Changing tracks: Circuit Gilles Villeneuve

Changing tracks

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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 (click to enlarge)

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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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32 comments on “Changing tracks: Circuit Gilles Villeneuve”

  1. It’s a shame they couldn’t find more runoff for the right-left-right of the original course. That looks like it was probably a little more fun to drive than the current course. Then again the drivers seem to enjoy it just fine as it is.

    1. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the amount of run-off. The run from Tamburello to Tosa at Imola had plenty of run-off, and yet claimed two lives in as many days. The issue was that the stretch of circuit out of l’Epingle was a series of high-speed flicks, and if a driver got it wrong, there was a good chance of a bad accident. Formula 1 cars in 1994 had considerably less protection around a driver’s head than they do today.

      1. The circuit claimed 2 lives that race weekend, not the same corner.

        1. He didn’t say “the sme corner”, but “the run from Tamburello to Tosa”. Villeneuve is after Tamburello and just before Tosa.

          1. Yeah. But back then, it didn’t really have a name.

            Did it?

      2. “Formula 1 cars in 1994 had considerably less protection around a driver’s head than they do today.”

        And considerably less downforce…the sad thing is that todays cars would probably be safe enough and capable enough to be able to use the circuits the way they were pre-1994…

        1. I was thinking the same thing.

          1. With this circuit though it does seem like the changes to the track have all improved the racing. I’m glad it’s like it is now rather than it’s original form because the original form, declared hard to overtake on by James Hunt, would have required higher downforce and more performance effected following.

    2. That was the best section of the track. You should have seen Gilles Villeneuve take it flat out in his 1979 ground effects Ferrari, as I did. Unbelievable! There was a slight rise with a a bump at the top. The bump would destabilize the car (as the suction was broken) and Villeneuve’s Ferrari would twitch violently for a fraction of a second before regaining the ground effect. The most spectacular sight I can recall in all my years of viewing motorsports up close.

  2. Keith, in the future, would it be possible to draw these maps in a colour other than red? I’m red/green colour-blind, so it can be a little dificult. I know where the circuits go, but sometimes it’s a little hard to see the previous incarnations. And while I have no trouble with it because I’ve been following the sport for so long, newcomers might struggle.

    1. Fair enough, I’ll see what I can do!

    2. I have the same problem – perhaps a bright yellow?

    3. Im the same, i was wondering what i was meant to be looking at earlier. Was only when i massively zoomed in i realised there was a red line heh!!

  3. i was there in 1996, hill won villeneuve second. The ambience is second to none, but you need to spend money on a grandstand, otherwise you don’t get to see the race because there are a lot of banners obstructing your vision on the general area. That year with the v10’s you needed earplugs, otherwise due to the track configuration, the noise was a torture. A nice race but i would not come back.

  4. Interesting article and excellent to see a comparison of the original and current tracks. Mind you, you could probably write a couple of chapters on the history of the Wall of Champions alone!

  5. I was amazed watching the classic GP’s on the Red Button this week to see how different the track used to be. I mean, it wasn’t completely different, but there were some parts that I just couldn’t tell where the cars were. The older version did look splendidly quick all-round though.

  6. I seem to remember a more recent race, sometime in the last 10 years, with a chicane somewhere down the main straight after the hairpin. Sounds alot like the tyre chicane described by Martin Brundle, but I know it wasn’t that race as there was no way I was going to be allowed to watch a race starting at 2am my time (Aus) when I was 8 years old…
    Or am I making that up? I might just be crazy, or perhaps it was an indy race i watched there or something…

    1. Im with you on that, i pretty certain that there was a Chicane at some point on the long back straight. I think ive got footage of it on one of the season review videos.

      1. I do believe it was the 1994 and 1995 seasons. Was definately there in 1995 because I remember it from the ‘Formula 1’ game on the PlayStation, which was 1995 season-based. It was at the kink after the hairpin.

        1. I only bought that game a few years ago and I didn’t have a clue there was a chicane there first time I played it. Boom, instant retirement!

  7. Keith, i’d love to see you write a book on the history of tracks and how they’ve changed over the years.

    1. It would be a depressing book. Insert good old days picture/map of any number of tracks, then on the following page you could show how they have ****** it up with tight corners and endless tarmac run off.

      1. On the subject of the circuit’s layout, the chicane before the present start-finish was also tightened sometime in the mid-late 80’s I believe. I think you can see the earlier part of the circuit on the google map above.

        1. Yes. I think you are right about that. that was changed early on I think, when they removed the extra left right combination down towards what is now the first turn.

          Still, Montreal is an example of a track that has not changed to much, it has its character. Funny to hear some of the drivers whining about lack of grip and it being slippery. How do they cope….? Chin up princesses!!

  8. Canada to my mind is how simplicity of a track leads to great racing. One long straight and a twisty way to get back to it. Best track on the calendar. Just enough run off to not be dangerous, but not enough to allow drivers who make mistakes to get away with it.

    I can’t wait


    Old Montreal layout, RFactor 1979 mod and track

  10. The chicane can be well seen in this video of 1994 race. Go to 2:38. Also Frentzen’s crash (car can be seen abandoned) happened at that corner.

  11. At times like these, I really wish I could watch youtube videos at work…

  12. I love this Grand Prix. The atmosphere of the race seemed to change at the start of the 1990’s.

    I thought the L’Epingle section of corners were mega. I remember a battle between Alesi and Senna in 1993 heading out of the hairpin side by side and racing in to the fast right-left-right with two of the bravest drivers at the time I remember curling my toes in anticipation because despite Alesi having the inside for the first part Senna held out for the right hand corner.

    I would love to go the this race one day!

  13. i was there in 1996. The best result for villeneuve. second behinde hill. Total williams domination, so no the best gp. Nice atmosphere, but i would not come back.
    You need to buy a grandstand ticket, otherwise your view it’s very limited, and because it’s always a sell out, you struggle to find a nice place to watch. Better to watch this one on tv.

  14. This is one of the few times where I think the changes have been an improvement,. There’s a few fast left-right flicks gone and they would have been exciting, but the way the circuit is now it’s probably better for overtaking.

    Canada is always a good race – just a shame I can’t be in neighbouring Quebec this weekend :(

  15. I was lucky enough to be there in 92 and 93, the last time you could stand along the wall after the right left right before the back staight. It was AMAZING to see the change of direction and then the cars would whip right past you ( no safety barrier, just the wall) at at least 150MPH. We were surprised even then that they would allow spectators to be just inches from the track. Nowadays its ten feet minimum with catch fence, etc. I still love the track but its gotten WAY too costly to attend the race. Shame.

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