Juan Pablo Montoya

Photo courtesy of IMSA

Acura Team Penske pushing, learning hard in Daytona testing

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There are a lot of standard, run-of-the-mill quotes used to describe the challenge of racing the Rolex 24 at Daytona that largely focus on endurance, persistence and compromise.

And then there is this gem from Juan Pablo Montoya offered during a break in testing for Acura Team Penske today at Daytona, to describe what this race entails.

“The best way to describe is it go down I-95, at 150 mph, running away from the police… that’s kinda the feel you get here,” Montoya said, to lead off a session with reporters Friday, which IMSA was gracious enough to stream live on Facebook.

“You feel like you’re being chased – or chasing someone. They stole your life and you need to get it back and you’re driving the wheels off it, in meantime people get in the way and you’re bouncing into people. It’s pretty cool.”

Canned quote that is not, and for Montoya, it’s also the precursor to both his and Acura Team Penske’s aspirations of coming in hot for the race debut of the new Acura ARX-05 at next year’s Rolex 24.

Penske’s drivers are completing a two-day test this week at Daytona and a two-day test next week at Sebring to continue the intense preparation for the 36 Hours of Florida out of the box to kick off the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season. The Acura program joins Mazda among DPi manufacturers testing this week at Daytona.

Montoya’s already hailed the car’s early reliability from the first round of testing.

“The reliability of the car has been unbelievable. Acura came out with an engine that just runs. I think the pace we still need to work on it. It’s still early days for the car,” he said.

Montoya and Helio Castroneves are the two star attractions in Penske’s full-season lineup but both are well aware and focused on the fact it’ll be co-drivers Dane Cameron and Ricky Taylor that will ease their respective sports car transitions.

Montoya will share with Cameron (Simon Pagenaud is third driver), Castroneves with Taylor (Graham Rahal is third driver), and the older drivers are moving into a new position of being the relative newcomers learning from their significantly younger but championship-winning sports car veteran teammates.

“Yesterday for example, we were done running and we went for dinner just to talk about cars and get that relationship together,” Montoya said of Cameron, the 2016 Prototype class champion. “The two of us we can talk about what I like and he likes, and what I hate and he hates. So we stay away from the things we hate we can get to a nice compromise.”

Castroneves added, “People don’t realize they’re champions in the series and they have more experience than Juan Pablo and me. So having them as a reference to learn details is key… we’re talking about traction control, electronics and a lot of things we don’t use. We have to smooth it out. We have the current champ in my car. And he has another champ in his! We’re older guys, but we’re rookies.

“I’m not very good at sharing. But it’s another thing. Transitioning from IndyCar to sports car takes time. You gotta share the driving position, driving style, the setup. There is so much. At end of the day it’s a compromise. Like marriage. We all know that. Right now Ricky is phenomenal and Dane is as well. I’m looking forward to 2018.”

Team Penske’s maiden sports car race in its return, Petit Le Mans with the LMP2-spec Oreca 07 Gibson, was a hugely valuable learning experience for the team. Castroneves won the pole and the team recovered from Castroneves getting hit early on to finish third.

The work done this offseason is key in the preparation to ensuring the new car is ready to star out of the box at both next year’s Roar Before the Rolex 24 and crucially, the Rolex 24 itself.

“The competition level from other teams is incredible,” Castroneves said. “The rhythm in the race was stronger than we expected. We know what we need to do know. Focus on qualifying gets you to the front. There, 10 hours, weather changing, there’s so many different adversity. It was a great learning curve.

“Sure it’s a new team but not new in sports cars, or new in many aspects. We have experienced people around us. That’s one of the reasons we did Petit Le Mans. We’ll face different (challenges). There’s a lot to be prepared for. We’ll do everything in our power.”

Beyond their full-season bow in IMSA, Castroneves is confirmed for a return for next year’s Indianapolis 500 in a fourth Team Penske car.

Montoya’s options now seem limited to a fifth, as the primary Chevrolet test driver under INDYCAR’s directed 2018 Dallara universal body kit program would be highly unlikely to be released away from Penske and Chevrolet to a Honda-powered IndyCar effort. He updated his status today, following on from his most recent comments to NBCSN’s Will Buxton at the United States Grand Prix last month.

“I don’t think I will (race Indianapolis) at the moment,” Montoya said. “I think with Roger … I could either run with him if he wants; if not, I don’t think he’ll let me run anywhere else.”