Leclerc's Villeneuve tribute: a reminder of F1 icons who dominated Montreal


A tribute to its namesake, champions on the podium and another Red Bull masterclass: the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve delivered another action-packed grand prix in 2023 - something, as Tony Dodgins writes, it has done numerous times before

Leclerc Villeneuve helmet Canada 2023

Even in Villeneuve colours, Leclerc was unable to reach the podium in Montreal

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It was great to see Charles Leclerc wearing a Gilles Villeneuve tribute helmet in Montreal, some 45 years after one of F1’s fastest, most spectacular and revered drivers won his first GP for Ferrari at the circuit now named after him.

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I well remember ’92, when Perry McCarthy was driving an excuse of an F1 car called an Andrea Moda. Well, he was supposed to be, but the team’s Judd engines had been detained by the freight forwarding agents for non-payment of debt…

Andrea Moda managed to borrow one from Brabham, but only one, which went into Roberto Moreno’s car.

Come Friday morning pre-qualifying (remember that?) poor old Perry, at a loose end, strode into the pitlane and, for the crowd, held aloft the Gilles tribute helmet he’d been intending to wear. They weren’t impressed and gave him the bird. Seems you have to be of a certain standard…

Perry McCarthy in Andrea Moda

McCarthy’s only year in an F1 seat was 1992, but he never once made the starting grid – but tested for Footwork and Benetton

Leclerc most certainly is – with some of his on-the-limit poles at places like Monaco, Singapore and Baku, and the odd error here and there – very Villeneuve-esque. The problem was, nobody had informed the Villeneuve family about the plan. Melanie Villeneuve, Gilles’ daughter, manages his image rights and, with various Ferrari sponsors adorning the helmet, was upset and let her brother Jacques know about it.

The ’97 world champion got the message through to Leclerc, who took off the helmet and wore his standard one for FP3 on Saturday morning, before inviting Joann (Gilles’ widow) and Melanie to spend the weekend with Ferrari. Everything was smoothed over, Melanie saying that Leclerc had been very sweet about it and that she thought it was a nice tribute, while Jacques posted on Instagram, after receiving some online abuse: “It would have been preferable for these discussions and arrangements to take place before the weekend in a respectful and professional manner.”

Charles Leclerc Canada

An off-track quarrel was the least of Leclerc’s worries during another flawed team performance from Ferrari

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All’s well that ends well, but the episode brought to mind an interview that ’79 world champion and Gilles’s former Ferrari team mate Jody Scheckter gave, in which he revealed, “I spent a year after he (Gilles) died working on his sponsorship deals, getting all the money I could for his family. I suppose I took it upon myself as my task. I had a cause and negotiated with Ferrari for a massive amount of money and got rather more than I really should have done, by putting pressure on them.”

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I couldn’t help wonder whether the fact that Scheckter needed to do that, might have had something to do with last weekend?

Then, of course, we had a Canadian GP dominated by Max Verstappen, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, with 11 world championships between them, as Leclerc battled to fourth back in his Gilles helmet, having been seriously underwhelmed by what he saw as cack-handed Ferrari tyre strategy failing to get him beyond Q2. And joining the first three on the podium was none other than Adrian Newey who, on the day that Red Bull achieved its 100th GP victory, was enjoying the 200th win by cars he’s been significantly responsible for. Over 30-odd seasons, that’s pretty mind-boggling!

Actually, his very first should have been Montreal ’91. Another F1 icon, Ayrton Senna, whose 41 GP victories were equalled by Verstappen last Sunday, had won the first four races of the season but, clearly, Newey’s Williams FW14, complete with its new semi-auto gearbox, was a threat. In Canada, Nigel Mansell dominated the race and on the last lap, as he reached the hairpin, slowed down and started waving to the crowd. The revs dropped lower than the semi-auto was anticipating and it effectively went into stall mode, allowing a gleeful Nelson Piquet to sweep by his old nemesis and claim his 23rd and final GP victory for Benetton as Nigel ground to a halt.

Nigel Mansell 1992 Canada

“Oh gear oh gear” – Nigel Mansell’s (left) once assured victory is shattered as his Williams struggles to find a gear

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Up in the press room, this was a bit of a nightmare for the Fleet Street boys. With the five-hour Montreal time difference, they are always right up against the deadline for the Monday papers and are obliged to write their reports as the race goes on, then top and tail it with a couple of quotes from the winner if time permits. They had all been ready with their ‘Nigel stops Senna victory train’ stories when the drama unfolded…

Of course, the cause was not immediately apparent and The Sun’s Stan Piecha quite logically figured that Nigel had run out of fuel within sight of the flag. He hot-footed it to the phone, phoned the sports desk to tell them his copy would be there imminently and told them to headline it, “Oh you silly fuel!”

Whereupon someone else arrived back from the paddock having just cornered Williams co-owner and tech chief Patrick Head who, in his own inimitable way, had revealed what had actually happened.

“Oh bugger,” said Stan, who was immediately back on the blower to the desk. “Cancel that headline,” he said, “Call it, ‘Oh gear, oh gear…'” Brilliant! Whatever, Adrian Newey had to wait another couple of weeks for Riccardo Patrese to give him his first F1 win, in Mexico.

Ayrton Senna 1991 yellow helmet

Senna’s yellow lid remains one of the most iconic helmet designs and has inspired new world champions to follow in his footsteps

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Going back to where we came in, talking of iconic crash helmets, Senna’s distinctive yellow lid always put the fear of God into anyone seeing it in their mirrors, which was one of the reasons that Hamilton adopted it prominently in his initial designs. It was interesting to hear Alonso admit, post-race, after a close final stint against Lewis, that Hamilton, on a charge, is the last person you want to see in your mirrors.

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As for Verstappen at the moment, it doesn’t really matter. He could paint his helmet John Major grey because, as things stand, he’s never in anyone’s mirrors until the blue lights come on…

At least Montreal was promising for the opposition given Aston Martin’s upgrades and Hamilton’s performance at a track that doesn’t play to Mercedes strengths even if it does Lewis’. Then again, you don’t really need downforce either, so it was hardly a Red Bull track either. Will anyone beat them this year, or will Newey, perhaps the most valuable F1 icon of all, finish the season on win number 214?