INDIANAPOLIS – It was like old times in the post-qualifying Firestone Fast Six press conference, because Juan Pablo Montoya was there cracking jokes and right on pace as if he wasn’t no longer part of the full-time fabric in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Montoya took the No. 22 Fitzgerald Glider Kits to fifth place on the grid for Saturday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix, in what will be his first series start since last season’s finale at Sonoma Raceway in September.
After two tests at Barber and Gateway to get acquainted with what is now the fifth car for Team Penske, Montoya is in one of the better positions for an extra Grand Prix entry in the race’s fourth year at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road courses.
To hear him tell it though, fifth was even worse than he could have expected because he still made a lot of mistakes – and is trying to get them out of the way before the rest of the month and the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
“I ran whatever it is, the 68 flat in the second session, I made a couple mistakes, and I thought, ‘I got probably an (67) 80 or something in me, I’m going to give it a go,’ and instead of going faster made a couple mistakes went slower in the first lap, and in the second lap I really nailed the start of the lap and I nailed turn 12 and when I went to Turn 13 spun the tires and bad spun.
“But it’s okay, last time I qualified was September or something last year, so I feel pretty good. Our goal was to make the Fast Six, and we did, and to be honest, we had pace to be second fastest today no problem. I missed it by a tenth and a half, and I made a hundred mistakes in the lap.”
Montoya’s qualifying run came after his first time being able to run on Firestone’s red tires in practice. Per Firestone, the new alternate this weekend is a different compound with similar grip but more heat resistant. Previous to 2017, the first time anyone could run the reds would be in qualifying, not in the last practice session beforehand.
“I thought it was huge. Since I came to IndyCar, three, nearly four years ago, I told them they should do that,” he said. “It’s like, why. Especially you’re giving guys that have done it for a long time a huge advantage. New guys are always going to struggle to get to qualify because the difference in setup is massive. I got an idea this morning of what we needed out of the car, and I think it helps. Even though we screwed up in the first session.”
Montoya said while he wants to do well in this race, he isn’t worried about points or mistakes here. It’s a race situation dress rehearsal for the Indianapolis 500.
The weird thing for Montoya was that when he and Penske agreed to run this race, they didn’t realize the schedule would be so compressed with two practice sessions and a qualifying – an abnormality as part of this race’s two-ay event.
“I’m actually surprised I made it that far in qualifying if you think about it,” he said. “I was hoping — when they said we were going to run the road course, I remember last year you get the open test and you get two hours on Thursday and long sessions, I’m going to have time to build up, and then I looked at the schedule, and it’s two 25-minute sessions. It’s like, okay.
“But it was fun. I mean, you’ve really got to be in the game. I mean, it’s a really busy day. It’s tough because this morning, the track being so cold relative to now, it’s completely different. We’ll see. I think tomorrow if we hit it, we’ll be pretty competitive. If we miss it, then we miss it.
“For us, I mean, anything we do, the laps we do and pits that we do is going to be a bonus for the 500. I’ve got a really experienced group of guys but they haven’t done it in a while, so I think we get the pressure of people just to — I mean, let’s leave the screw-ups this week, know what I mean? That’s what really it’s all about, even myself leaving, I did that pit stop, we were having a bit of issues with the building and stuff, but it still was screwing up. It’s my responsibility.”
Montoya kept coming back to the word fun though. He’d been bantering with Helio Castroneves on the dais and recalling old times.
And the way his schedule works out, doing limited racing this year and being a dad is something he’s embracing. He flies to Europe for two months after the ‘500 because his son Sebastian is running in the European Championship.
“It’s fun because there’s no pressure. I don’t care about the points; know what I mean? I normally don’t really care too much about points anyway, but this time a little less,” he laughed.