A celebration of the Canadian Grand Prix

It is now a mere three days before F1 car engines fire up again on the American continent, in Canada, at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, on the Ile Notre Dame in Montreal. The American continent that for so long F1 has failed to ‘break’ – but not here, not at this track. This track is one of the greatest – up there with Spa, Suzuka and Silverstone as the drivers’ and the fans’ favourites.

Can you put your finger on why this event is so good, why the butterflies build even now, why amongst fans the anticipation hangs in the air like a summer storm? Maybe it’s the late hour – the 6pm BST start giving an evening frisson to proceedings. Maybe it’s the idea that summer is on its way – that there remains a zenith of a season which has already taken us to new heights of rapture. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the history here.

It’s the history in the very asphalt that constitutes the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. And its eponymous hero is a very good place to start – the great French-Canadian who put so many in the shade, whose very name conjures images of glorious sliding fat-tyred blood red blur Ferraris in the late seventies and early eighties, whose legend lives on because of his skill and daring. His legacy seems somehow to have seeped into this track – its speed, its colours and its reputation for excitement and incident.

Who can forget Jean Alesi winning the 1995 event with Gilles’ number 27 emblazoned on his Ferrari, after Schumacher and Hill both had to retire? Or Lewis Hamilton’s first win in 2007, coupled with Takuma Sato’s brightest moment, overtaking the great Alonso? Or the real desolation that greeted its 2009 absence from the calendar? Or last year’s thrill-fest that served as the template for this season’s tyres? Greater tribute could not be paid to a mere racetrack.

Then there was the darker side of the track. Ricardo Paletti died in horrible circumstances on the start line in 1982, just weeks after the circuit had lost its spiritual father himself. Olivier Panis’ 1997 shunt, when he broke both his legs, was probably the nail in the coffin of his career. Ten years later Robert Kubica was so lucky to walk away from what is probably the most shocking accident of recent years as he left the circuit going down to the hairpin. As with all tracks of daring and repute, first the drivers must conquer them.

But it is not as though the circuit lacks a sense of humour. Lewis Hamilton’s career as a stand up comic, later to gain infamy for his resurrection of Ali G, began in 2010 when after qualifying he had to push his car back to the pits. A mile or so down the road, there is the famous ‘Wall of Champions’, whose victims include Michael Schumacher, Nico Rosberg and Damon Hill, to say nothing of the less illustrious Jacques Villeneuve and Ricardo Zonta. Written on that same wall is the legend “Welcome to Quebec”, an irony which puts a schadenfreude smile on our faces. Because of course, we could keep it out of the wall if we were driving. Not.

Finally, there’s this tendency to provide great viewing for the fans…and in this season of 2011, when not even the most hardened of observers has the slightest clue as to what will happen next, who can honestly predict the result? Vettel must be confident, as he tends to be, but a modicum of respect for what this racetrack represents will serve him well.

And meanwhile, the rest of us have only to sit back and enjoy what will surely be a thrilling instalment of the greatest show on earth.