Canadian Tire Motorsports Park in Bowmanville, Ontario, is hosting the Vintage Automobile Racing Association of Canada (VARAC) Vintage Grand Prix this weekend, which will also include a few historic F1 cars in the mix. As this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Grand Prix, which started at what was then called Mosport, we look back at the history of this grand, high-speed circuit, which has changed relatively little since hosting its first car race in 1961.
Renaming an icon is no picnic. The Rogers Centre will forever be the SkyDome. The Mazda MX-5? Ah, the Miata. And for those who have had any association with Canada’s most storied road racing circuit, “Mosport” is what springs from the lips despite it having been renamed Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in 2011.
This year, Mosport Park, er… CTMP is 56 years old, and it marks fifty years since hosting Canada’s first Formula One race in 1967. It’s the oldest continuously run track in the country, and other than seeing some smoothing, widening and more generous run-off areas, the layout has changed very little.
Corner 2 remains the sphincter-clenching, long double-apex downhill left-hand sweeper that has beguiled, bewildered and, yes, inflicted untold damage for decades. Similarly, the complex Moss Corner – a pair of close-set, elevated 90 degree right handers that set drivers up for the Mario Andretti Straightaway – provides its own unique challenges.
Moss Corner is so named because Stirling Moss is largely responsible for this tricky little number. While on a trip to Toronto in 1960, Moss was shown plans for a 4.1-kilometre, 10-turn racing circuit slated to be built on a 450-acre parcel of rolling farmland north of Bowmanville, Ontario. He suggested turning the hairpin into this more challenging configuration, and so it was done. Fittingly, Moss drove his 2.5-litre Coventry Climax-powered Lotus 19 to victory in the first major race at Mosport – the 1961 Player’s 200.
Racing legend and Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame inductee Bill Brack was also present in the very early days of Mosport Park. As a young racer, he was conscripted by Ensign Motors to drive one of the first Austin Mini 850s to arrive in Canada around the circuit. “It was so exciting for me on this day to have the great privilege of driving Stirling Moss around the track. It must have had a great effect on me. From that day forward I drove in so many Mini races, and won, that I was called Mr. Mini!”
Canada’s F1 history started at Mosport Park on August 27, 1967 when it hosted the eighth round of that World Championship season. Jim Clark nabbed pole position in his Ford Cosworth V8-powered Lotus 49 with a lap time of 1:22.4. (The course lap record of 1:04.094 came courtesy of an Audi R10 TDI in 2008). These were heady times in F1. The driver roster is a veritable motherlode of legends – Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, Dan Gurney, Denny Hulm, Jim Clark, Bruce McLaren, David Hobbs, Jochen Rindt and eventual race winner Jack Brabham.
The 1967 F1 season also saw the debut of the Lotus 49, a car designed by Lotus founder Colin Chapman and Maurice Philippe, and one that changed the template of F1 cars from then forward. Chapman convinced Ford to design a V8 that could act as a stressed member of the car’s structure, and thus was born the 3.0L, 410-horsepower, 9,000 rpm Cosworth DFV. Mounted just behind the driver, the front of the V8 was bolted to the monocoque while the rear supported the transmission and rear suspension.
The Lotus 49 won it’s first outing that year with Jim Clark at the Dutch Grand Prix, but it didn’t fare quite so well at the 90-lap Mosport contest. Canadian Eppie Wietzes was disqualified after 69 laps and Jim Clark’s Lotus retired with ignition issues. The third Lotus 49 piloted by Graham Hill managed fourth.
Eight years after driving that first Austin Mini around Mosport, Bill Brack was back in a slightly more potent car for the 1969 Players Formula One Grand Prix. His BRM sported a 3.0L V12 that made 465 hp at 10,500 rpm. Brack managed to complete 80 laps of the 90 lap race before retiring. He drove the same car in the 1972 Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport.
I asked Brack about the danger of the sport in those days. Compared with the F1 cars of today, these ’60s racers were rolling death traps – essentially four-wheeled gas tanks with potent engines. At this point, driver safety had yet to enter the F1 lexicon. Brack said the racers always thought about the dangers of driving these cars, but the adrenaline rush overcame everything.
From 1967 to 1971, Mosport Park and Quebec’s Circuit Mont-Tremblant alternately hosted the Canadian Grand Prix, after which Mosport was the sole host until 1977. In 1978 the Canadian Grand Prix moved permanently to Montreal – Mosport’s off-the-grid rural location, accessed by lonely country roads, was no longer logistically suited to the demands of the growing F1 circus.
In 2011, the ageing Mosport Park got a new lease on life when legendary Canadian race driver Ron Fellows, along with businessmen Alan Boughton and Carlo Fidani, took ownership. Renamed Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, it’s seen a host of improvements, including new outbuildings, pedestrian bridges, resurfacing and an extended pit lane.
Despite all this, the essence of the circuit is pure. The racing line remains essentially identical to that which Canadian Ludwig Heimrath Sr., driving a Porsche 718 RS 60, followed en route to victory at that first race, claiming the BEMC Trophy on June 10, 1961.
As Bill Brack put it, “This track in my mind is the best track worldwide. If you can drive Mosport at a good speed, you no doubt can drive any track.”
Want to see some of these former Formula One cars – and other classic racing cars – drive in fury? Visit canadiantiremotorsportpark.com for more details on the VARAC Vintage Grand Prix.