Montoya

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.”

IndyCar’s last big pre-season test occurs this week at Sebring

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Conor Daly. Photo: IndyCar
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Pre-season testing for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season will conclude this week with all eight full-season teams having two days at Sebring International Raceway’s short course on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Sebring marks the closest venue to simulate street course conditions; four of the first eight races are street races while only one street race, Toronto, occurs in the second half of the season.

Although this is private testing, this will be a de facto “spring training” on the 1.5-mile road course for teams to see what the others are running all at once. IndyCar’s official spring training, the Prix View test at Phoenix International Raceway’s 1-mile oval, occurred on February 10-11.

The bulk of the field runs tomorrow, with seven of the eight teams set to test – the only exception is Andretti Autosport. Andretti is listed to test on Wednesday.

All but one of the 21 full-season drivers expected for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener on March 12 will test this week. The one not listed is Sebastien Bourdais of Dale Coyne Racing; Bourdais and Ed Jones tested at Sebring in January prior to the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

They’ll be joined by the three drivers making their test debuts, all for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Robert Wickens, Luis Felipe “Pipo” Derani and Luis Michael Dorrbecker.

Wickens tests tomorrow as part of his planned ride swap with James Hinchcliffe, with Derani and Dorrbecker set to test on Wednesday.

Sebring is usually a hotbed for tests over the IndyCar offseason. This year saw A.J. Foyt Enterprises (in late January with Chevrolet) and Chip Ganassi Racing (in early January with Honda) premiere their new manufacturers and aero kits at Sebring, among other teams that have tested here.

Although the test season has seen an increase in interest this year, the regular season starts in St. Petersburg and returns to NBCSN with Long Beach on April 9.

F1 Paddock Pass: 2017 launch roundup (VIDEO)

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The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass returns today with a recap of the remaining launches of the 2017 Formula 1 cars that occurred over the weekend.

Williams was first to reveal a rendering of its 2017 car, but it wasn’t a formal launch. Sauber’s online launch properly kicked off proceedings last Monday, before Renault, Force India and Mercedes did actual launches, and then Ferrari (online) and McLaren (in Woking) both launched on Friday.

Official launches then followed for Williams, Red Bull, Haas and Toro Rosso over the weekend. Haas had pictures of its car leak the day before its planned launch as it was a filming day on track.

In this edition of Paddock Pass, NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales recap the remaining cars revealed over the weekend.

Previous Paddock Pass editions from this week are below:

Testing continues this week with days two through four of the first test at Barcelona.

Alonso’s McLaren struggles on first day of F1 tests

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 27: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MCL32 on track  during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 27, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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MONTMELO, Spain (AP) Troubled Formula One team McLaren has gotten off to a wretched start in preseason testing.

Fernando Alonso spent most of the first day waiting to get back out of the garage after his car broke down following just one lap at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on Monday.

What the team identified as an “oil system” malfunction to its Honda-made engine kept the two-time world champion out of action until after the lunch break. Back behind the wheel, his 29 total laps was the lowest amount of the 11 drivers who participated.

Alonso also posted the second-slowest time, more than three seconds off the leading pace set by Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes. Only Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson was slower.

“It’s disappointing,” Alonso said. “You work for three months and at the track on the installation lap something breaks down and you lose the day.”

This misstep is the latest technical hiccup to plague McLaren since it paired up with Honda.

One of F1’s most successful teams with eight constructor titles and 12 driver titles, the British outfit has struggled since it switched from Mercedes to the Japanese automaker before the 2015 season.

After earning just a combined 27 points from Alonso and Jenson Button in the first year with Honda, the team showed some growth last season with 76 points and two fifth-place finishes. But that is still a far cry from the glory days of the Woking-based team whose last race win was in Brazil in 2012.

For his part, Alonso hasn’t won a race since he claimed his 32nd victory back in 2013 at the Spanish Grand Prix while with Ferrari.

“It is fair to say that after the difficulties we had the last three seasons, it’s a nice temptation for the media,” Alonso said.

“From the point of view of the team, we are disappointed and sad to arrive to the first day of testing and not run.

“We are focused on what we have to do to make up the lost time. We know that we have four days for each driver and now one day is gone to prepare for the world championship.”

Stoffel Vandoorne, who has replaced Button, will get his turn for McLaren on Tuesday.

McLaren team chief Eric Boullier acknowledged that the relationship with Honda is far from perfect.

“It is like any marriage, you can have some ups and downs,” Boullier said. “We went through a lot of stress through the last couple of years, but we have a positive and constructive relationship and I don’t expect this to change in the future.”

The opening test will run through Thursday.

The track near Barcelona will host a second round of testing from March 7-10 before the season starts at the Australian GP on March 26.

Steiner: Haas is ‘a lot better prepared’ after this day one

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 27:  Kevin Magnussen of Denmark driving the (20) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-17 Ferrari on track during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 27, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Last year’s first day of testing at Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona for Haas F1 Team was both exciting and tense all at once.

As it was the first official day of running for the team, questions abounded over whether the new team would bank laps and if so, how would they get on. They did though with Romain Grosjean completing his first 13 laps in the morning session.

Luckily, having had a full year to acclimatize to Formula 1 and get in the rhythm of how this all works, Haas was able to have a smoother first day of testing in 2017, even despite an incident for Kevin Magnussen in his first day aboard the team’s Ferrari powered-VF-17 chassis.

“The plan was to do more, but that’s how the first day goes sometimes,” said Haas team principal Guenther Steiner. “We had a few issues, but that’s normal. They are to be expected when you have a new car and we sorted them out. We are here to learn and that is what we did.

“Our learning process is a lot better than last year because our people have worked together for a year now and we know more about the car. We are a lot better prepared.”

Magnussen ran through Pirelli’s hard, medium and soft compound tires on the day. An incident at Turn 10 damaged the front wing assembly but didn’t stop him from completing 50 laps.

“We had a few issues, but the good thing is that they were small issues,” Magnussen said. “Even though they stopped us from some running, it wasn’t something that is at all worrying for the coming days. It’s kind of the typical baby problems you have with the cars when they’re completely new. Except for that, the first feeling of the car is nice. It’s good to finally get that feeling of the car after looking at it, and all the anticipation for the faster cars. It’s a good feeling. Today’s been a day I’ve enjoyed a lot.”

The Dane continues tomorrow before Grosjean runs the last two days of testing.