Montreal’s new track facilities are as far removed in every sense as it’s possible to be from the original temporary accommodation 40 years ago.
The pits were located on the left, a couple of hundred metres from the hairpin, immediately after what is now Turn 11. The paddock was a five-minute walk from there to the end of the rowing lake, where former boathouses provided garages; an unheard of extravagance.
The cars were parked toe to tail with very little room either side for the mechanics to do their work. The more enterprising entrants — you won’t be surprised to learn that included Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team — fixed up awnings alongside rented trucks to give some sort of semblance to the more usual arrangements enjoyed when travelling in Europe.
When the organisers laid on a fleet of cream-coloured camper vans with deep-pile carpets, this was considered the height of North American luxury for some, given that ‘motor homes’ were not yet de rigueur for the less well-heeled among the 18 teams entered for the 1979 Canadian Grand Prix.
This was the second visit to a unique location on a man-made island with the St Lawrence River on one side and the Seaway on the other. The track worked its way through parkland sprinkled with the futuristic pavilions built for Expo ’67, the curious surroundings encouraging a sense of forgiveness among the teams for any logistical inconvenience.
Every single item, from toolboxes and air bottles to fuel, wheels and spare parts, had to be ferried back and forth between pits and paddock at the beginning and end of each day’s running. Race cars, usually three for most teams, with mechanics on board and a rope looped through rollover hoops, were pulled line astern behind buggies along the appropriately named towpath. All of this was played out in front of an eerily empty grandstand that faced the rowing lake and served as silent throwback to the Olympic Games in the hot summer of 1976.
For the first four years, the Grand Prix was staged in late September/early October, those additional months towards Autumn making the Île Notre-Dame a chilly, exposed place as wind whipped across the churning river.
There was very little protection to be had once everyone arrived at pits designated by a row of wooden cabins. These were no more than rectangular boxes with a window space revealed once its hinged shutter was folded horizontal to provide the only worktop worthy of the name. Rudimentary doesn’t make a start by today’s standards. But, in 1979, this was viewed as a thoughtful gesture in a country more accustomed to open pits.
Drivers, jackets zipped against the cold, had no place to hide, which was handy for journalists looking for a quote while sidestepping mechanics trying to work on cars parked en echelon in the pit lane. Including spare chassis, there were 39 cars in total.
With the World Championship having been won by Ferrari’s Jody Scheckter at the previous race in Monza, the Canadian weekend appeared to have little potential for headline news. That changed dramatically not long into the first practice session when Niki Lauda parked his Brabham-Ford, left his driving suit and helmet on the worktop and walked away, no longer a racing driver from that unannounced moment.
Racing was very much on the agenda for Alan Jones and Gilles Villeneuve as the Williams and Ferrari started from the front row and immediately went into battle for 72 laps. The lead changed hands just once when Jones finally got a chance to outbrake the Ferrari into the hairpin on lap 51. Yet there was no moaning about a procession mainly because these two were at it without let up for an hour and 52 minutes.
Jones, complete with laurel wreath around his neck, was taken by boat to the winner’s press conference in the so-called media centre. This was an office within a building close by the paddock. With the time difference to Europe working against most of the F1 regulars, journalists had to shout their ad-libbed stories from pay phones in the noisy hallway.
No one seemed to mind. And if they did, there was plenty of Labatt beer, courtesy of the race sponsor, adding a welcome finale to a novel weekend on the F1 calendar.