One of IndyCar’s biggest stories, Montoya seeks glory days encore in return

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In two seasons in CART in 1999 and 2000, Juan Pablo Montoya was near worth the price of admission on his own.

Sublime car control and a ridiculous ability to extract the maximum out of what was already a near-1000 hp rocketship made Montoya a thrill to watch in his two seasons with Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

But much has changed since that time of Montoya’s last CART start, October 29, 2000 in Fontana. Bill Clinton was President; gas was $1.54 per gallon and Christina Aguilera’s “Come on Over Baby (All I Want is You)” was the number one song in the nation.

And of course Montoya’s been through a career transformation, with six “nearly” seasons in Formula One and seven less-than-successful seasons primarily turning left in NASCAR, driving with Ganassi.

Fourteen years later, as Montoya makes his return to North American open-wheel and now with Team Penske, it’s worth wondering whether his glory days will come back.

As Montoya has said throughout this winter, and through a high volume of test days, it will take time.

“I mean, I feel like I’m not where I want to be yet with the car,” Montoya said at IndyCar media day in Orlando. “I feel we have come a long way.

“It’s weird. Sometimes we’re really good, some we’re average. The first Sebring test was horrible. I feel like Sonoma was pretty good. I was really happy.

“It’s hard because the new tires are different than the ones I’ve been used to the last three years.  I’m starting to get it, but the problem is I don’t get to put it all together.”

Through various trips to Sebring, Sonoma, Phoenix, Fontana and Barber, Montoya has racked up hundreds of laps this winter in preparation for his return.

He might not be on pace immediately, but he wouldn’t have made the decision to come back if he didn’t think he’d have the best possible equipment, or if it wasn’t going to be a challenge.

“In NASCAR the limit of the car is very easy,” Montoya explained. “The big thing is you’re driving it too hard. In IndyCar, you can’t drive it hard enough, or at least I can’t yet. I’m leaving a lot on the table. I think that’s the biggest thing.”

The biggest change from the CART champ cars Montoya raced in 1999 and 2000 to the Dallara DW12-Chevrolet he’ll be racing in 2014 is the braking. The old cars also had substantially more horsepower, but for Montoya, that adjustment hasn’t been as tough to handle as the braking.

“The biggest thing is braking. The braking is unbelievable,” he said. “We used to have a lot more power. But the initial acceleration is very similar.  It’s when you go through the gears… the braking in the corners, it’s unbelievable.  The grip level of these cars, it’s like an eye-opening, to be honest.”

Already though, Montoya is meshing with teammates Helio Castroneves and Will Power. Castroneves was a then-unheralded, then-surname hyphenated series sophomore (Castro-Neves), driving for the late Carl Hogan’s team, when Montoya made his CART debut in 1999.

“I feel like I got to do a job, push myself,” Montoya said. “It’s good to have a guy like Will on the team that’s really quick and gets the job done. Helio has a lot of experience.

“If I have my experience plus what they do, I think it’s pretty good. I felt like I brought a few things to the team already to make the cars better.  We’ve gotten a little bit better, so I’m pretty happy.”

Heading into St. Petersburg, the street course, Montoya anticipates a struggle. But by the end of the year, he wants to be in race-winning and potentially title-challenging form.

“That’s one of the hardest challenges, the first time on a street course, St. Petersburg,” Montoya said. “I think it’s going to be eye-opening.  I think it’s going to be a slow-building weekend, getting comfortable in the car.

“(But) winning the Indy 500 and fighting for the championship, you would say that would be a good season.”

Lastly, there is the timing element of this. At 38, Montoya’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning, and felt it imperative to give himself one more chance to come back to the series where he initially made his name.

“If I look back at everything I’ve done, the most fun and best racing I’ve done in my career, it’s been in IndyCar,” he said. “This was the perfect time to do it. I felt like two years from now, wouldn’t be able to do it. Timing-wise, it was ideal. So we’ll see.”

IMSA: Sebring test notes

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Ahead of next month’s Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, teams from the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship took to Sebring International Raceway to round out a week of IMSA testing at the 3.74-mile road course.

Below are news highlights from Friday and Saturday at Sebring.

Derani Aiming for a Repeat of 2016 Victory

Tequila Patrón ESM’s Pipo Derani burst onto the American racing scene in 2016 with standout performances at the Rolex 24 and 12 Hours of Sebring to lead the ESM team to victory at both races.

His Sebring triumph was particularly impressive as he charged from fourth to first in the final ten minutes to secure the victory in one of the most thrilling finishes the race has ever seen.

Now two years removed from those successes, Derani appreciates the impact those 2016 triumphs had on his career.

“If you’re talking about sports car racing, you’re talking about Daytona, Sebring, Le Mans, Petit and those races that are known worldwide,” said the now 24-year-old Derani. “After winning Daytona and immediately coming here at Sebring – which if I’m not wrong, I was the first guy winning both on debut and the first Brazilian, probably to win back-to-back on those two races. It definitely changed my career. It opened many doors for myself and I’m really glad that it happened. Nothing comes easy. I’m really glad that ESM gave me the chance in 2016 to be in those races. Two years later, I can’t wait to win again.”

With testing now in the rearview mirror, Derani hopes he and the ESM team have found the right setup package to give them another chance at a victory.

“(Thursday) was a day that we managed to get a lot of information,” he explained. Most importantly, we ran a lot. We were out on track, and that is really good for us. Hopefully, this work is going to pay off really, really soon.”

United Autosports Continues American Odyssey at Sebring

Although two-time FIA Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso won’t be in the mix, United Autosports will be continuing the American adventure they started at January’s Rolex 24 with entries at the three other Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup events in 2018, beginning with March’s 12 Hours of Sebring.

The No. 32 Ligier JS P217 Gibson will be the team’s entrant at the remaining NAEC events and they will look to build on a fourth-place finish at the Rolex. However, while fourth looks like a strong result, team co-owner Richard Dean felt a victory may have been within their reach.

“We were a little bit disappointed in the end, even though we finished fourth because I think with three hours to go we sat in third place and the two Cadillacs were looking like they were struggling, we felt like we had an opportunity that 24-hour races can give you,” said Dean. “But everybody’s got a story, so we came out of there with a fourth place.”

Drivers Phil Hanson and Paul Di Resta returned to the team to complete the Sebring test, while Alex Brundle filled in for an ill Bruno Senna, who is scheduled to race with the team at the 12-hour enduro.

Dean emphasized, though, that Senna’s previous experience around the track should make up for his absence.

“Bruno couldn’t travel, he wasn’t well enough, and there was just no point in him getting on a plane and being ill here,” Dean asserted. “He knows the track. Of the three drivers we’ve got, he’s the one who needed the least laps around here.

Dean added that the team is beginning to get a better foothold on American soil, citing help from Andretti Autosport, which should improve their prospects for the remaining NAEC rounds.

“We feel a little bit more organized, we’ve got our own truck now, and we’ve got a little base here, and (Andretti Autosport) have been helping us out an awful lot, so our little collaboration or alliance with Andretti has certainly steadied the ship a little bit for us and helped us,” Dean said. “We’re excited to do these remaining races, and now that we’ve got Daytona experience with us, it’s definitely going to help us do a much better job in the approach for Sebring, Watkins Glen and Petit.”

Lally Samples New Continental Tire Design

Continental Tire, the current tire supplier for the Prototype and GT Daytona classes in the Weathertech Championship, rolled out a new tire design for the Sebring test, and Magnus Racing’s Andy Lally was the first to sample it on Thursday.

“Basically, we’re all going through sweeps right now and feeling things out. What does the tire feel like when you’re in qualifying mode versus full-fuel mode?” Lally said after the initial running. “There are all sorts of stuff when you get such a change like what we’ve got here. This is a relatively big change for the GT cars. Maybe for the Prototypes, it’s not as big a change, but for the GT3 cars, it’s quite a different feel on the platform. We’re just going through that.”
The new tire design comes after a Rolex 24 that was plagued with tire problems, as several teams suffered failures, especially on the left-rear, during the 24-hour race. Wayne Taylor Racing even elected to retire their No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R after suffering five tire failures.
Miller, Bechtolsheimer Sample New CJ Wilson Racing Acura NSX GT3
Marc Miller and Till Bechtolsheimer got to work quickly with new Weathertech entrant CJ Wilson Racing, with both drivers sampling their new Acura NSX GT3 on Thursday and Friday.
Miller is a veteran of GT3 machinery and has won big races before – he was a GTD class winner at the 2016 Motul Petit Le Mans. Bechtolsheimer, however, is all new to GT3 machinery, having primarily raced vintage cars along with forays into the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.
“I’ve not driven anything close to a GTD car before,” quipped Bechtolsheimer. “The first time driving it properly here at Sebring is kind of fitting because the first time I drove a car on slicks was at Sebring two years ago in moving to Continental Tire, which was at least as daunting at the time as moving into GTD now.
“The first time I turned a lap or two in the car, even though I was just trying to figure out where all the switches were and so on, I straight away felt that this is a car that’s going to be fun to drive. It’s going to take me time to build up to be on pace, but it’s a confidence-inspiring car and its yeah, it’s a lot nicer than perhaps I was expecting.”
The Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring rolls off on March 17.