Jacques Villeneuve Academy at ICAR – Click above for high-res image gallery

There's nothing like a Montreal summer. Once the sun starts to shine on the island metropolis after a long winter, the city transforms into a burgeoning oasis of festivals, street cafes and exotic sports cars. And grand prix or no grand prix, the world's second largest francophone city stands as one of the greatest motor sport destinations in North America, easily on par with anything Daytona or Indianapolis can throw at it.

You'd expect to hear a lot about racing drivers hailing from this capital of motorsport, but while the likes of Tagliani and Carpentier have made their mark, one name looms larger than any other: Villeneuve. Following in the footsteps of his father Gilles – the beloved fallen Ferrari driver for whom the city's F1 circuit is named – to say nothing of his eponymous uncle, Jacques Villeneuve took both the Indy 500 and CART title in 1995 before going on to win the Formula One world championship two years later. And while his track record since may fall short of his earlier successes, the name still carries a lot of weight. Especially in Montreal. So when JV opened up his own racing school just outside the city, and we found ourselves in town for a few of those precious summer days, we could hardly resist the opportunity to see what the Jacques Villeneuve Academy had to offer. Follow the jump to read what we found, and more importantly, what we learned.

Photos copyright ©2009 Noah Joseph / Weblogs, Inc.

There's a great history in transforming airports into racing tracks. North American racing fans will note the Indy tracks in Cleveland, Edmonton and St. Petersburg, while our compatriots in the UK will point to Silverstone and the Top Gear test track, just to name a few. While the flat topography may not offer the dramatic elevation changes that make Laguna Seca and Spa Francorchamps as great as they are, the opportunities afforded by huge expanses of unused tarmac hardly need any elaboration. And Montreal has the biggest vacant airport in the world.

Built in the 1970s in unfulfilled anticipation of skyrocketing tourism and commerce, Mirabel International was the world's largest airport by land mass, surpassed since only by Saudi Arabia's King Fahd International. But poor planning and political/economic conditions meant it never approached its full potential, and it has since been relegated to cargo duty, with passenger traffic re-routed to Trudeau airport in Dorval, closer to the city's downtown core. Bombardier and Bell Helicopters have set up factories at Mirabel, and vast plots have been sold back to the locals from whom they were originally expropriated. But two years ago, a group of entrepreneurs secured a deal from the airports authority to transform a large section of the unused tarmac into a racing circuit.

The International Center for Advanced Racing (ICAR) encompasses three kilometers of road course, a drag strip, skid pad, autocross and world-class karting track laid out by the local hero himself. Villeneuve also lent his name for the establishment of an advanced driving school on the premises, but that's pretty much the extent of his involvement. That initial disappointment, however, lasted only until we met Jean-Sebastien Sauriol, the real hot-shoe behind the Academy.

In a world overflowing with former racing drivers turned instructors, few can offer the kind of hands-on training experience that Sauriol has under his belt. After years of teaching at Skip Barber and advanced driving programs for Porsche, Audi and Panoz, ICAR brought him back to his native Quebec to set up the curriculum for the Villeneuve Academy. And after a day spent under his tutelage, we're glad they did. But While learning from a world champion might be worth the bragging rights, we can't imagine a primadonna grand prix driver translating his skills into the patient instruction that Jean-Sebastien has developed over the course of years in the field.

Sauriol set up a full catalog of courses for the academy, ranging from karting to formula racing in F3-style single-seaters. Our ride for the day, however, was ICAR's custom-equipped, competition-spec Ford Mustang. Modified from stock on the premises, it packs a 340-horsepower 5.0-liter V8 crate engine mated to a five-speed short-shift manual, track-tuned suspension and stripped-out interior fitted with a full roll cage, racing buckets and five-point harnesses. It's the perfect tool for learning the limits.

The first part of the day was spent in the classroom going over everything from racing line and shift techniques to safety procedures and the elementary physics of momentum. Then it was off to the drag strip for practical sessions on trail braking, threshold braking and rev-matching heel-and-toe downshifting. And while we may not have mastered that last complex technique before the end of the session, we did get the basics down and have enjoyed practicing since.

Following the technique sessions, it was time for an afternoon of follow-the-leader laps around the three-km FIA-sanctioned road course. One of the advantages that the Villeneuve Academy has to offer over other schools is the ratio of students to instructors. While competing establishments might place a dozen or more pupils in each class, ours had just three students for the day, translating to more attention, more feedback and a quicker learning curve. It also meant that for the lapping sessions, instead of having the instructor riding shotgun for a few runs before switching to the next student, we could rack up lap after lap, following the instructors' racing line in a leapfrog four-car formation.

Over the course of the day, one lesson proved its point more than any other, and that's the vital role that traction plays in a car's dynamic performance, whether on the track or out on the street. It's a point we've heard stressed countless times, but one which we never fully appreciated until it was driven into our helmets over the course of the day at the Villeneuve Academy. Everything we expect our cars to do depends on what the tires can transfer to the road. You can ask your tires to shave off speed and bring you to a halt, round a corner and hold the line, accelerate out of a turn and down a straight-away. But for all of these actions, they still only have a finite amount of grip that needs to be divided between multiple tasks. So for every degree of turn you dial in, that's one less degree of brake force you can apply. And for every degree you straighten out the wheel exiting the corner, that's another degree of gas pedal you can push into the floor. Sounds simple enough, but as with a great many things, going fast requires patience.

At day's end, we returned from an airport transformed into a race track, itself transformed into a classroom, to a city transformed by a brief summer. Along the drive we couldn't help but feel that our appreciation for the limits of a car's dynamics had been transformed as well, and ourselves transformed into better drivers in the process.

Photos copyright ©2009 Noah Joseph / Weblogs, Inc.

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