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Friday favourite: The “old-school” Canadian track that commands respect

Le Mans winner Guy Smith never tasted victory champagne at the circuit known today as Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. But Mosport was always a highlight of his time in the American Le Mans Series, and stands out today as his favourite track

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There’s a level of familiarity that Guy Smith experiences whenever he visits the former Mosport track, since 2012 known as Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. And that’s not just down to the many times he’s driven the FIA Grade 2 circuit’s 2.459-miles of challenging asphalt winding through the Ontario countryside. Scarborough and Whitby are within an hour’s drive, while Hull is just under four hours to the north in Quebec. The Yorkshireman jokes that the host of eight Canadian Grands Prix between 1967 and 1977 is “almost like a home from home”.

“I do like Canada, it’s got all the convenience of America but with a European vibe,” says Smith, a Le Mans 24 Hours winner with Bentley in 2003. “The people are quite chilled, and I just enjoy it. When I went there, I just felt quite relaxed.”

Smith spent the bulk of his professional career racing in North America and made eight appearances at the “relentless high-speed” Mosport track, which he nominates as his favourite. A strong 1998 Indy Lights campaign that included a victory on the streets of Toronto for Stefan Johansson’s team led to a move into sportscars alongside the Swede for the 2000 American Le Mans Series. That year his first encounter with Mosport in Johansson Matthews Racing’s Reynard-Judd 2KQ yielded seventh amid changeable conditions, as Dindo Capello (Audi) beat Jorg Muller’s BMW by less than two tenths in a grandstand finish. Despite the non-descript result, Smith’s track debut left a mark.

“I remember Stefan Johansson told me, ‘you’re going to enjoy Mosport, it’s one of the old-school circuits’ and I really took to it from the start,” he says. “I remember thinking ‘this is bloody quick’ because it’s narrow, especially in a prototype when you’re passing GT cars, and it’s quite a short track. And it flows, so it’s one of those tracks that you get into a really good rhythm. You feel like you’re on the edge. The car is dancing around, there’s quite a lot of elevation change, so that also makes it feel a little bit quicker. It’s like a little Nordschleife in some respects.”

Mosport hosted the World Sportscar Championship until Manfred Winkelhock’s death at the track in 1985, while concerns over track safety prompted BMW to withdraw from the ALMS round in 1999. But matters have improved in the years since, with paved run-off replacing grass on the outside of the long, downhill Turn 2 left-hander where Winkelhock incurred unsurvivable injuries after his Kremer 962 left the road.

“If you ran wide there, it was always a big accident,” reflects Smith. “It’s a little bit dangerous so from a driver’s point of view it always commands respect.

Mosport has seen safety improvements since the last appearance of the world championship in 1985 to its flowing curves

Mosport has seen safety improvements since the last appearance of the world championship in 1985 to its flowing curves

Photo by: William Murenbeeld / Motorsport Images

“You could almost argue that the prototypes are almost slightly too fast for it, it’s on that cusp. But that’s what makes it fun to drive. One mistake and it’s a big crash.”

The elements bring their own challenges at Mosport. Smith was an ALMS regular for Dyson Racing between 2005 and 2013, and the Poughkeepsie New York squad regularly used Mosport for testing when not at home circuit Lime Rock. That meant running there during winter and spring, when frost heaving occasionally created unexpected bumps in the road. In 2004, one of these launched Andy Wallace into a huge accident from which the 1988 Le Mans winner and fellow long-time Dyson driver was fortunate to emerge unscathed.

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“The car had taken off, he’d gone upside down on the roll-hoop,” recalls Smith.

The 48-year-old never managed to win the circuit’s flagship Grand Prix of Mosport ALMS round but did come close three times. He had to wait until 2006 for his second visit and aboard Dyson’s Lola-AER finished just 2.794s behind Allan McNish's Audi R10. He repeated the result twice more with Dyson’s Lola-Mazda, in 2011 after a turbo issue allowed Muscle Milk’s Lola-Aston to pass and in 2012 when he finished 10s behind Muscle Milk’s new HPD chassis. Smith regards 2006 as his favourite Mosport memory, as he reeled in McNish in the closing laps.

"You turn in with literally blind faith really and then you brake down a gear through the left and then down a gear and then the right onto the pit straight" Guy Smith

“The car was quite unsorted, but when it was quick it was really competitive,” he says. “That was one of the days where you really feel like you’re in the zone. And whenever you’re chasing down an Audi, especially with McNish on board and you’re catching him, that’s a great feeling.

“It was like being in a video game, and there’s not many circuits that give you that kind of same feeling where there’s no time to rest. At Mosport there’s very little time to take a breather. You’re into a corner, into the next one, into the braking zone. Often you’re going around the outside when you’re passing GT cars or you’re trying to find gaps and it’s quite tight and narrow. So from a concentration point of view you’re very focused.”

Despite its proliferation of fast turns, Smith says “actually, you run relatively low downforce” to gain speed down the long back straight after the double-apex second-gear rights of Turns 5A and 5B. Named in honour of 1978 world champion Mario Andretti, the straight leads into the Esses – which Smith views as the best overtaking zone on the track.

Smith has good memories from the 2006 race of chasing down McNish's Audi

Smith has good memories from the 2006 race of chasing down McNish's Audi

Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images

“The right is either a lift or a very small brake,” he says, reflecting on the circuit’s many challenging corners. “You approach that and when you’re just doing it with a lift, it feels really, really quick. You turn in with literally blind faith really and then you brake down a gear through the left and then down a gear and then the right onto the pit straight.

“Turn 1 is flat, but it’s not easy flat. You’ve got Turn 2 which is kind of like a lift, and you have to position the car really well. If you position it slightly wrong at that speed, you can run out of track really quickly.

“Turn 3 is really tricky, it’s a long double-apex corner. If you get behind somebody coming out of there all the way down the hill, then up the hill through the right and the right, you can’t really pass until the exit of 5B and you can lose chunks of time.

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“You almost go in [to 5A] too fast, come off everything and roll that momentum through the corner then focus on getting the car lined up to get a good exit out of 5B, because it’s such a long straight that it’s free laptime.”

Quite apart from the track itself, another appealing factor at Mosport for Smith is its “great fanbase”.

“It’s always a really good event, the crowds support it well,” he adds. “I just enjoyed being there.”

Smith always relished visits to the Canadian track due to its tricky contours and passionate fans

Smith always relished visits to the Canadian track due to its tricky contours and passionate fans

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

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