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Montreal’s Magic: Five Iconic Canadian Grands Prix

Written by Oli James, Edited by Juan Arroyo

The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve has really seen it all: drama, controversy and spectacular on-track action.

Nestled in the heart of Montreal, the legendary circuit has become synonymous with captivating moments that have thrilled motorsport fans for decades. From nail-biting finishes to home heartbreak, these Grands Prix left their mark on Formula One’s history.

2019: Controversy and Contention Between Champions

Image via Fox Sports

The 2019 Ferrari SF90 was not Ferrari's most competitive car. However, the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve was a track that suited the car's low drag design perfectly.

Charles Leclerc topped FP2, and Sebastian Vettel claimed the top spot in FP3. Vettel secured pole position with a remarkable lap, setting a new track record at that time. Martin Brundle accurately described it as an "outstanding lap" and a "stunner from Vettel."

Vettel's exceptional speed had previously earned him four consecutive World Titles, but he still had to defend against Lewis Hamilton, who also started on the front row.

Using his pole advantage, the Ferrari driver built a small but comfortable lead. Vettel led the race until he made a pit stop on lap 26 of the Grand Prix. Hamilton stayed out for an additional two laps, narrowing the gap to Vettel by five seconds. Hamilton set blistering lap times and by lap 39, he was within a second of his rival.

The turning point came on lap 48. While desperately fending off Hamilton after the first chicane, Sebastian Vettel lost control of his car and went through the grass, rejoining the track still ahead of Lewis Hamilton.

Hamilton complained on his team radio, stating that Vettel "came on track so dangerously." Meanwhile, Vettel insisted that it was his only option. The stewards reviewed the incident and decided to penalize Vettel with a 5-second time penalty for "unsafe re-entry and forcing another driver off the track."

Despite Vettel's pleas on the radio, stating, "I had nowhere to go! Seriously, I had nowhere to go!", the decision remained unchanged. Many people still consider this decision unjust and believe that the penalty was too severe.

Sebastian Vettel crossed the finish line 1.3 seconds ahead of Lewis Hamilton, but it was not enough to secure victory after factoring in the penalty. Lewis Hamilton emerged as the winner. Vettel, feeling strongly about the matter, took it upon himself to swap the first position board in front of Hamilton's car with his own second position board, creating a memorable and iconic moment.

The ensuing podium ceremony was incredibly awkward. Hamilton, understandably delighted with his top step placement, faced boos from the crowd. Vettel remained furious about the decision, while Charles Leclerc was simply grateful to complete the podium.

2007: Hamilton’s First Win

Image via Getty Images/Darren Heath Photographer

"If he can do this after six races, what might he achieve in the future?"

Those were the words of James Allen as young Lewis Hamilton soared past the chequered flag to secure his first Grand Prix victory. With Hamilton now boasting 103 wins and seven World Drivers' Championships, it is fair to say that he has truly proven his capabilities.

The then 22-year-old had already turned heads by accumulating a series of podium finishes in his debut Formula One season (2007) with McLaren.

The Canadian Grand Prix was the sixth event on the 2007 calendar, and Hamilton started the weekend well by claiming pole position ahead of reigning World Champion, and his teammate, Fernando Alonso.

It was evident as soon as the lights went out that the race belonged to Lewis Hamilton. He defended against Alonso in turns one and two, successfully keeping the two-time World Champion at bay.

A close battle between the two drivers, however, led to Alonso running wide and dropping significantly down the order, much to young Hamilton's advantage.

It wasn't all smooth sailing for the rookie, as the race was interrupted by four safety car deployments. The first occurred when Adrian Sutil crashed his Force India at turn four. The safety car came out but had minimal impact on Hamilton, who had just pitted moments before.

The second caution period resulted from a more severe incident. Robert Kubica was forced onto the grass by Jarno Trulli as they approached the circuit's hairpin.

The BMW Sauber was launched into the air before colliding with a wall and rolling back onto the track. Fortunately, the Polish driver escaped with only a concussion and ankle injuries.

The other two safety car deployments were caused by debris on the track and Vitantonio Liuzzi crashing into the 'Wall of Champions.' Hamilton effectively maintained his lead throughout the race and defended well from the tightly packed group after the safety car periods ended.

Lewis Hamilton had done enough to etch his name into the history books as the then-youngest Grand Prix winner. After the victory, Hamilton stated: "I've been ready for this for quite some time, ready for the win—it was just a matter of where and when."

Hamilton's present-day success, considered by many as one of the greatest of all time, can be traced back to this significant triumph.

1999: The Wall of Champions

Image via Motorsport Images

The Canadian Grand Prix was the sixth event of the 1999 championship, a year in which McLaren's Mika Häkkinen claimed the title, becoming a two-time world champion. The race promised excitement as, for the first time that season, Häkkinen did not start from pole position. That honor belonged to Michael Schumacher, who was striving for his first championship with Ferrari at that stage of his career.

Häkkinen had a better start than Schumacher when the lights went out, but by lap three, Schumacher had taken the lead after a safety car period. However, the safety car returned to the track at the end of lap three when BAR driver Ricardo Zonta spun into the wall at the final chicane.

Michael Schumacher once again pulled away from his McLaren rival during the race restart. However, the track was only green for 11 more laps before 1996 World Champion Damon Hill crashed into the same wall as Zonta. Hill managed to take an escape road and walked back to his garage unharmed.

Schumacher continued to lead, gradually extending his advantage. However, on lap 30, the German driver also hit the same wall while pushing his car to the limit before a pit stop. It seemed that the exit of the chicane had gained a reputation for challenging even the most experienced drivers.

Just five laps later, 1997 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve also collided with the wall, much to the disappointment of his home fans. The repeated mishaps of these three champions in that spot led to it being dubbed "The Wall of Champions."

The race outcome was once again shaken up when Eddie Irvine and David Coulthard, in second and third positions respectively, made contact at turn one on lap 41. Both cars spun out but managed to rejoin the race.

Häkkinen kept his nose clean and crossed the finish line to claim victory behind the safety car, marking the first time in history that a race ended this way. Giancarlo Fisichella took second place, and Eddie Irvine recovered admirably to secure third.

It was a chaotic and unpredictable race, yet it paled in comparison to what would occur in 2011...

2011 – The Greatest Drive of All Time?

Image via Sky Sports F1

If there was ever a race that proved why Jenson Button was a World Champion, it was the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix.

The race lasted over four hours, making it the longest in the history of the sport, and was plagued by demanding wet conditions. Despite being dead last at one point, Button ultimately emerged victorious, standing atop the podium.

Sebastian Vettel started the race on pole position, while Button began down the order in P7. In this race, having the best car and cleanest driving mattered little; it was all about the outright pace in the horrendous weather.

On lap one, Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton collided in front of Button, allowing him to gain a position from Webber but then lose one to Michael Schumacher. Button then seized Hamilton's sixth place as he ran wide.

When Hamilton tried to reclaim the position from his teammate, the two Brits collided. Button closed in on Hamilton, who was obscured by the spray, resulting in Hamilton retiring from the race.

Button took advantage of the situation and pitted for intermediate tires on lap eight in an attempt to salvage the disastrous conditions under the safety car. This marked the first of six pit stops for him.

Although Button exited the pit lane in 14th place, he quickly started making up positions. Unfortunately, he received a drive-through penalty for exceeding speed limits under the safety car.

Button served his penalty on Lap 13 and returned to the track in 15th place. During this stint, the British driver climbed as high as eighth on the grid as others pitted.

The race was then red-flagged due to the deteriorating conditions, but not before Button made another pit stop on lap 19.

During the fourth stop, Button dropped from 11th to 15th as he switched from wet compound tires to intermediates. A collision between Button and Fernando Alonso on lap 35, as Button attempted to overtake a reluctant Alonso, forced the McLaren driver to pit for the fifth time in the race, putting him in 21st position — last place.

What followed was a remarkable display of raw talent: Button fought his way back up the order, overtaking other drivers one by one. These were the conditions in which he thrived. By the time he made his final pit stop for slicks on lap 50 out of 70, he had already climbed back up to eighth place.

On slick tires, Button was unstoppable. He set green sectors consistently, averaging around two seconds faster per lap than his competitors. Another safety car period also helped Button close the 15-second gap between himself (in fourth) and Sebastian Vettel, the race leader.

With 10 laps to go, Button steadily closed in on those ahead of him. He passed Webber, who made a mistake at the last turn on lap 64 (the infamous Wall of Champions), and used his DRS to overtake Michael Schumacher, who was running in third place.

Button continued to eat away at Sebastian Vettel's lead, and on the last lap, he was within striking distance of the German driver.

Overtaking became a breeze when Vettel made a mistake at turn five of the circuit, allowing Button to snatch the lead at the most crucial moment and ultimately secure the race victory.

It was a remarkable achievement and the ultimate comeback drive. Vettel finished in second place, with Mark Webber taking third.

1995 – Victory for Alesi

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For years, Jean Alesi was Formula One's "nearly man" — a driver who often came close to winning a race but could never quite reach the top step.

However, his streak of bad luck came to an end in Canada in 1995 when he placed his Ferrari in the top spot on his 31st birthday.

Alesi began the race in fifth position but openly admitted his intention to drive aggressively and gain as many positions as possible. Both Alesi and his teammate, Gerhard Berger, managed to overtake Johnny Herbert at the start of the race.

Later, Herbert collided with Mika Häkkinen, resulting in both drivers being taken out of contention. David Coulthard was also an early retirement due to being too trigger-happy with the throttle at the hairpin on lap two.

These circumstances played nicely into Alesi's hands as he quietly picked up positions and ran in fourth place. Luck seemed to be on the Frenchman's side when second-place runner Damon Hill retired with gearbox problems.

However, Ferrari made a mess of both drivers' strategies — a sight not too strange nowadays. Alesi only suffered a minor loss of time, but Berger's race was completely ruined when he ran out of fuel.

Alesi seemed poised for a second-place finish, and it seemed highly unlikely, almost impossible, for him to take the win. Michael Schumacher had driven a dominant race in his Benetton and held a half-minute lead over him with 11 laps remaining.

To Alesi's delight, Schumacher suddenly found himself stuck in third gear due to an electrical fault with his gear-change paddles. Schumacher made a pit stop but emerged in fifth position.

With a comfortable half-minute lead over the Jordan cars behind him, Alesi crossed the finish line to finally become a Grand Prix winner.

The Canadian fans roared their approval, largely because Alesi was driving the #27 Ferrari - the same number Gilles Villeneuve had raced with.

As Alesi's Ferrari ran out of fuel after the race, Michael Schumacher, displaying true sportsmanship, gave him a "taxi ride" to the podium. This may have been Alesi's only career win, but it is unquestionably a memorable one.


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