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Montoya relishing part-time role; looks forward to Alonso reunion

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Juan Montoya was at Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend to announce a new Team Penske partner in Fitzgerald Glider Kits, which will also serve as his sponsor during the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil next month.

Montoya was relegated to a part-time driver in 2017, with the INDYCAR Grand Prix and the Indy 500 currently his only scheduled races. Yet, while some drivers may become impatient and frustrated with the circumstances, Montoya is relishing the chance.

“The opportunity with Penske came to do this and I thought it would be… for long-term, would be the best thing for me and it’s good. I’m really happy,” he said in a press conference at Bristol. “If you are going to go race you might as well come do it with best people you can, and to be able to get a relationship with the guys at Fitzgerald: it’s amazing.”

The 41-year-old referenced that he and Penske had been working on an effort for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway events over the last year, but the hunt for sponsorship was something Montoya was not involved in.

“They just tell me ‘Come, we are announcing your sponsor,'” he joked. “Penske is very quiet. I have been here three and a half years and you learn not to ask too many questions.”

Juan Montoya’s No. 22 entry for the Indy 500. Photo: Team Penske

Of course, Montoya is not exactly sitting idle. He admitted to keeping busy with karting efforts, and is constantly in contact with engineer Raul Prados, who will lead the engineering effort on Montoya’s No. 22 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Chevrolet.

“This morning: his morning text to me is ’21 days.’  Yesterday it was ’22 days to go.’  Every day, he is more intense,” he said of his new engineer.

“He sees this as such a huge opportunity to win Indy. For me, it’s exciting. I’m not thinking about points. I’m not thinking about anything. I know I have a good shot of winning. I feel really good. It should be fun.”

Consequently, Montoya does not feel like he is behind as the month of May looms. This was evidenced at a test at Barber Motorsports Park in March. “I went to Barber to test and actually most of the morning I was quicker than all my teammates,” he quipped. “I was like ‘I don’t know.’ It was good. Honestly, (during) that Barber test is the best I’ve run ever at Barber.”

There is also the added storyline of a reunion with the incoming Fernando Alonso, against whom Montoya raced in Formula 1 from 2001 to 2006 (except 2002, when Alonso was a test driver for Renault’s Formula 1 effort and did not race).

Juan Montoya announces his Indy 500 sponsor. Photo: Team Penske

Like everyone else, Montoya was caught off guard by the announcement.

“If you would have told me I was going to run a race ever against Alonso, (I thought it) would be an endurance race or something not in Indy to be honest,” he said of Alonso’s entry. “I think it’s great. I think having Fernando is going to be a really good day for motorsports, not only for IndyCar, but I think the attention overall for seeing Fernando and myself and everybody running Indy is going to be really big.”

When asked about the biggest challenge Alonso may face, Montoya zeroed in on two things. The first: the crowd.

“It is so many people around you. I think that’s a little bit hard for him from what he is used to,” he said of the atmosphere.

“In Formula One, and he has been doing that for a lot of years, we started the same year together when I was there in F1, so he’s been doing it for a long time: It’s just you have your own space and people really respect your space and here, no. The fans, the sponsors, everybody are there and everybody wants a picture and you’ve got to please them.”

The other challenging aspect he mentioned was the characteristics of the car and the track. But, he detailed that the May 3 test should help Alonso get up to speed.

“I think the good thing with a full day of testing: he will get a bit of an idea of what he needs,” Montoya added. “Just good to have a day with no pressure where you can build up and you understand what it takes. I think it will be fine. He is with a good team and they always run well there as well. It will be interesting.”

In terms of his own effort, Montoya is hoping his status as a part-time driver means Penske will experiment a little, especially when it comes to engine tuning. “I’m hoping they do. I don’t know how it works, but I know they have the knock levels and things they have to look after (in) the engine. But, if you are honestly in my position, the engine isn’t going anywhere afterwards, so might as well go for broke. I’m in. That’s what you are there for.”

As noted above, Montoya makes his return to the Verizon IndyCar Series at next month’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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