When I go travelling with my son things get very confused when people ask the question: “Where are you from?”, as they tend to do quite a lot in North America. ‘Well’, he says, ‘I was born in France, but I live in California’. And I say: ‘I was born in England, but I live in Paris’. Life being as it is, we meet up when school holidays and Formula 1 races coincide. This means that we meet up is in some unusual places. Last year it was New York City, Paris and San Francisco; this year – thus far – it has been Tokyo and Quebec. It is good to have time together, and the travelling makes the meetings more memorable. I drag him to motor racing places and he makes me look at fortresses and stuff like that. It works fine.
Canada is a convenient place each year, being halfway between Paris and California and at the start of the US school holidays. This year we decided to check out Quebec City, and then go on to Rimouski, which is further east up the St Lawrence estuary. This is a place that featured strongly in the family history, which readers of my book “The Man who Caught Crippen” will understand but which takes a while to explain.
Anyway, a few days before I set off I received an email from those awfully nice people at Infiniti asking me if I would like to try out one of their fancy FX35s over the Grand Prix weekend in Montréal. I don’t do road tests, as I do not feel that I am qualified to judge a good car from a bad one and have very little experience in these matters. A few years ago I won a Toyota Prius in a quiz in Belgium and I love it. I am happy to be ridiculed by my hairy-chested colleagues who want only to be seen in big red throbbing beasties, but for me a car is something that goes from A to B without too much fuss, rather than something to be used when wit and repartee fail to get the girl. Ferrari were very kind a couple of years back when they offered David Tremayne and me a Ferrari California to drive from Budapest to Maranello. I had a nice time. The car was great and I was very happy that Ferrari made such a gesture, not that I will ever be able to afford such a car. I keep hoping that McLaren will loan me one of their swoopy bolides to take from Paris to Spa, so I can really impress the gendarmes I will inevitably meet on the way home… unless, of course, I go by my new sneaky route home from Spa that goes to Chimay and uses roads where no self-respecting policeman would be seen dead setting up a speed trap.
Anyway, the point of all this is that I asked if perhaps I might borrow the car for a few extra days and take it off to Rimouski, and they agreed and so we set off this morning from Montréal with all 303 horsepower well-stabled and asleep. The sleek black number would have been unobtrusive but for the Official Red Bull Racing Partner stickers on the side, which were a small price to pay…
One has a number of choices of route from Montréal to Quebec, although all of them involve lots of trees and signs saying that Moose are going to jump out and hit you if you travel faster than 100 km/h. I decided that the road on the north side of the river would be more fun, because it passed two places that F1 fans either know about, or should know about: Berthierville, and Trois Rivieres. The first is the birthplace of Gilles Villeneuve; and the second is the street race where he made his name. So our first stop was the Musée Gilles Villeneuve… on the Avenue Gilles Villeneuve.
This was much better than I expected, although I have no idea why I had any preconceptions at all, and featured all manner of artefacts relating to the Villeneuve Family, with not only Gilles, but his brother Jacques and son Jacques as well. There were probably a dozen racing cars of one form or another including the very first Formula Atlantic car that Gilles raced in 1974 and two BAR F1 cars that were raced by Jacques (one of them being the zipper car with Lucky Strike sponsorship on one side and 555 sponsorship on the other.
There were a lot of great photographs, including a marvellous picture of Gilles with Enzo Ferrari and several of Jacques as a child. I did watch Gilles race on a few occasions but was too young to have reported on him. I did not begin writing about motor racing until the year after his death, at Zolder in 1982, but there is no doubt that I loved his style of racing and his extraordinary talent. It was a visit filled with memories and worth the visit, although I did not subject young Mr Saward to a visit to the cemetery as well.
Instead we motored onwards towards Trois Rivieres, which I made sound rather glamorous by calling the Monaco of Canada. It is a nice little town with the feeling of being in the Deep South because of all the verandas and balconies that they have in the downtown area. I was not prepared at all for the visit, so it took a while to find the track, but it was immediately clear when we were there, as the barriers seem to be there all year round. The race itself is in August this year, but much of the racing infrastructure was there and we did a couple of gentle laps, the first one going the wrong way, until we figured it out.
The race began in 1967 and it there in 1976 that a young Villeneuve raced against the visiting soon-to-be World Champion James Hunt, who went away and told McLaren boss Teddy Mayer to sign him. The contract was in the museum in Berthierville. It must be quite an event, not least because it passes through the Porte Duplessis, a narrow concrete gateway, which constitutes Turn 3. I was amused to see that on the other side of the gate was the local cemetery.
I thought it might be nice to take a picture of the Infiniti on pole position, and was fiddling about reversing to the right spot when it struck me that the car was far cleverer than I am. not only does it show the driver what is happening behind the car, but by some miracle of modern technology, which is completely beyond me, it also shows the entire car as though a camera was 15 feet overhead (I checked there was no camera), but here is a photo from the dashboard of the Infiniti on pole.
The car keeps making occasional quiet bleeping noises at me which seem to indicate something of note, but we are still trying to figure out what.
“I feel like a co-pilot in a airliner,” said Saward Jr, as we took off towards Quebec City…