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.”

Here’s what drivers said after Sunday’s INDYCAR race was postponed until Monday

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Here’s what several drenched drivers had to say after Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was postponed until Monday morning (11:30 a.m. ET, LIVE on NBCSN):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, 2017 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama winner, 2018 pole winner): “It’s tough because we have so many people that come out here to watch us. We want to put on a good race. We want to put on a show. So calling the race, running around behind the pace car not running, it’s tough, it’s tough to do that. But I think it was the right thing in the end. When we started the race, the conditions were OK. You could run at that level of rain. Then, it intensified right before that first caution. I think when the caution came out, it got to a point where it was just too much. There was too much puddling and pooling of water on every straightaway. Then the rivers started flowing, high-speed compressions in Turns 1 and 2, fast corner, 12 and 13, fast corner where the river starts to form. Just tough. I mean, look, we love racing in the rain. It’s got nothing to do with not wanting to run in the rain, not being able to do that. It’s that this type of track with this water level was too much to race today. We’ve run here in the rain before, but it intensified to the point where you’re starting to get in a situation where it’s going to take it out of the drivers’ hands. What happened with Will (Power), I don’t think is a driver error. I don’t know how anyone is going to drive hydroplaning on the front straightaway. I think you would have had that for the rest of the track, too. A tough situation. Thanks for the fans that came out and supported us. Hopefully we’ll get some people back tomorrow and we’ll get the show in and put on a great event.”

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet):
“Tough day so far. We had some problems with our radio and fuel alarm, but otherwise the car was alright. It was just too dangerous out there, we couldn’t see anything, so I think they made the right call. Hopefully we’ll have a good race tomorrow.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It’s just a real shame for everyone on the Verizon Chevy team. The car was good and we were doing our best out there, but it was really hard to see anything in front of me. The conditions were just so bad. As soon as I got to the frontstraight, the car just came around, and I tried to keep it off the wall, but it was hydroplaning and there was nothing I could do. I feel bad for the team and for the fans in this weather. Just too bad. Hopefully our luck can turn around when we get to Indianapolis.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Very difficult day for us. In the race we were 13th at the time and we had some electrical issues, so that caused us to pit and we lost a lap. Not the ideal situation, but we don’t give up. There’s still a race tomorrow and we’re going to go for the most points. Anything can happen.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda): “It was a tough beginning, but when we kind of got going it was OK and kind of fun to challenge for a while, but visibility was a major issue today, no doubt. I’m glad that the series postponed it. I would have like to get it in today, but that’s life. We will go racing tomorrow.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 Kerauno / MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda, Verizon IndyCar Series points leader): “I think definitely the right decision was made to red flag the race. It’s a very difficult position for everyone to be in. It’s never the result that you want, but safety is obviously a priority. I think everyone did a good job considering the conditions of looking out for each other. Not being able to see is not doing anybody any good. It is hard for everyone, but glad that we’re all in one piece and try again later.

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “As you could see on TV, if you couldn’t see the car, it was probably three times worse in the cockpit on the main straight or any straight. You had to completely trust the guys that they were accelerating. Never the less, I made good progress on the short stint and I made up a few positions.  The car was working well, but also was aquaplaning a lot, too, so I have to respect INDYCAR’s decision for everyone’s safety. Now we really need to concentrate on having a good car for tomorrow. I’m sorry for the fans that sat in rain all day, but thank them for their support.”

RENE BINDER (No. 32 Binderholz tiptop timber Chevrolet): “It was a short day. In the beginning the conditions were not that good, but afterwards the conditions started to improve. The race was stopped, then restarted, and I think the conditions were not too bad at that point. Unfortunately, it was red flagged again and then cancelled for the day. It would have been nice to get halfway, but we will come back and try again tomorrow.”