ST. PETERSBURG – On a weekend when drivers with experience dating back to the 1990s or early-to-mid 2000s seemed to dominate, one somewhat unlikely driver stood above them all Sunday in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg: Juan Pablo Montoya.
It’s not that Montoya wasn’t expected to be a factor, but the storylines at Team Penske heading into the season-opening weekend of the Verizon IndyCar Series season centered around his three teammates.
Will Power is the defending champion. Longtime rival Simon Pagenaud had joined up in a new fourth car. Helio Castroneves was in the news earlier in the weekend for a partner extension for Hitachi.
So Montoya almost flew in under the radar heading into Sunday’s race, but delivered the win courtesy of an excellent middle stint on Firestone’s primary black tires, and a perfect defense against Power’s one passing attempt at Turn 10 on Lap 99.
Post-race, the story centered on the evolution of the man almost as much as the evolution of the day’s events itself.
Montoya swept through the IndyCar paddock like a ridiculously strong Colombian cup of coffee in 1999 and 2000.
He took no prisoners. He was fast, he kicked ass, and you dealt with it. But he wasn’t necessarily the most personable driver.
Then he went to Formula 1, NASCAR and came back to IndyCar.
Today, in St. Petersburg, he took the immediate moments after the win to celebrate with the fans in victory lane.
“I’ve never been a big believer what people say about me, to be honest,” Montoya said in the post-race press conference. “As long as I feel I’m doing a really good job, I’m driving the wheels off the car, the people I drive for are happy, that’s all that really matters.
“Do I pay maybe a little more attention to the fans? Yeah, I would say I do. When you’re out there, I’m still the same… if you want to call me the ‘asshole,’ whatever you want to call it… it’s good. You said ‘jerk,’ so that’s pretty close.”
Tony Kanaan, who finished third and raced against Montoya in those 1999 and 2000 CART seasons – and actually won his first race against JPM at Michigan International Speedway in 1999 – said age has mellowed JPM, but hasn’t affected his driving.
“Let’s not call him old because I’m older than him,” said Kanaan, who turned 40 in December, while Montoya turns 40 in September 2015.
“Honestly, what I like about him, I don’t think he changes his personality. But we all grow up. We have kids. I think we kind of change a little bit in a way.
“So, yes, seeing Juan celebrating with the fans the way he did today, I can assure that wouldn’t have happened 15 years ago. But that was Juan back then. I think you go through experiences in life to learn.
“I can still see the old Juan sometimes on him, which it’s great to see. Juan is a good guy to have beside you, not against you. That’s the way I put it. That’s still there.”
As for Montoya behind the wheel, he reflected on how far he’s come back in IndyCar from 12 months ago. Although his trademark car control was there, he didn’t have the outright pace this race in 2014 – he qualified 18th and finished 15th.
“It’s exciting. Last year was very disappointing,” Montoya said. “It was tough not only here but generally on the street courses. I’m a guy that always excelled at street courses everywhere I raced. To come here and have a year with really bad street course racing, it was pretty tough. I was never happy with the car.
“You know, with my engineers, we decided to go in a completely different way the than the other guys. It paid off. My pace on black tires was pretty, pretty good.”
Montoya said it was his stint on the blacks that won him the race, but he said he still has more to learn on the red alternate tires.
“I mean, I still feel I didn’t do a good enough job in qualifying,” said Montoya, who qualified fourth. “I felt I left a lot out there. I don’t know. It’s a building process.
“But I’ll tell you, I was amazed how quick we were today, especially on black tires. I mean, I had as good of pace as the reds, but more consistent. That was pretty exciting.”
What’s the scary part for the rest of the field?
If Montoya is this good, this early, and still self-reflective enough to know what he still has to learn and improve upon, 2015 could be a long year for his rivals.