DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Similar to his Team Penske compatriot Helio Castoneves, Juan Pablo Montoya is happy to have found a new full-time home driving an Acura DPI in the IMSA Series.
But unlike Castroneves, who said in a recent NASCAR on NBC Podcast that he lamented the end of his IndyCar career like pining after a former girlfriend, Montoya typically is much more ambivalent about the past series he’s raced.
“For me, it’s amazing,” the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner said of IMSA. “I love this. I don’t miss IndyCar one bit. I think these cars drive better.
“Somebody asked me the other day (to) list cars in order of how good they drove to bad, and from feeling, this is second to Formula One. The feeling, the balance and how well-built the car is, I think this drives second to a Formula One car.”
“Oh yes. When I came back to Indy cars, I was surprised how bad they drove. You get used to them, and you get on with the program and drive them and make the most out of it. But as a pleasure to drive? (The Acura) is way above that.”
This is a familiar refrain for the Colombian, who struck a similar tone when he rejoined IndyCar five years ago after leaving NASCAR and when he left Formula One for NASCAR in 2006.
His cold-blooded swashbuckling style is part of his worldwide fan appeal, and the insouciance also applies to the way he drives on track.
In IndyCar, Formula One and NASCAR, Montoya’s reputation was well established for being assertive in taking positions.
Has he driven differently since moving full time to IMSA last season?
“I think I do, but people don’t think so,” Montoya said with a laugh. “They think I take a lot of risks. I really don’t. I go through holes. I feel there’s a lot of lap time (to be gained) there without taking too many risks.
“So I pass people where people sometimes don’t expect it, and they get pissed about it. Because I know the feeling when you go in somewhere, and you’re braking, and suddenly this car shows up next to you. It’s not a good feeling. But I don’t run into them. I don’t bounce into them. I try not to hit anybody.”
Montoya went winless last season as Penske returned to sports cars after a hiatus of several seasons. He certainly is in his element at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, where he is making his ninth start and has three overall victories with Chip Ganassi Racing (2007, ’08 and ’13).
Montoya estimated that he once drove nearly half of the 24-hour race during his Ganassi days, and the team also allowed him to drive the closing stint several times.
But this will be the first time he starts the race, though, after qualifying his No. 6 Acura Penske third despite some cockpit problems (teammate Ricky Taylor will start second behind pole-sitter Oliver Jarvis’ record-setting lap for Mazda Team Joest).
“Mazda looks really, really strong,” said Montoya, who is sharing his ride with Dane Cameron (his full-time teammate) and 2016 IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud. “I think everyone’s question with them is reliability. I don’t think they even know how good they’re going to be because they’ve been having some issues. But that’s the crazy thing. They built a new engine, just came up with new parts and the thing lasts 24 hours, and that’s it.”
Montoya, who drove in IndyCar for Penske from 2014-17 after a 2007-13 stint in NASCAR and 2001-06 foray in F1, is confident about his team’s chances but is concerned about reliability because of the stress from increased speeds.
“I think we’ve got a very solid package,” he said. “I think the Cadillacs and us are solid competitors and are cars that will run all day with no issues. I think if the pace is as fast as last year, it’s going to be tough on the cars.
“We’re running 3 seconds quicker on the same brakes with the same cooling. You can stand on the brakes so much harder than before, you can go so much deeper than before. You’re beating on the brakes. Everything works a lot hotter and more on the limit. If you do that for 24 hours, the brake ducts and everything starts getting dirty, you start having issues. The team needs to stay on top of it, and you need to realize it.”