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.
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 entry was a breakthrough driver and gave Japan its first sight of the sport, which has continued to grow ever since. A pioneer for Japanese motorsport; Satoru Nakajima.
NAME: Satoru Nakajima
TEAMS: Lotus (1987-1989), Tyrrell (1990-1991)
GP STARTS: 74
BEST FINISH: 4th (1987 British GP)
BORN from a farming family, Satoru Nakajima had a passion for motorsport from an early age. His success in Formula One was largely modest but he set the path for a flux of Japanese drivers like Ukyo Katayama, Takuma Sato and his son Kazuki to have all appeared in the sport.
Nakajima dominanted the Japanese Formula Two series but was a very late entrant into F1 at the age of 34. He debuted for the famous Lotus team in 1987, part of a new package which included Honda engines and Camel tobacco sponsorship. Nakajima drove alongside Ayrton Senna in his first season and was determined to be known for his own qualities rather than just a pay driver. Of course, he couldn’t compete with Senna but he showed flashes of natural speed. Scoring a point in only his second event at the 1987 San Marino Grand Prix was a good start and Satoru was part of a Honda grand slam at Silverstone, finishing fourth behind Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet and Senna. A further point in the inaugural Japanese event at Suzuka sent his home supporters mad and he finished a creditable 12th in the championship, having scored seven points in total.
As Senna moved onto McLaren and the bitter rivalry with Alain Prost began, Nakajima stayed with Lotus for 1988 and was partnered by the defending champion Piquet. The season started prominsingly with a point in Brazil but Nakajima’s shock failure to qualify for Monaco was the beginning of the end for the Lotus Honda partnership, compounded when Piquet crashed in the race on the first lap. Satoru was never a fan of street circuits and he repeated his Monaco abscence on raceday by failing to make the cut on the temporary and dreadful Detroit circuit for the United States round. A spate of retirements and mistakes followed in the remainder of the season and it was a case of second season syndrome. Nakajima scored just one point all season and that was in the first race.
As Honda focused on their dominance with McLaren, Lotus decline had begun. The team had to take the heavyweight Judd engine for 1989 and the failure of Nakajima and Piquet to qualify for the 1989 Belgian Grand Prix was the first time that the British make had no car on the grid in 30 years. He failed to qualify in Monaco again and Canada but it came good at the season finale in Australia. Watched by a massive Japanese audience, Satoru benefited from the filthy conditions in Adelaide to finish fourth from 23rd on the grid. In a race where staying on the circuit was a notable achievement, he set the fastest lap on lap 64 too.
Two lacklustre years at Tyrrell followed for Nakajima. He paired up with Jean Alesi for 1990 and scored three sixth place finishes in the USA, Italy and once more on his Japanese homeland at Suzuka. There was a brief link-up with Honda again in 1991 as Stefano Modena joined Satoru. Fifth in Phoenix was his only highlight of 1991 although a mechanical problem robbed him of fourth in another wet race at Imola. He announced his retirement from Formula One at Hockenheim and bowed out with the minimum of fuss.
His F1 career ended but involvement with motorsport didn’t end there. Satoru worked closely with Honda and helped develop their engines for use in the CART and IRL series over in America. He managed the brief career in F1 of Tora Takagi in 1998/1999 and he owns the Nakajima Racing entry in Japanese Formula Nippon. He helped Tom Coronel and Ralph Firman to titles in this competition. His son Kazuki raced for two seasons with Williams in 2008 and 2009 and today, Satoru still owns his own team in Formula Nippon with both of his two sons competing in the series.
Success in Formula One was limited for Satoru Nakajima but his impact put Japan firmly on the Grand Prix map for good.
NEXT TIME ON THE DRIVER FILES: Moments of glory at the Nurburgring and Monza in a largely unspectacular career and a Spaniard on the grid before the Alonso days, Marc Gene.