Late 1977. Roger Peart receives a call from the president of the Fédération Automobile Quebec. The Labatt beer company, then the title sponsor for the Canadian Grand Prix held at Mosport near Toronto, Ontario, wants to know if Montreal can host a Formula One race.
“Great question,” says Peart, who then asks for a little time for reflection—30 minutes’ reflection to be precise.
“I first thought of Île Notre-Dame. Then, I looked at a route that would start and end at the Olympic Stadium, but that would have been devilishly complicated to implement. I even looked at [building a track at] Laval.”
But “we did not have to go far down those roads,” says Peart. “The first idea was always going to be the best.”
After 30 minutes, he confirmed that yes, Montreal could accommodate a full-fledged Grand Prix, and that the best venue was Île Notre-Dame – a man-made island originally built to host Expo 67 a decade earlier – if for no other reason than its excellent Metro access.
Good timing: Mayor Drapeau had just announced that the artificial island would be reserved for sporting events, while the neighbouring natural Île Sainte-Hélène would host cultural activities. In April 1978, Montreal’s city council accepted the idea of a racetrack—“on the express condition that it costs the taxpayers nothing,” recalls Peart.
Our one-and-only F1 go-to guy
Engineer Roger Peart is well-known in the world of international racing. Over the past five decades, he has not only competed himself (largely in amateur races) but has also monitored and inspected racing circuits all over the world.
Now 84 years old, he is still president of the Canadian National Sports Authority (ASN Canada), and up until 3 years ago, he was the only sports commissioner in the country recognized by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA).
Unsurprisingly, it was Peart who was given the mandate to design, on the Île Notre-Dame, a circuit that was going to meet Formula One’s rigid standards.
The Briton, who was then living in Montreal (he now calls Ontario home), still remembers the moment he went to first inspect what would become the famed racetrack.
Mother Nature had dropped a major snowfall on top of the island, which forced him to develop the initial drafts without even being able to inspect the actual ground he was surveying. “I remember those days at my cottage in Saint-Sauveur in the Laurentians; when skiing conditions were poor, I drew up plans, plans and plans again.”
The challenge was more than he expected. “First, I had to ignore the old pavilions of the Expo 67 scheduled for demolition. Then I had to deal with some elements – the lake and park in the center, the river on one side, the Olympic basin on the other – that were obviously there to stay.”
“There was not much space and I had to compress a circuit there, with straights and turns.”
Between racing and F1 cars
It was expected the buildings to the east of the island, where the boathouse was situated and where the hairpin turn is still today, would be used as the pits.
One weekend a year, the boats would then give way to the F1 cars—“It was an economical solution,” recalls Peart. But because of the impracticality of this arrangement, new pits were subsequently built in their current location, to the west, just before the Senna turn. This is the most significant change in the circuit’s 40-year history, a testimony to the excellence of Peart’s original design.
Oh, by the way: Peart was never paid for his work. “Motorsport was my hobby, not my profession; it never occurred to me to charge for my services at the time,” he says. “All my expenses were paid, so I was happy with that.”
The construction of the circuit that would later bear the name of Gilles Villeneuve (the change was made in 1982, after the death of Quebec’s most famous racing driver) was executed in record time. “It was a crazy time,” recalls Peart. “Everything was going too fast!”
After a winter spent developing the best possible layout, the British engineer travelled to Europe to attain approval for the plans by the FIA. By May 1978, after a meeting in Monaco, approval was granted and the construction began shortly thereafter, in July 1978.
The first F1 race would be held barely three months later.
A fairy tale for all
Sunday, October 8, 1978. The first of 39 Grand Prix of Canada races to be held on the new Circuit Île-Notre-Dame – it’s been held there every year since ’78, except in 1987 during a sponsorship dispute between Labatt and Molson, and in 2009 when event funding became an issue – unfolds like a fairy tale.
It feels like a fairy tale for Peart, who, serving as the race director, gets to hear firsthand from racers like Jackie Stewart that “his circuit” is “a little paradise in the middle of a great river.”
It feels like a fairy tale for the Quebec public, too, because – as if the gods of motor racing momentarily took Quebec racing fans into their heart – none other than Gilles Villeneuve wins that inaugural race in his Ferrari, in front of more than 72,000 excited spectators.
It’s his first win in 19 races, and he receives his much-deserved trophy from Prime Minister Pierre-Elliot Trudeau. For Ferrari, it is the company’s first success in eight years.
40 years later: Peart still hasn’t missed a race
Even today, the Montreal racetrack is seen as a circuit made of long fast straights, interrupted by tight corners where the tires, brakes, engines and transmissions are strained to their limits. A technical track, then, Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve requires full concentration at all times and leaves little room for error.
That said, “unlike so many other F1 racetracks,” says Peart, “Montreal has several opportunities for overtaking. That means the races are always exciting.”
And Peart has never missed a Canadian Grand Prix since 1978. He always attends from the control tower, as one of the three sports commissioners delegated by the FIA until 2015, then as a guest, Peart having delegated his position to another steward.
But again this year, he will be there. And if you happen upon him and ask if, after all these years, he would change anything about his original design—
—he will tell you that, to this day, it still provides a unique combination of excellent spectator access and exciting racing.
Early 1970s. Roger Peart is, at the time, chief instructor at the Fédération Automobile du Québec, when “a quiet little man from Berthierville comes to see me.”
“He wanted to drive race cars. I asked him about his experience, and he replied that he was racing, of all things, snowmobiles,” recalls Peart.
“As our race schools were finished for the year, I suggested he rent Sanair [Super Speedway], bring along a car and we would see what kind of automobile racer he would make.”
“The day he showed up with his brother’s Mustang, I had a business appointment. But I asked a fellow instructor to work with him and give me a report. Later in the day, the instructor called me, excitedly saying, ‘Hey, boss, we may have something here!’”
“In each and every lap, the young Gilles Villeneuve was faster than his instructor. Obviously, we gave him his racing license.”
“I remember that to thank me, he wanted to give me a five-dollar tip [about $30 today].”