Back where he belongs

Next season Colombia’s most famous racer will return to mainstream single-seater competition in America, where he shone brightly but briefly before switching to F1 and, subsequently, NASCAR. He’s confident he can pick up where he left off – and so are his rivals

After six years in Formula 1 and seven in NASCAR, Juan Pablo Montoya will return to single-seaters next season with Roger Penske’s Indycar team. Montoya won the CART championship in 1999, his rookie campaign, and the Indy 500 the following year, so Penske expects him to be a championship contender. But during his time in NASCAR with Chip Ganassi, Montoya won only two races, both on road courses, and many people wonder why he wasn’t more successful. We sought a few answers…

Without doubt, Ganassi’s two-car NASCAR team is no match for the bigger operations fielded by such as Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs, Roush-Fenway, Stewart-Haas and Richard Childress. In an attempt to improve his fortunes, Ganassi made some big changes to the team’s management and engineering group at the end of 2011, but the following season proved particularly lean. Things have been better in 2013, but Montoya remained more midfielder than front-runner.

“Last year was hard because the changes were made late and our aero programme suffered,” Juan says. “Everything was way behind. The new people had fresh ideas so we tried a lot of different things and that took a long time to work through. I had a new crew chief and it was hard at the beginning, but it’s come a long way since.

“We’ve had a couple of shots to win in 2013 and we’ll keep trying to get that first oval success through to the last race. I think we’ll get it done. It’s down to a lot of little things, but we’re closer. We’ve made a huge step from last year but we’re still missing a little bit. When we have everything working, we’re right there. The thing is, when we miss the set-up we’re too far off, but I think we’ve done a really good job this year.”

Montoya believes NASCAR to be the world’s most competitive form of motor racing. “You don’t understand how tough it is until you get out there,” he says. “You have 43 cars and most of the drivers are bloody good. By the time you count all the top teams you have 25 cars.

“People don’t appreciate how deep the field is. It’s very close, but a better car is still a better car. Everybody works hard on their cars, but NASCAR’s operating window is relatively small. In Formula 1 you can do more to the cars, so if you find something it can make a bigger difference.”

Chip Ganassi accepts that Montoya faced significant challenges in NASCAR. “I think he made a good effort,” Ganassi says. “He tried really hard but I think, looking back, he would agree that it’s very difficult to embrace a category when you’re not immersed in it. He was living in Miami while the team and whole sport was in Charlotte, which made it difficult for him to take on the whole ideology of NASCAR. He’s a talented guy and I think it’s made him a better driver. He learned a lot about NASCAR… and also about himself.”

Montoya thinks seven years in NASCAR made him a smarter, more complete driver than he was in CART or F1. “You learn many things when you do different types of racing,” he says. “In NASCAR you really learn how to be a team player and that’s going to be a huge help to me. I think you learn so many things about the cars that you would never understand, believe or see. There are many basic things about set-up that you ignore in open-wheelers. You understand more about suspension geometry and how the tyres work.

“Tyre management in NASCAR is so much more noticeable. It’s huge. In single-seaters you do a little bit of that, but the more you understand it, the more it’s going to pay off. There are lots of advantages from being in NASCAR for seven years. I don’t think the time was wasted. I think I learned a lot and I’m just looking forward to being in a winning car again. I wanted to have the best opportunity to win races and Roger Penske is giving me that.”

Many fans think Montoya is too old and chubby to win again in open-wheelers. Others believe he will be fiercely motivated and show every inch of the speed and aggression we saw 15 years ago, when he won seven races and the CART title during his rookie year in the States.

Either way, it will be intriguing to see how Montoya fares with Penske. He will bring some excitement and fresh interest to America’s main single-seater series and Juan insists he will be fighting fit and ready to race at the front of the field. He has stepped up his physical fitness regime and plans to hit the ground running.

“I’m working really hard,” he says. “I’ve lost a lot of weight and I feel like I’m not even halfway to where I want to be. Strength-wise I think I’m pretty close with my arms. I feel really good there. I know my neck needs to come up a long way, but I carry a helmet with weights and wear it every day, mornings and evenings.

“If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right and not in a half-assed way. And Roger is the right person to do it with. The opportunity to run the Indianapolis 500 in a Penske car? It doesn’t come any better than that. It’s pretty cool. I’m looking forward to it. I’ll address what needs to be addressed, get comfortable in the car and drive the shit out of it. I think it will be a lot of fun.”

He dominated the Indy 500 in 2000, his only previous start, and also dominated the Brickyard 400 in 2010 until hit by a pit speeding penalty. “Going back to the 500 is a big deal,” he says. “Roger hasn’t won it since 2009 and I’m one for one there, so maybe I can make a difference. You’ve just got to be in the right place at the right time. Open-wheel racing is what I know and grew with, so this Penske opportunity is golden. I jumped up and down when we did the deal. I felt like a five-year-old kid.”

Four-time champion Jeff Gordon believes Montoya was limited by his equipment in NASCAR. “Juan is a fantastic race car driver,” he says. “He’s very aggressive and pulls off great moves. He’s shown that in NASCAR and I think he’s certainly going to do that when he goes back to Indycars.

“I think the challenge for Juan in NASCAR has been the uncertainty about the Ganassi team’s strength. Is it Juan’s inexperience on ovals that has kept him from winning? He’s run really well at times, but then it seems as though it doesn’t always come together. Is that down to him, or the car and the team? With the talent he’s shown in Indycars, Formula 1 and NASCAR, and his ability to adapt to different machinery, you want to question those things.

“I’ve always applauded Juan for making the move to NASCAR, because at that point in his career none of the cars he’d driven had prepared him for it. He took a big step, and even though he didn’t win too many races, it’s been a pleasure competing against him. I respect him tremendously.”

Five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson concurs. “I’ve had a chance to see Juan drive a high-downforce car on a road course in the Grand-Am series at Daytona,” Johnson says. “And when you go to a lighter, high-downforce car and watch Juan do his thing, he blisters everybody. I feel very confident that he’s going to be successful back in Indycars.

“Juan is gifted in his ability to get around a road course on braking, turn-in ability and all that stuff. That’s why he won the CART championship, went to F1 and had the success that he did. But he’ll have to return to Indycars with his eyes wide open. I’m sure there will be an acclimatisation period, but he’s going to do just fine. I have high hopes for him.”

Mike Hull is general manager of Ganassi’s Indianapolis-based IndyCar and Grand-Am sports car teams. Hull was with Ganassi when Montoya raced Indycars in 1999 and 2000 and has worked with him at the Daytona 24 Hours.

“Juan is the same guy he was before he went to Formula 1,” Hull says. “There’s no difference to me in his mindset, his aggressive nature, his ability to read the track and the people he’s racing. He has an uncanny ability to be able to visualise what he needs.”

Hull believes Penske hired Montoya with an eye on his team scoring a 16th Indy 500 win. “The Indy 500 is number one for Roger,” he says, “and if you have the resources to put Juan in your car, you’re thinking about the Indy 500. That’s the primary focus and goal.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t know that Roger is contemplating the championship. He’s thinking about winning Indy. Juan can win races and a championship, but Roger also knows he can win the Indy 500. To me, that’s what this is all about.”

Hull believes Montoya’s return will benefit everyone. “It will raise Penske Racing’s game and for us that’s very motivating. We’re excited. I think it’s a motivational and educational tool because you have to learn to work together better among yourselves to make your programme better and that’s what we’ll have to do. To me it’s awesome.”

Ganassi is a little more circumspect. “I think anybody who gets in a Penske car is going to be competitive,” he says. “I don’t see that as an issue. Time will tell, but I think he’s going to find it a little different from the last time he raced Indycars. It’s very competitive these days, very competitive indeed. But I hope he’s strong. I’ll be disappointed if he’s not.” So will the rest of us.

In an age of often blinkered vision, Montoya’s enthusiasm for tackling different forms of motor racing merits admiration.

Gordon Kirby