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Montoya refreshed for full year with Penske, Acura after ‘weird’ 2017

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If the worst kept secret in racing the last several months was that Team Penske was running a sports car program with Acura, the second worst kept secret was that Juan Pablo Montoya would be one of its drivers.

With today’s announcement however, the 41-year-old Colombian can now officially talk about his new full-time ride.

Montoya’s been renowned for his career versatility and winning in IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula 1. And now, how he’ll be back in action after an abnormal 2017 season where he’s tested two generations of IndyCars, will have tested two entirely different types of sports cars, raced an IndyCar twice for Team Penske in May at Indianapolis, won the Race of Champions in January, and spent some quality time karting in Europe with son Sebastian, who is beginning to blossom on that front.

It all adds up to a wild year of Juan Pablo that has been part slow, part flat out depending on the month.

“It’s been weird because at the beginning of the year, it was actually really calm until Indy,” Montoya said. “We had a little testing here or there, but it wasn’t much.

“Then two months with Indy and then kart racing in Europe. Since then it’s been non‑stop. I think the next three, four months are going to be non‑stop.

“But I don’t mind that. I really don’t mind. Doing the testing for the IndyCar has been a lot of fun for the ’18 IndyCar.  There’s no pressure. Just go there, you know, drive the wheels out of it with no compromise. That makes it fun.”

Montoya’s three days of testing in that car at Indianapolis, Mid-Ohio and Iowa have been an excellent case study in “JPM unleashed.”

Without the restrictions, as noted, his trademark unreal car control has been on display as he’s been able to push the car – in only its base setup – through all the items the INDYCAR officials want to see. Being able to drive at least seven or eight mph faster on a straight at Mid-Ohio already speaks to a good development path.

It’s a cool place for Montoya to be in, leaving a legacy as one of two test drivers for the new car. And he’ll get that same opportunity within the Penske Acura program, because he’ll have a chance to work alongside one of racing’s most experienced 28-year-olds, in Dane Cameron.

Cameron’s already raced in all four IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship classes and has won titles in two of them (Prototype, GT Daytona), while having driven a variety of cars ranging from this year’s Cadillac DPi-V.R to the previous generation Corvette DP, the BMW Z4 GT3 he won the GTD title with in 2014, a Risi Ferrari F458 Italia (the same team Montoya tested with this spring at Sebring) and more.

That makes Cameron a natural teammate with Montoya in more ways than one; he’s excelled across a variety of cars and series at a young age. Montoya was a CART and Indianapolis 500 champion at 24, an F1 race winner by 26 and a NASCAR Cup race winner by 32.

“I think it’s very exciting for me because Dane is a young guy, is a guy that has run the series, understands the series. I think he has a lot of knowledge,” Montoya explained.

“I’ve been driving all kinds of cars. As you know, I’ve driven everything. I’ve been successful in everything.  I’m excited to bring something to the table, and at the same time as a driver, find something new, learn new things.

“I think we can work together really well and hopefully bring a ton of victories.”

Montoya will handle the bulk of the Acura ARX-05’s initial testing as Cameron won’t be available until after his current contract with Action Express Racing in its No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac ends mid-October, following Petit Le Mans.

Penske Racing president Tim Cindric is optimistic the Penske Acura program, which he expects will see a combination of he, Kyle Moyer and Jeff Swartwout overseeing portions if not all of it, will be on track by the end of the month following the ARX-05’s formal reveal at The Quail in Monterey later this week.

While Montoya would still be a natural to run an extra Team Penske IndyCar at the Indianapolis 500 next year provided the opportunity is there – he said “I would say yes in a heartbeat” to that – he said the sports car focus will be top of mind as he returns to full-time action in what will be a deep championship.

“I think it would be a fun car. From what everybody says, it has a ton of grip,” he said. “I always enjoyed driving the (old) Daytona Prototypes because you could throw them around a lot.  These cars seem to have a lot more downforce and a lot more power, so I’m excited. I just don’t know what to expect.

“I think it’s going to be a lot better and a lot quicker than what I’m thinking.”

Title contenders stumble on the streets of Toronto

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The championship picture of the Verizon IndyCar Series saw a massive shakeup after Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto. While points leader Scott Dixon ended up in victory lane, his third win on the streets of Toronto and his third win of the 2018 season, all of his championship rivals stumbled.

Josef Newgarden, the pole sitter and second-place man in championship – he trailed Dixon by 33 points entering Sunday – led from the pole and looked to be a contender for the win, but a Lap 34 restart saw his day come apart.

Newgarden ran wide exiting the final corner coming to the green flag and smacked the outside wall. He plummeted through the field and pitted under caution – for a Turn 1 pileup involving Graham Rahal, Max Chilton, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power, and Sebastien Bourdais – to allow the No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet Team Penske group to examine the car for damage.

Newgarden continued on, but was never a contender the rest of the day, ultimately finishing ninth.

“I knew it would be low grip, but not zero grip. I just lost the front end completely,” Newgarden said in describing how the wall contact happened. “I feel terrible, it’s not fun to make a mistake.”

Alexander Rossi, who sits third in the championship, ran a steady sixth in the first stint until Lap 27, when contact with Will Power damaged his front wing. Rossi was then caught up in the melee on the Lap 34 restart, getting airborne over the left-front of his Andretti Autosport teammate Hunter-Reay.

Rossi again pitted for a new front wing – he had six stops in total – and ended up eighth on a day when he felt like a podium beckoned.

“It’s a pretty disappointing result. I don’t think we had the car to beat Scott (Dixon), but for sure with the problems that everyone had, we could’ve finished second. It’s been a difficult string of races,” Rossi said afterward.

Hunter-Reay, too, had a day forget. After going from sixth to third on the start, he spun his No. 28 DHL Honda into the Turn 3 Barrier on Lap 27. And like Rossi, he was caught up in the Lap 34 pileup, falling off the lead lap in the process.

Hunter-Reay languished in 16th at the checkered flag.

“It was a very unfortunate day and a big loss for us in points,” Hunter-Reay lamented. “The DHL Honda was running comfortable in third and pushing hard, but I had too much front brake lock and found the tire barrier – that’s my fault. Then after that, we got caught up in a wreck, which put us a lap down. From there we just fought to stay in front of the leader.”

Power, too, hit his struggles after the first stint, when contact with the Turn 11 wall, an incident similar to the one that his Team Penske teammate Newgarden had, bent the right-rear suspension of his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet. He also had contact with Rossi later that lap.

Power lost two laps in the pits as the team made repairs, and he took the checkered flag in 18th.

“In the last corner, I brushed the wall and bent a rear toe link, so the car was a little bit out of whack. I didn’t even know that (Alexander) Rossi and I touched. I was just kind of trying to hang on until we got a yellow and could pit,” Power explained. “I’ve never had so many DNFs; not DNF for this race, but like a DNF in a season. Still, it’s kind of how this sport can go.”

All told, their struggles mean that Dixon leads the championship by 62 points over Newgarden. Rossi sits third, 70 points of the lead, followed by Hunter-Reay and Power, who sit 91 and 93 points out of the lead respectively.

And the next race, the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (July 29 on NBCSN) won’t make it easy for them to make up ground, as Dixon’s record there is astoundingly strong. The four-time IndyCar champion has five wins at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, his most recent triumph coming in 2014, a race in which he famously came from last on the grid (22nd) to win.

Conversely, Newgarden, Rossi, Hunter-Reay, and Power have a combined one win at Mid-Ohio (Newgarden, last year).

However, the likes of Newgarden and Rossi still appear confident that they can make up for their Toronto struggles.

“We have to move on now and try to pick it back up. With the championship battle, we’ve got a long way to go. This doesn’t help but look, we have plenty of racing (left),” said Newgarden. “We need to keep our head up here. We’re going to be just fine, we’ve got fast cars and the best in the business. If we get our mistakes sorted out, we’re going to be just fine.”

Rossi, who finished sixth at Mid-Ohio last year, echoed similar sentiment, and thinks Mid-Ohio presents an opportunity to get back on track.

“We’re very good at Mid-Ohio, we’re kind of circling Toronto and Mid-Ohio as two races we were going to be pretty good at, so we got to reset, man, and just execute,” Rossi explained afterward. “We’re fast. We’re there every weekend. That’s the important thing. It’s a lot harder to be outside the top 10 and looking for answers. We’re fighting for pole every weekend. We’re in the Fast Six virtually every weekend, so you’re putting yourself in position to have a good result, it hasn’t come really since Texas.”

The 2018 championship is far from over – the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma being a double-points event helps ensure as much. But, if Dixon does claim the 2018 title, Toronto may be the race that serves as the turning point.

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