Late 1977. Roger Peart receives a call from the president of the Fédération Automobile Québécoise. It's the Labatt beer company, the then-title sponsor of the Canadian Grand Prix held annually at Mosport near Toronto. They want 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 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."
"We didn't have to go far down those roads," says Peart. "The first idea was always going to be the best."
After 30 minutes, he phoned his interlocutor back to tell him yes, Montreal could accommodate a full-fledged Formula One Grand Prix, and that the best venue was Île Notre-Dame – a man-made island built to host Expo 67 a decade earlier – if for no other reason than its excellent access to public transit.
The timing was perfect. Montreal's then-Mayor Jean Drapeau had just announced that the artificial island would be devoted to sporting events, while the neighbouring nature-made Île Sainte-Hélène would host cultural-type events. By April 1978, Montreal's city council had accepted the idea of a racetrack — "on the express condition that it cost the taxpayers nothing," recalls Peart.
Peart, an engineer, is well-known in the world of international racing. Over the past five decades, he has not only competed as a driver (largely in amateur races) but has monitored and inspected racing circuits all over the world.
Now 80-years-old, Peart is still president of the Canadian National Sports Authority (ASN Canada), and the only sports commissioner in the country recognized by the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), Formula One's governing body.
Unsurprisingly, it was Peart who was given the mandate to design the Île Notre-Dame track, which would need 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 Canada's most famed racetrack.
Mother Nature had dropped a major snowfall on top of the island, forcing 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 wasn't much space and I had to fit a circuit in there, with rights and turns."
Despite the challenges, the track, by and large, remains almost the same as Peart originally designed it.
The buildings to the east of the island, where the boathouse was situated and where the hairpin turn is still today, were originally 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.
Because of the impracticality of this arrangement, new pits have subsequently been built in their current location, to the west, just before the Senna turn. This is the most significant change in the circuit's 36-year history, a testimony to the excellence of Peart's original design.
"Everything Was Going Too Fast!"
The construction of the circuit that would later bear the name of Gilles Villeneuve was executed in record time.
"It was a crazy time," says 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 was held barely three months later.
A Fairy Tale for All
Sunday, October 8, 1978. The first of 35 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.
It's 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's also a fairy tale for the Quebec public. In a race seemingly scripted by the gods of motor racing, Quebec's own Gilles Villeneuve takes the inaugural checkered flag in his Ferrari to the delight of more than 72,000 excited spectators.
It's Villeneuve's 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.
The track would be renamed in 1982 to Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in honour of its first champion after Villeneuve tragically died in a crash during qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix
36 Years Later: Peart Still Hasn't Missed a Race
A technical track - Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve requires full concentration at all times and leaves little room for error. It is a circuit of long fast rights, interrupted by tight corners where, even today, the tires, brakes, engines and transmissions are strained to their limits.
However, "unlike so many other F1 racetracks, Montreal has several opportunities for overtaking," says Peart. "That means the races are always exciting."
Peart has not missed a Canadian Grand Prix since 1978. He watches every race from the control tower, as one of the three sports commissioners delegated by the FIA.
This year will be the first exception as Peart has delegated his position to another steward — he'll still be there, just with a different view. And if you happen upon him and ask if, after all these years, he would change anything about his original design?
He'll tell you that, to this day, throughout the world, he has never seen a track as perfect.
Encounter With A Young Gilles Villeneuve
Peart is, at the time, chief instructor at the Fédération Automobile du Québec, when as he recalls, "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.
"As our summer events were all finished, I suggested he rent [some time at] 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 to leave for 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!'"
"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."