Redefining ‘late’ here, aren’t we?  Many apologies.  We’ll keep this brief.

The Canadian Grand Prix is held on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal.  If you have any more than a passing interest in Formula 1 racing, the chances are you know that name already.  We’ve mentioned him briefly before and will doubtless do so again next May on the 30th anniversary of his untimely death, but it’s worth us doing the standard introduction to Gilles all the same.

This is the 1979 French Grand Prix at Dijon.  Nothing of any great import has happened for the first 77 laps.  Villeneuve has led the first half of the race but the turbocharged Renaults are better suited to the track.  Both Ferraris have cooked their tyres, with Jody Scheckter running a lap down.  Jean-Pierre Jabouille now leads, on his way to his first Grand Prix win, the first victory for Renault and the first win for a turbocharged engine in Formula 1.  Nobody’s looking at Jean-Pierre Jabouille.

We join the race at the start of lap 79, guided by Murray Walker.  Villeneuve has just been passed by Rene Arnoux in the second Renault.  After some consideration, he’s decided not to let that stand:

If you’re going to pay tribute to men with that kind of grit, skill and unbreakable fighting spirit by naming racetracks after them, you’d better make sure they’re capable of serving up memorable racing of their own.  Could this year’s Canadian Grand Prix do it?

It gave us all manner of stories.  The first one was all about rain.  It fell in a steady, persistent fashion before the race, stopping just prior to the scheduled race start.  Race director Charlie Whiting opted to start proceedings behind the safety car, a decision which seemed somewhat cautious on a track that looked ready for racing.  Soon enough, it dried out sufficiently to let drivers change from wet tyres to intermediates, at which point the clouds developed a sense of humour and dumped their contents over Montreal all at once.

Had the Canadian Lifeboat Institution lodged an entry, they could potentially have won.  They hadn’t, so everyone stopped and ran for shelter.  Those who hadn’t already pitted, like Kamui Kobayashi and Paul di Resta, got a free tyre change during the ensuing red flag period, which went on for enough time to make the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix the longest race in world championship history.  Those who had pitted got a free change too, but from somewhat further down the field than such leading lights as Nico Rosberg, Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher might otherwise have been.

Those who weren’t in the race any more had gone the way of Lewis Hamilton, who hasn’t yet figured out that there are some gaps your car simply won’t fit into.  Had he done so, he may well have gone on to win the race.  He certainly wouldn’t have crashed into Mark Webber at the very first corner or into his own team mate Jenson Button a few laps later, bouncing off the other McLaren and into the pit wall while aiming for a gap that was never going to be available by the time he’d arrived.  This was an activity which royally entertained the crowds on the pit straight but earned Lewis absolutely no points.  Brilliant though Hamilton is – and we must never seek to change, modify or in any way dilute the way that man drives racing cars – he’d be more successful, more often if he learned the difference between racing at every reasonable opportunity and racing no matter what the circumstances.

During the interlude, we learned that F1 drivers have galoshes to put over their driving boots when walking on wet ground, that HRT use plastic bags wrapped around Tonio Liuzzi’s legs instead and, thanks to Martin Brundle, that ‘racecar’ is a palindrome.  After it, we learned an awful lot about the class of 2011.  We found that Kobayashi, who has as much of the Villeneuve about him as anyone on the current grid, is completely unfazed by the prospect of running at the sharp end.  For lap after wet lap he kept Felipe Massa at bay, only falling back when the track lost its moisture and car performance began to take precedence over driver skill.  His time will come.

We discovered that somewhere in there, if you look hard enough, you can still find Michael Schumacher.  In the damp portion of the race he was peerless, faster than anyone else as he marched through the field.  Nobody carried more speed through the last chicane, nobody had the same raw pace and nobody pulled off the sort of opportunistic pass that took Schumi from 4th to 2nd in one swoop on the exit of turns 8 and 9.  When Nick Heidfeld’s crashed Renault brought out a late safety car (during which a marshal fell over and nearly got himself killed twice while we found out, in the same incident, that the German for “man oh man!” is “man oh man!”), it was briefly Regenmeister vs Weltmeister at the front, by which time the track had dried sufficiently for Vettel to draw away and Michael to drop back.  4th place was some reward, but his drive deserved more.

We also concluded that Narain Karthikeyan isn’t big on mental capacity.  Late in the race, everyone pitted for slick tyres as the track dried.  For reasons best known to himself, Narain assumed he’d been given a new set of intermediate tyres and proceeded to drive on the wet sections of track instead of the dry ones.  The subsequent loss of grip was enough to slow him down and to see Massa, attempting to pass the HRT, skating into the wall.  The Indian’s excuse?  “Nobody told me they were slicks.”

Finally, we saw how luck can change.  Fresh from being savaged by his team mate, Jenson Button made all the right calls on tyres and wound up precisely nowhere as a result of them.  He was the first major player to take intermediates in the early stages, becoming the fastest man on the track for the brief period between his tyre stop and the mammoth midway monsoon.  Displaced by those who hadn’t pitted prior to the race stoppage, JB made only small amounts of headway for much of the distance.  Upon calling for slicks as the race entered its final third, he became the fastest man on the track until he crashed into Fernando Alonso…

‘Crashed into’ is really quite harsh, as it goes.  Alonso had just left the pits, his slicks weren’t up to racing temperature and he’d had to drive through a lot of water on the pit exit.  The prudent racing driver would have let Button by on the inside of turn 3, rather than holding ground around the outside until the inevitable collision.  Alonso was out, Button was 21st with a punctured tyre and when the mess was tidied up and the inevitable safety car disappeared again, Jenson hadn’t even had time to catch the back of the pack.  At this point, someone who sounds a lot like me said, “He’ll win.”  Hahaha and all that.

He won.

The 2009 world champion was simply stunning from there on in.  Patient where necessary but aggressive where possible, just as Hamilton should have been, Jense picked his way through the field with surgical precision.  When Heidfeld hit the wall while running 6th, Button was already up the road in 4th.  When the safety car came in, he cleared Webber and Schumacher like a man in a tearing hurry to be somewhere.  The lead.

Vettel was pacing himself out front, but he was using the wrong marker.  In keeping the gap to Schumacher steady, Seb and Red Bull had ignored the McLaren, which had been taking two seconds a lap out of everybody prior to Heidfeld’s accident.  A thrilling chase led to a final lap shootout, Vettel responding but still losing chunks of time while his pursuer ran the McLaren to the ragged edge, looking lairy everywhere in a way that Button never, ever does.  On the limit into turn 6, Button kept on coming as Vettel strayed mere inches off line, locked his outside rear wheel on a damp patch and left his rival a shot into the clear.

Get at him, give him a proper race, and you’ll still find chinks in the defending champion’s armour.  Jenson did it, coming from nowhere with the kind of drive you simply have to applaud.  Had it stayed damp, perhaps an old master would have cracked it instead.  Heavier rain might have favoured a man born under the rising sun.  Each one of them went racing, each one of them put on a show and somehow, you imagine that Gilles would have loved every minute.

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