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THE STEERING COLUMN: Salut Gilles

THE STEERING COLUMN: Salut Gilles

There is a real feeling of history as you drive onto the thin island marooned in the middle of the mighty St Lawrence Seaway.

A magician who captured hearts rather than minds

Not just the Olympic history that the Ile Notre Dame once hosted but 39 years of Grand Prix racing tradition.

And at the start-finish line, two words in cursive script capture the romance of the island: “Salut Gilles”.

The circuit, of course, was named for the great Canadian racer Gilles Villeneuve who once ignited the passion not just of the tifosi but racing fans around the world – and won at this venue on its world championship debut in 1978.

A magician who captured hearts rather than minds, rekindling the romance of a bygone age as he coaxed a recalcitrant Prancing Horse to improbable Grand Prix victories, such as Jarama in 1981.

A tightrope walker who could seemingly defy the laws of physics

A tightrope walker who could seemingly defy the laws of physics, conjuring surreal levels of grip as soon as the rain fell. (He was once 10 – yes, ten! – seconds quicker than his team-mate during wet practice at Watkins Glen in 1979.)

A quiet man of strong loyalty, taken too young while pushing those limits on the narrow circuit through the Zolder pine forest 35 years ago.

Three decades may have passed since that tragic day but Gilles’ legacy lives long in the sport’s memory.

First as an icon of sporting spirit and passion. Second through a circuit that always brings the best out of racing’s modern generation.

Lewis floating like a butterfly

Those simple words “Salut Gilles” pivot from the past to the present, at once a valedictory farewell to a legend and an annual salute to his sporting legacy.

For the Silver Arrows, this is the tarmac where, on a rain-soaked day in 2011, Michael Schumacher came within touching distance of that elusive first podium for Mercedes.

In 2014, both Mercedes battled so hard they broke. While Lewis retired, his brakes cooked, Nico fought valiantly to take a famous second-place finish while 160 hp down on his nearest rivals.

And, last year, it was the scene for Lewis floating like a butterfly, then stinging like a bee, as he delivered a perfectly poised one-stop strategy to win – a fitting tribute to the great Muhammad Ali who had passed away just days beforehand.

The stage is set for a battle royal

Meanwhile, in the past two seasons, a young Finn has crept quietly onto the lowest step of the podium at a circuit where real racers shine. You can be sure Valtteri is quietly relishing his return to Quebec.

So we head into race seven of the 2017 championship with sporting resonance at every turn, at one of the season’s classic venues.

The stage is set for a battle royal. A fight between the Prancing Horse and three-pointed star worthy of the great Villeneuve himself…

Salut Gilles.

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