt Kew

The 2007 Canadian race is remembered as Hamilton's first F1 win but there was so much more to it

The 2007 Canadian race is remembered as Hamilton's first F1 win but there was so much more to it

Photo by: Lorenzo Bellanca / Motorsport Images

There are so many reasons to remember the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix. Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Then we'll begin.

Lewis Hamilton scored the first of his 103 pole positions and victories in just his sixth Formula 1 weekend at McLaren. There was the simply terrifying shunt for Robert Kubica, the underdog subplot of Takuma Sato slipstreaming past Fernando Alonso for sixth. The safety car was called into action no fewer than four times, the Ferrari team-mates bumped into one another, Nick Heidfeld and Alexander Wurz scored opportunistic podiums, Nico Rosberg and Giancarlo Fisichella went synchronised spinning, pitlane entry and exit madness led Felipe Massa and Fisichella to be black flagged… and so on and so on.

But being as this is a personal list of Montreal memories, it’s always been Hamilton’s team radio after he’d crossed the finish line that has stuck in my mind. The customary congratulations were followed by a rundown of the top eight finishers and then an injury update. “Kubica has broken…” cut to an advertisement break. In a living room somewhere in Lincolnshire, total frustration ensued while waiting four minutes for the completed sit rep to find out what had happened to one of my very favourite drivers.

PLUS: Hamilton's adversaries on his 100 wins

Quite remarkably given the 186mph impact and the very vivid image of Kubica’s feet dangling out of a smashed monocoque, the BMW Sauber driver emerged with only one sprained ankle and light concussion. He’d only miss the next race at Indianapolis, where Hamilton would seal back-to-back triumphs.

2008, Kubica avoids pitlane palaver – Charles Bradley

A year on from his maiden F1 win, Hamilton was at the centre of an embarrassing pitlane crash

A year on from his maiden F1 win, Hamilton was at the centre of an embarrassing pitlane crash

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

One of the most bizarre grands prix I’ve ever covered. For starters, the track was breaking up throughout the race weekend; after the drivers’ parade I recall Timo Glock showing me his tar-stained thumb after he’d jumped off at the hairpin – “I pushed it into the track and it just kept going down!”

Drivers were even told to avoid the apex of the hairpin on the recon laps before the start, as it was coated with so much concrete dust. But marbles on track weren’t responsible for the biggest talking point of the race…

Under a safety car, for Adrian Sutil’s gearbox failure, all the frontrunners dived into the pitlane. From my seat in the media centre, situated only 100 yards or so from the pitlane exit of Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, I watched the TV screen as early race leader Hamilton was held from release in his box – but there was a loud ‘bang!’ and then ‘thud!’ from outside and the crowd was going wild.

I exchanged glances with my Autosport colleague Jonathan Noble and had time to mouth “what the hell was that?” before the delayed TV pictures retold the story of what we’d just heard for ourselves outside…

With Raikkonen and Kubica rejoining ahead of Hamilton, they both stopped for the red light at the end of the pitlane – but Lewis didn’t! He ploughed into Raikkonen, while Nico Rosberg then smacked into Hamilton.

The next bizarre moment was seeing my ex-colleague Steve Cooper, whose shoes I’d recently stepped into as he’d joined the McLaren PR department, run down the pit lane to collect Lewis and slap him on the back. Steve later admitted that he hadn’t been watching the monitors when it occurred, and so hadn’t a clue what had happened!

Fortunately, Kubica’s undamaged BMW Sauber calmly motored around Kimi’s detached rear wing as the green light flashed on, avoiding the nonsense that was a defining moment of the race – although he still had to overcome his one-stopping teammate Nick Heidfeld with some searing laptimes.

A year on from his huge Montreal crash, it was an especially emotional triumph for Kubica (sadly, his sole F1 win) in a momentous BMW Sauber 1-2.

PLUS: The remarkable qualities that propelled Kubica’s F1 comeback

2011, Button’s last-lap steal after Vettel’s blunder – Haydn Cobb

Button passed Vettel on the final lap of the 2011 Canadian GP after an eventful race

Button passed Vettel on the final lap of the 2011 Canadian GP after an eventful race

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

It was a race that had it all and Jenson Button’s most famous Formula 1 grand prix victory – even if it only gets an honourable mention on Kevin Turner’s top 10 list of greatest wins by the 2009 world champion.

PLUS: Jenson Button’s 10 greatest F1 races ranked: Spa, Suzuka and more

Sebastian Vettel appeared to have the race under control after fending off Fernando Alonso in a rolling start on a drying track, as chaos reigned behind them.

Lewis Hamilton tapped Mark Webber into a spin at the first corner, but on lap eight his race was over as the McLarens clashed on the main straight, Button unceremoniously pinching his team-mate against the pitwall.

Button’s afternoon became trickier when he was given a drivethrough for speeding behind the safety car, but a mid-race red flag for torrential rain gave the British driver a reprieve.

But not for long, as Button’s race took another turn for the worse on lap 37 when he collided with Alonso and picked up a puncture, dropping him to the back of the field. It would mark Button’s fourth trip to the pits and, seemingly, his race run.

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However, having benefitted from the safety car called out for Alonso’s beached Ferrari in their coming together, Button carved from last to grab victory from Vettel when the Red Bull driver dipped his wheels on a damp patch that tripped him into a half-spin on the final lap.

Button scored his most famous win in Montreal, but it arguably wasn't his best

Button scored his most famous win in Montreal, but it arguably wasn't his best

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

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