"It's a wee paradise in the middle of a great river," said three-time World Champion Jackie Stewart when he first saw Le Circuit de l'Ile Notre-Dame. The Scot, at that time the winningest driver of all with 27 F1 victories, was there as a race commentator and, like all the Grand Prix People he was highly impressed. "It's one of the most beautiful settings in the world for a motor race, with the metropolis of Montreal right in the background."

The parklike setting included trees, grassy knolls and gardens, a lake and ornamental ponds and canals running between the futuristic pavilions built for Expo '67, the world's fair held in Canada's centennial year. The site also featured venues including the rowing basin where the 1976 Olympic Games were held. Just a short Metro ride away from the cosmopolitan delights of North America's most culturally unique city, much appreciated by the visiting international F1 fraternity, the location was an ideal compromise between the urban and rural venues in other parts of the world.

Twenty eight drivers from 15 nations arrived to put the new 4.50km circuit to the test. But from the moment the cars began circulating the spectators only had eyes for the local hero in the number 12 red Ferrari. They packed the perimeter of the seventeen corner course, 36,181 of them on Friday and Saturday, to watch their boy from nearby Berthierville in action. His reputation had preceded him and now his countrymen saw it first hand.

Gilles came howling down the pit straight, foot-to-the-floor in fifth with the 500 prancing horses in the Flat-12 behind his back singing a siren song at 11,300 revolutions per minute. He gave a quick glance at the pit board held out by the Ferrari crew but had to file it away for future reflection at an easier place on the circuit, because the first turn was looming up between the guard rails like a speeded-up movie.

The flattened S-section began with a gradual right-hander that quickly tightened into a kink in the opposite direction just beyond the overhead pedestrian bridge. For the spectators, this was one of the most thrilling places to watch their heroes at work, because the middle of the S featured a bump in the pavement that picked the car up and hurled it sideways. More timid types lifted off briefly, but the bravest (and quickest) did not. Gilles did not.

Moving at something like 265 kph, Gilles came flying around the right-hander on full opposite lock. Instead of detecting the telltale engine note of a cautionary right foot being exercised the fans noted that Gilles never wavered. Rather, the engine revs soared as his Ferrari T3 achieved momentary liftoff on the bump, lurching sideways at least two meters, with the fat rear Michelins pawing aimlessly in the air before regaining traction with puffs of blue smoke erupting from the tires.

From their vantage points on the surrounding hillocks the awestruck fans gasped in amazement at the fearsome spectacle. As they looked down into the beehive of activity in the Villeneuve cockpit they saw the steering wheel being yanked vigorously right and left as Gilles grabbed handfuls of lock, in opposition to the directions his car threatened to go. The sound and fury of it all shook the ground and was over in little more than the blink of an eye. Until the next lap.

Gilles blasted down the causeway, a blur of red between the rowing basin on his left and the ornamental lake on his right. He flashed through a speed trap here at nearly 270 kph, then slammed down through the gears into third and braked sharply for the sweeping right-hand turn, followed by a quick left. This brief detour in the otherwise straight causeway made the T3 skitter viciously from curb to curb and Gilles felt the heavy pressure of tremendous g-forces being exerted on his neck. Safely through the kink he floored it again up through fourth and fifth, only to have to hit the brakes and double-clutch back down through the gearbox a few seconds later. Through the left-hander in third, then up into fourth for the gradual looping turn in the opposite direction.

More hectic steering wheel, pedal, and gearlever activity saw the Ferrari swing sideways around an abrupt left to encounter a second-gear hairpin to the right, the slowest part of the circuit. But Gilles was busier than ever, his feet beating a constant tattoo on the brake, clutch, and accelerator pedals, his right hand flicking up and down from the tiny gearlever as he twirled the steering wheel right, left, and centre. All the while he was being pitched violently from side to side, his body straining at the six-point safety harness as he carved out the apex at each corner in search of the fastest line. The hairpin sent the Ferrari corkscrewing uphill and to the right, powering it along a parallel course with the menacingly turbulent St. Lawrence River and slingshotting it along beneath the leafy canopy of overhanging trees. Gilles snatched third, then fourth and shot forward at what seemed suicidal speed in view of what lay ahead. The short straight terminated dramatically in a sharp curve where the driver must stamp very hard on the brakes, simultaneously snicking down through the gears into second and effect a hard right turn. The alternative was to encounter the unforgiving steel of the guard rail or, should it fail to do its work, to wind up flying over a cliff and into the raging river.

Gilles managed to hold the middle ground, though hovering marshals feared he would be unsuccessful and clutched their fire extinguishers and crowbars expectantly every time he went by. They watched in amazement as the Ferrari disappeared over the brow of the hill in a tremendous full-blooded powerslide that surely was not conducive to keeping it on the island.

Thus inclined, Gilles dropped down the hill, changed up into third and hurled his lurching machine around the ensuing left hander. The marshals on the outside of the circuit here made no bones about their misgivings and moved well back from the barriers. They were chased by dirt spewn up in their faces by the right rear Michelin which also, on several occasions, left a black streak on the guard rail.

Gilles was long gone, throwing the gearlever into fourth and caution to the wind in a thunderclap of sound, down a valley and around a kink to the right beneath a pedestrian bridge only to be confronted with another S configuration. It coiled sinuously uphill, beginning with a second-gear left turn, followed smartly by a circuitous right-hander. Here Gilles kicked down the accelerator and was rewarded with an instant rear-end breakaway of alarming proportions. He applied the necessary corrective movements on his Momo steering wheel and brought everything approximately back into line for the momentary straight section that followed.

Third, fourth, and fifth were selected in instants, then the process was reversed just as quickly for another right-left situation taken in second gear. Gilles sailed sideways out of the left-hander and rowed up through the gearbox into top to scream down the long gentle curve to the left which afforded a breathing spell of a few seconds before all his faculties would be required to negotiate the final turn on the circuit: the ninety degree bend before the pit straight.

Fifth-fourth-third-second-first, with blasts of flame and bursts of noise from the bundle-of-snakes exhaust of the redhot engine. Accompanied also by the screeching of tortured Michelins and squealing of burning brake discs, the Ferrari came from top speed to almost a halt in less time than it takes to read about it.

Gilles cranked the wheel hard right and tromped hard on the loud pedal to whip the car sideways. He held it in this attitude for a full hundred meters, with the left rear of his car intent on overtaking the front. He played another concert with the gearlever, gradually fed in the required lock to straighten the car out and was up to 260 kph again by the time he streaked across the finish line to complete one flying lap.

It took him less than a hundred seconds to complete, he made about two dozen gear changes en route, and his average speed was about 165 kph. That was one lap for Gilles Villeneuve on the circuit that would one day be named after him.