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History of the Canadian Grand Prix

FORMULA One takes a brief break from Europe for its first visit to North America this weekend and the Canadian Grand Prix doesn’t do dull!  33 years of glorious action at Montreal, with its first event being an emotional success for Ferrari’s Gilles Villeneuve in 1978 on home soil.

The circuit has changed on occasion, the weather can be unpredictable and strange things seem to happen here more often than not, such as regular scrapes with the infamous Wall of Champions at the last chicane and the pitlane red light.  The sport didn’t visit Canada in 1987 or 2009 but its popularity with the teams and drivers mean a great atmosphere is always created between the fans and everyone associated in the paddock.

In 1991, Nigel Mansell looked set to secure a dominant victory, having led throughout until he suddenly slowed entering the hairpin on the final lap.  The Brit’s engine died and he beat the steering wheel in frustration as his Williams crawled to a halt.  Mansell had prematurely started waving to the crowd as he began the last lap and had accidentally dropped his engine revs which ultimately caused the problem.  Nelson Piquet came through to take a fortunate win for Benetton.  It was the great Brazilian’s last ever triumph in F1 and Pirelli’s last as a tyre supplier until their re-entry into the sport at the start of 2011.

Four years later, Michael Schumacher had a similar advantage in his Benetton Renault when a gearbox gremlin left him coasting back to the pits for a new steering wheel with 12 laps to go.  The change cost him a certain victory but what it did do was open the path up for Jean Alesi to take his first and only win at his 91st attempt.  It was the Frenchman’s birthday and what made it even more special, he was driving Ferrari n0.27, the exact number Villeneuve had when he won in 1978.

Gilles’s son Jacques came into the sport the following year but success went onto elude him at the circuit named after his late and daring dad.  A close second place finish to Damon Hill at his first attempt in 1996 was to be his best result at Montreal.  He had a string of accidents and mechanical gremlins that always got in the way of a special success.

Schumacher won his second Canadian Grand Prix out of seven in 1997, although it was lucky as a precautionary tyre stop for David Coulthard went wrong.  The McLaren’s clutch overheated and he stalled twice in the pits, losing an eternity of time.  The race was cut short as Olivier Panis suffered a front suspension failure on his Prost through the turn five/six complex.  Panis hit the concrete wall on the outside, before hurtling into the tyre barriers on the inside, with his car failing to deceleration in speed.  The Frenchman broke both of his legs and his Formula One career that was full of promise, never really recovered.

F1 history was created at the Ille Notre Dame in 1999 as it was the first event to end behind the Safety Car.  This was after Heinz-Harald Frentzen needed medical attention following a big crash when his front brake disc exploded on his Jordan with just four laps to go.  Mika Hakkinen won the race, which was full of drama and earnt the ‘Wall of Champions’ tag in the process.  Reigning FIA Sportscar champion Ricardo Zonta and three former F1 champions, Damon Hill, Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve all crashed out at exactly the same point.  Giancarlo Fisichella finished second that day, during an excellent run of four successive podiums in Canada.

More history was made in 2001 with the first 1-2 for brothers in Formula One.  Ralf Schumacher and BMW Williams were more superior against Michael and Ferrari that day, with Ralf taking the victory by 17 seconds having waited until the pitstops to jump his bigger brother.  Hakkinen finished a distant third and said in the press conference afterwards that ‘he was glad there wasn’t a third Schumacher around!’

In 2005, the Renault team pressed the self-destruct button.  Looking set for a 1-2, they kept the slower Fisichella ahead of an animated and frustrated Fernando Alonso.  Alonso eventually was told ‘you’re faster than him, overtake him.’  Seconds later, a loss of hydraulic fluid ended Fisichella’s afternoon.  Alonso joined him on the sidelines when he hit the wall only a few laps later.  A Safety Car to clear up Jenson Button’s crashed BAR caused a miscommunication at McLaren between the pitwall and race leader Juan Pablo Montoya.  Montoya missed his chance to pit and when he did come in after a slow lap behind the pace car, he exited the pits with the red light still on.  That’s a no-no and the Colombian was promptly disqualified, enabling Kimi Raikkonen to win.

Montoya hasn’t been the only driver to be caught out by a red light on the exit of the pitlane.  Two years later, Felipe Massa and Fisichella committed the same offence and got the same penalty of exclusion from the event.  In 2008, Lewis Hamilton misjudged the red light still being on and crashed into the back of Kimi Raikkonen at the pitlane exit, taking both drivers out.  This came a year after Hamilton’s sensational first victory in F1, on a day when so much happened.  Takuma Sato’s Super Aguri even passed Alonso’s McLaren!

In 07, the Polish driver Robert Kubica came so close to losing his life at the track after an aeroplane shunt with the Toyota of Jarno Trulli.  His car was destroyed but he walked away relatively unscathed.  In 2008 – Kubica benefited from the Hamilton/Raikkonen crash to record his sole Formula One victory for BMW Sauber.

Last year’s race was the longest ever in the sport and was simply extraordinary.  Jenson Button survived scrapes with Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, made six pitstops and was 21st and last on lap 41.  Incredibly he won, pressuring Sebastian Vettel into a rare mistake on the last lap to clinch a stunning victory.  After last year’s drama, anything is possible especially given the unpredictability we’ve seen so far in 2012.

The Driver Files: Jan Magnussen

IN A NEW regular series, I will be profiling the careers of those drivers who won races and championships and those who either didn’t get the luck, or just failed at the top level of motorsport.  All drivers featured will have competed between the years 1991-2011.

The next driver featured is the Dane who came with big potential and left with relatively little to show for his efforts midway through 1998, Jan Magnussen.

Jan Magnussen’s one-off drive for McLaren in 1995 was a rare highlight (Global F1)

NAME: Jan Magnussen

TEAMS: McLaren (1995), Stewart (1997-1998)

POINTS: 1

GP STARTS: 25

BEST FINISH: 6th (1998 Canadian GP)

NOW 38 years old, Jan Magnussen was one of Denmark’s highest hopes but in Formula One, it all went badly wrong.  This isn’t to say that he wasn’t a bad driver, sometimes things don’t go according to form and plan.  A real shame for a driver who threatened great things in his junior career.

Magnussen came into Formula One with a huge reputation, especially after dismantling the competition in the 1994 British Formula 3 Championship.  Competing for Paul Stewart Racing, he beat Ayrton Senna’s record of 13 wins in a season.  Once he won the second event at Donington Park in April 1994, the title trophy might as well been awarded to him.  Jan won six of the first eight races and ended up with a final total of 14 wins from 18 starts.  Magnussen ended with a total of 308 points, a massive 125 points clear of his nearest challenger, which was Belgian Vincent Radermacker.

Magnussen did some testing for McLaren in 1995 and when regular driver Mika Hakkinen went down with appendicitis, Magnussen was drafted into the team for the Pacific Grand Prix in 1995.  He actually did fairly well, having a good dice with Rubens Barrichello’s Jordan throughout and finished a creditable tenth, just behind team-mate Mark Blundell.  After some touring car racing in 1996, Jan got his big break with the new Stewart Grand Prix team.  Having raced in Paul Stewart’s F3 team, he was seen the perfect fit to partner the experienced and versatile Barrichello in 1997.

The season was always going to be a learning experience and Magnussen’s confidence took a severe hit.  No points in 17 races and not many finishes either, as the Ford engine often tended to blow up rather than survive to the chequered flag.  Seventh in the wet Monaco Grand Prix was his best result and ninth at the season finale in Jerez was a solid effort, having raced the Benetton’s and Olivier Panis in the Prost for most of the event.  The Dane’s best race came at the A1-Ring, where he qualified an excellent sixth and ran as high as fourth, ahead of Heinz-Harald Frentzen and David Coulthard amongst others.  Magnussen slipped to tenth after the team put him on the wrong pit strategy and a broken driveshaft eventually ended his race.

1998 started even worse, when he took himself and Ralf Schumacher off on the third lap in Melbourne.  He was miles behind Barrichello in the same car, qualifying slowest in Argentina, 21st at Imola and 20th in Barcelona.  Stories about his future continued to put Magnussen under pressure, so crashing into Barrichello at the first corner at Imola didn’t help matters.  By the time of the seventh event in 1998, Magnussen had to deliver a brilliant performance and another dismal qualifying effort in Montreal, again in 20th left him fighting against a huge tidalwave.  His race was highly impressive, running fourth and keeping a consistent pace throughout.  Although he got some luck in the amount of retirements in Canada, he scored a championship point in sixth.  Sadly the damage had already been done and Jackie Stewart replaced him with Dutchman Jos Verstappen for the rest of the season.

Since his F1 rejection, Magnussen has turned into an almost complete motorsport competitor.  He has raced in CART, Danish Touring Cars and more predominately in sportscars.  At Le Mans every year since 1999, his best finish at La Sarthe has been fourth in 2003 and 2006.

Sir Jackie Stewart once said Jan Magnussen was the greatest young talent since the early days of Ayrton Senna.  Sadly his Formula One experience turned into a forgettable, rather than a memorable time.

NEXT TIME ON THE DRIVER FILES:  Flying Finn JJ Lehto, who has fallen on hard times of late but had spectacular natural speed. 

The Driver Files: Jean Alesi

IN A NEW regular series, I will be profiling the careers of those drivers who won races and championships and those who either didn’t get the luck, or just failed at the top level of motorsport.  All drivers featured will have competed between the years 1991-2011.

Next to be profiled was an enigmatic and often moody, yet spectacular Frenchman who had only one moment of glory to show for his 200+ events in the sport, Jean Alesi.

Jean Alesi celebrates his one and only win at the 1995 Canadian Grand Prix (MotorsportRetro)

NAME: Jean Alesi

TEAMS: Tyrrell (1989-1990), Ferrari (1991-1995), Benetton (1996-1997), Sauber (1998-1999), Prost (2000-2001), Jordan (2001)

POINTS: 241

GP STARTS: 201

BEST FINISH: WINNER (1) – (1995 Canadian GP)

JEAN Alesi was one of Grand Prix racing’s leading stars in the 1990s.  He was awesome in the rain, often searing fast on a flying lap and put in some spectacular performances against the odds.  Therefore, for someone who drove for Ferrari and Benetton between 1991 and 1997, it seems staggering to think that the Frenchman only ever won one Grand Prix in his entire career.  Alesi had some rotten luck and also had his off days.  Plus he was never shy to criticise anyone if he was unhappy with the setup of his car.  An emotional character who was always committed and in many’s eyes, deserved more but for some dodgy career moves.

Alesi was a rising star from an early age and was actually into rallying rather than motor racing in his early days.  He graduated through the French motorsport system which was thriving at the time and won the F3000 championship in 1989.  Tied on points with compatriot Erik Comas, Alesi’s three wins including at Pau and Birmingham were enough to give him the title as Comas could only win twice.  This followed a French Formula 3 title in 1987.

By now, Jean’s big break in Formula One had already arrived.  Ken Tyrrell gave him his debut at the 1989 French Grand Prix, replacing the experienced Italian Michele Alboreto.  He finished a stunning fourth on his debut and further points finishes at Monza and at Jerez meant despite only contesting eight races, Alesi finished in the top ten in the drivers championship.

1990 was his first full year in F1 and Alesi stayed at Tyrrell, now partnered by Satoru Nakajima.  At the season opener in Phoenix, he wrestled his car to fourth on the grid and then took the lead at the first corner.  He easily resisted the challenge of Gerhard Berger’s McLaren and then went on to have an entertaining dice with Ayrton Senna for the lead.  Senna overtook him but the Frenchman was not daunted and cheekily repassed the great Brazilian on the very next corner.  Senna eventually overwhelmed him but Alesi’s star was born with a brilliant second place.  A fine second placed finish in Monaco backed up his talent and although there were some iffy performances in the second half of the season, 13 points was enough for ninth in the championship.

Tyrrell were keen to hold onto him, especially with Honda engines coming onboard.  However Williams signed a contract with him although Alesi’s preferred destination was with Ferrari.  Nigel Mansell’s decision to leave Ferrari opened the door for Alesi to get his dream move.  He would be partnered alongside three-time world champion Alain Prost.  Surely it was a match in heaven.  However 1991 was a disaster as Ferrari entered a period of being in the doldrums.  Alesi retired nine times, often because the car let him down.  Third placed finishes in Monaco, Germany and Portugal reminded everyone of his skill but with little reward.  Prost was fired before the season’s end after describing the 1991 Ferrari as a ‘truck.’  Williams went onto dominate the 90s so had Alesi gone with his head over his heart, he could well have been a multiple champion.

Ferrari continued to struggle in 1992 and 1993 and Jean’s frustration began to show with regular mistakes creeping into the car’s abysmal reliability issues.  A fine second placed finish at Monza in 1993 was the only highlight of a dreadful two seasons.  The Ferrari 412T1 in 1994 was a marked improvement, taking Alesi to podium finishes in Brazil, Silverstone and in Japan after a thrilling dice in the rain with Mansell.  1994 also saw his maiden pole position at Monza of all places but gearbox failure in the pits whilst 12 seconds ahead of eventual race winner Damon Hill robbed him of certain victory.  The final year with the Scuderia brought more consistent results although he still could not better fifth in the drivers championship.

There were second place finishes in Argentina, San Marino and Britain and fine performances led to nothing from Japan in a trademark Alesi surge through the field, Spain with a blown V12 engine and again at Monza, as wheel bearing failure denied him another potential success on tifosi homeland.  Alesi broke down in tears after this event.  However there were no such issues at the Canadian Grand Prix.

Having qualified fifth, Alesi snatched third from his team-mate Gerhard Berger when the Williams of David Coulthard spun off on lap three.  He eased past Damon Hill and on his 31st birthday, looked set for an excellent second place finish.  For once, lady luck was shining on Alesi and dominant race leader, Michael Schumacher suffered a gear selection glitch that lost him a full minute.  Driving the famous No.27 in Montreal, the number Canadian hero Gilles Villeneuve had in his Ferrari days, Alesi took the chequered flag at his 91st attempt.  His Ferrari ran out of fuel on the slowing down lap to complete his lucky day.  However after all the bad luck in his career, no-one could deny Jean his deserving moment on the top step of the podium.

With Schumacher moving to Ferrari for 1996, Alesi and Berger moved from Ferrari to double champions Benetton.  Fourth in the championship with 46 points, Alesi’s best total for any season.  There were eight visits to the podium but no wins, although the crazy Monaco Grand Prix was his until wheel bearing problems intervened, AGAIN!  Alesi’s relationship with Flavio Briatore was always a strained one and a kamikaze attempt to take the lead from row five at the start of the 1996 Japanese Grand Prix saw him destroy his Benetton B196 on the exit of turn two.  Briatore was furious, as it allowed Ferrari in to finish second in the constructors championship and claimed that Alesi had crashed on purpose to help his former team.  From that moment on, he was damaged goods at Benetton and 1997 was not much better.  At the season opener, Alesi blatantly ignored constant pit calls to come in for fuel and ultimately grounded to a halt, out of petrol.  ITV commentator Murray Walker summed up the mood in the Benetton pit during the race, as they looked absolutely furious at Alesi’s refusal to come into the pits.  He said; “Oh Jean, you’ve got a major problem when you get back to the pits sunshine.”  There were second placed finishes at Montreal, Silverstone and the Nurburgring and another pole position at Monza but Jean’s time was up with Benetton and he jumped ship to Sauber.

Partnered with Johnny Herbert, Alesi cleverely moulded the team around him and drove out of his skin in 1998 to often qualify the car in the top ten and run strongly in the race.  He survived the Spa carnage to finish third, pushing the two Jordan’s all the way to the finish.  Fifth in Argentina and Monza plus sixth at Imola enabled Jean to outscore Herbert by 9-1.  1999 was more disappointing, with some shambolic performances such as qualifying 21st for the German Grand Prix!  When another mechanical problem cost him a potential fourth place in Budapest, the emotional Alesi announced he was leaving Sauber at the end of the year, frustrated with lack of progress and more preferential treatment that paydriver Pedro Diniz seemed to be getting.  Mind you Diniz outscored Alesi in 1999, so the team had a point.

A link-up with former Ferrari team-mate Alain Prost at his team for 2000 was a disaster.  There were no points, with ninth and last at the Nurburgring being his best result.  There were 12 retirements, the Peugeot engine kept blowing up and the car was a slow as a Morris Minor.  In Austria, Alesi committed the ultimate crime by driving into his rookie team-mate Nick Heidfeld, two weeks after Heidfeld had hit him at his home race in Magny-Cours.  He was happier in 2001 with a customer Ferrari engine and there were superb drives in Monaco and Montreal to gain much-needed points for the ailing Prost outfit.

When Jordan mysteriously sacked Heinz-Harald Frentzen on the eve of the 2001 German Grand Prix, Alesi decided to leave Prost, much to Alain’s annoyance and join Jordan.  It led to a brief reunion with Eddie Jordan who had Alesi in his F3000 team during 1989 when he won the title.  Sixth place at Spa and seventh on his 200th GP start at Indianapolis were the best results as Alesi fought to retain his drive for 2002, alongside one of his best friends in the paddock, Giancarlo Fisichella.  However Honda’s insistence on placing Japanese backed Takuma Sato in the car meant Alesi made a sudden decision to retire from racing on the eve of the Japanese Grand Prix.  Sadly he was involved in a scary accident on lap six with Kimi Raikkonen, when the Finn’s rear suspension broke on his Sauber and Alesi t-boned him.  Amazingly both drivers walked away.  The DNF denied Alesi a record of finishing in every single Grand Prix in 2001.

Jean has continued to race since his F1 retirement, spending four solid seasons competing for Mercedes in the DTM series, winning four races including two at Donington Park.  He competed at Le Mans in Fisichella’s Ferrari team in 2010, finishing fourth in class and is an ambassador for the Lotus Formula One team.  Later this month, Alesi will attempt to qualify and compete for Newman Haas at the legendary Indianapolis 500.

Jean Alesi was one of the greatest mysteries in the 1990s.  He only won one race but won many fans around the world for his aggressive and charging driving style.  With a bit more luck and better career judgement, who knows what career he could have carved out for himself in Formula One.

NEXT TIME ON THE DRIVER FILES:  The most dominant British Formula 3 career led to a loss of confidence and the sack from a three-time world champion.  The struggles of Dane, Jan Magnussen

The Driver Files: Stefano Modena

IN A NEW regular series, I will be profiling the careers of those drivers who won races and championships and those who either didn’t get the luck, or just failed at the top level of motorsport.  All drivers featured will have competed between the years 1991-2011.

The second driver featured in The Driver Files is another Italian driver whose promise never got fulfilled, Stefano Modena.

The 1991 Tyrrell was the peak of Stefano Modena's F1 career (RichardsF1)

NAME: Stefano Modena

TEAMS: Brabham (1987, 1989-1990), EuroBrun (1988), Tyrrell (1991), Jordan (1992)

POINTS: 17

GP STARTS: 70

BEST FINISH: 2nd (1991 Canadian Grand Prix)

MANY Italian drivers have tried their luck in Formula One over the past 20 years.  There are some who have not had the chance to prove themselves in decent equipment, such as Gianni Morbidelli and Alessandro Zanardi.  Then, there are those who had the car at their disposal and blew their big chance; Ivan Capelli and Giancarlo Fisichella spring to mind.  One driver whose promise never got fulfilled was Stefano Modena.  Two words finished off his career, Jordan-Yamaha!

The 1992 Jordan Yamaha partnership is akin to McLaren’s turbulent partnership with Peugeot in 1994.  They never got on and along with Mauricio Gugelmin, Modena could only wonder as his talent was wasted and in the end, so was his F1 career.

Before this horrendous season, Stefano had been forced to work hard and shown what he was capable of on occasion.  He won the F3000 championship for Onyx at his first attempt in this category in 1987.  It led to a one-off event for Brabham at the 1987 Australian Grand Prix, as Riccardo Patrese had left early to replace the injured Nigel Mansell in the all-conquering Williams Honda package.  He qualified a respectable 15th, ahead of both Tyrrell and Lola cars, but wasn’t quite ready for the physical challenge of Adelaide’s streets and had to retire after 31 laps.

When Bernie Ecclestone announced that Brabham were withdrawing from the sport, Modena was forced into a move to the uncompetitive EuroBrun team for his full debut season in 1988.  It was a real baptism of fire.  No points and the embarassment of being excluded from two successive race meetings.  He missed a weight check in Monaco and was thrown out of the event in Mexico for his car having an illegal rear wing.  Stefano managed to record five race finishes with the limited resources; the best being 11th in Hungary.

Under new owners, he moved back to Brabham for 1989 but the Judd engine turned into an unreliable nightmare, so Modena was going to be fully prepared for later disasters.  There was another exclusion for coming in underweight after qualifying at the Italian Grand Prix.  However, when the Brabham package worked in Monaco, Stefano showed what he could do.  Although team-mate Martin Brundle was robbed of a deserved podium by battery problems, his Italian team-mate stepped up when the team were feeling low and grabbed his maiden podium.  Alongside Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost on the Monaco rostrum, Modena had made his name, but still craved a better package.  Fifth in the 1990 season opener on the streets of Phoenix was his sole reward the following campaign, as Brabham’s BT59 package took the team backwards.  As their financial problems started to unravel, Modena’s stirring performances began to make him hot property in the paddock.  In fact, he was mentioned in the rumour mill as a potential replacement for the retiring Mansell at Ferrari.  Eventually, the lure of Maranello persuaded Jean Alesi away from Tyrrell and it was to Stefano’s benefit, as he moved to Tyrrell for 1991.

Alongside Satoru Nakajima, Ken Tyrrell’s wise negotating skills saw his car armed with the best engine around at the time, the works Honda V10.  With major sponsorship from German electrical company Braun, 1991 looked to be the season where Stefano Modena could become a leading star in Grand Prix racing.  In fairness, the relationship started rosy.  He finished fourth in the USA, ran third at Imola before mechanical problems intervened and then, a magnifcient front row starting position in Monaco.  On raceday, he held off Patrese until an engine failure in the tunnel saw his race cruelly end and take Patrese out too.  Even Senna mentioned after qualifying how impressed he was with Modena’s efforts.  If Monaco was desperately unlucky, Canada was more fortunate.  With frontrunners such as Senna, Prost and Alesi dropping out through reliability gremlins, Stefano inherited second place when Mansell’s Williams stopped on the final lap.  It was his landmark result but didn’t lead to better things.  Only one more point, in Japan followed.  Honda withdrew support for Tyrrell, Nakajima retired and Modena moved onto Jordan for 1992.

The writing was on the wall when he failed to qualify for the first race in South Africa.  A pitlane start in Mexico followed and he didn’t even last a lap in Brazil.  If the engine wasn’t failing spectacularly, the gearbox was breaking instead.  Modena failed to qualify for three more events and his morale was zapped.  The package was pathetic and frankly should have been put in the scrapyard as soon as it raced.  The frustrated Italian didn’t record a finish until 15th at the Belgian Grand Prix in August!  A small improvement in the last two races saw Stefano score a point in the Australian Grand Prix, but he was damaged goods and left the sport unsurprisingly for pastures new.  He carried on racing in German and Italian touring cars with mixed results for a number of years after the F1 adventure.  The tragic death of his good friend and fellow Italian Michele Alboreto in a sportscar accident in 2001 prompted Modena to retire from competitive action.  Since then, he has acted as an advisor and done occasional tyre testing work for Japanese tyre manufacturer, Bridgestone.

Stefano Modena never quite delivered on what he had, but he was a victim of one of the worst cars to have ever left a Grand Prix factory!  Sometimes, that’s the way it goes in the harsh world of Formula One.

NEXT IN THE DRIVER FILES: The Dutch boss that is Jos Verstappen!