Lunch with... Juan Pablo Montoya

Few drivers can claim Indy 500, F1, NASCAR and Daytona 24 Hours wins, but this hard-charging Colombian has rarely followed convention

In these times of relentless specialisation in everything, including motor racing, true versatility is rare. In his day Mario Andretti was F1 world champion, won the Indianapolis 500 and won NASCAR’s Daytona 500. Graham Hill was twice F1 world champion; he won the Indy 500 too, and Le Mans. Dan Gurney won in F1 – in one of his own Eagles, on one historic occasion – and was also a winner in Indycars, NASCAR and in endurance racing, Le Mans included. To that tally you can add Can-Am and Trans-Am. 

But in the modern era, maybe no one has moved across different categories quite like Juan Pablo Montoya. He’s not much interested in statistics, or indeed in championship titles: in his view, the one thing that matters is to win the next race. In whatever class or formula he finds himself, what presses his button is crossing the finish line first. When I remind him that he won the CART Championship in his rookie year, he answers with a shrug.

However, when I mention his extraordinary roster of rookie race victories, winning in his first full season in every class of racing he has done since Formula Vauxhall, that does produce a happy grin. He was successively a rookie winner in F3, Formula 3000, CART, Formula 1, NASCAR and then back in Indycar. 

But when I ask him what it felt like switching straight from a Formula 1 car to a NASCAR blunderbuss, and from road circuits to ovals, there’s another shrug. Juan treats every racing car as just that, a machine to win a race. He sees it as his job to adapt to different cars and different tracks, get the best out of whatever he has in his hands that day, and go for another win.

Ever since his first outings in karts and local single-seaters in his native Colombia, Juan has stood out because of his unshakeable self-confidence, his laid-back attitude, and his refusal to think that any other driver, however great, is unbeatable. He is also rare among modern professional racers in that he speaks exactly as he finds, and his directness will often produce harsh truths about himself as well as others.

We’re lunching in maybe the smartest restaurant in downtown Miami, the Capital Grille (spelt like a radiator grille) at 444 Brickell Avenue. Juan lives a few blocks away and is a regular here, and the fastidious maître d’ welcomes him by showing us to a private room. A definite plus is that Connie Montoya, Juan’s elegant, charming and race-wise wife, joins us for lunch. She too is Colombian, but they and their three children spend much of the year in Miami.

As Juan tucks into crab cake and a substantial medium-rare sirloin steak – “I’ll have mashed potatoes, and don’t give me any greens” – he wants to tell me first about his recent Porsche test in the 919 hybrid Le Mans car. “The challenge of just working out how to drive it was pretty cool. The media made a big deal about it, but it was only a friendly invitation, and I did it with Roger Penske’s permission. There was no hidden agenda, no offer from Porsche, and in 2016 I’m not doing anything except carrying on with my Penske Indycar contract.”

Juan was born in Bogota 40 years ago to an architect father who was a keen kart racer. “From when I was really little I went with him to the tracks, and as soon as I was old enough I was racing. I won a lot of championships and I wanted to move on to cars, but in Colombia the car racing people and the karting people didn’t really get on. The car guys didn’t want me, they said I was too young. 

“So when I was 17 my dad paid for a three-day course at the Skip Barber Race School at Sears Point. My tutor was Vic Elford. I didn’t really speak any English then, but Vic was really good to me and taught me a lot. Then back in Colombia I got myself into a Formula Renault, qualified on pole for my first race, and won it.” 

The Montoyas were a middle-class family, and not particularly wealthy. To support his son’s racing aspirations, Pablo Montoya had to mortgage his house. “My first full season, 1993, I did three Colombian championships: Formula Renault, another in Suzuki Swifts, and another one in old Ladas. In the Swift I won seven out of 10 races, and because I was going well I got useful sponsorship from Mobil locally.” He forgets to mention that he was also still karting, and won the SudAm 125 Championship. “In 1994 I went further afield. I won a couple of races in the Barber-Saab Pro Series in the US. I raced in Mexico in their Formula N: they were single-seaters with Nissan engines. And I did some sports car racing in Mexico in a little locally built car, super-low, carbon fibre, enclosed cockpit. That was the most fun I’d had up to then, and I won a lot of races.

“Now it was time to get serious, and come to England. I was 19.” Via a Barber-Saab contact he got an introduction to Jackie and Paul Stewart, who gave him a test and forthwith put him in the Stewart Formula Vauxhall team alongside Jonny Kane. “My English was pretty non-existent. I found a room in Milton Keynes about 200 yards from the team’s base, and I listened and I learned. I got most of my English from the mechanics, including all the bad words. 

“Racing in England was a big wake-up call for me. To start with I was struggling, I really was. Jonny was quick, he understood the car. I was trying very hard, braking late everywhere, but the times weren’t there. Then Jackie got me to take him round Oulton Park in an Escort Cosworth. I’m going into Druids as hard as I can, and as I turn in the rear end steps out. I’m thinking, ‘Oh no, I’m going to bust my ass here, with Jackie Stewart as passenger. This is exactly what I don’t need right now.’

“Anyway, I got the car back, and Jackie said: ‘Very impressive car control. But you don’t need to try that hard.’ Then he took the wheel and he said, ‘I’m going to show you how it’s done.’ Off he goes, really slow through the gears, really smooth on the brakes, very little steering effort, and I said to myself, ‘Come on, grandpa!’ And when we came into the pits and I saw the times, he was seven-tenths quicker than my best time. That taught me a good lesson. I was using up so much energy and effort, I was wasting time by trying too hard.

“After that I won three of my last six Formula Vauxhall races, and ended the season third in the championship. I wanted to stay with Paul Stewart for 1996, moving up to F3, but Paul wanted me to keep on in Vauxhall. I wasn’t having that: I was a winner in Vauxhall and I was ready for F3. So I went to Fortec and did my F3 season with them. I was never really comfortable in that Dallara, and we had the Mitsubishi engine, which wasn’t as strong as the Mugen-Hondas, but I won two races.” In fact the end-of-season F3 reviews said Juan was often the fastest driver out there, but he made lots of mistakes. They also said that he apparently had no fear.

“Yes, people said that, and sure, I did make mistakes, but I was so hungry. There’s no point in racing unless you’re hungry: why do it? The next year I was in F3000, and with a decent taste of power I was much more comfortable. I was now racing against some big names of the day. It took me a little time to realise that I was there because I was as good as them, and they weren’t going to run me over. I never think I’m better than everybody. I just think, ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’”

Juan’s speed in F3000, plus his charging determination and his apparent fearlessness, attracted plenty of attention. In 1997 with Helmut Marko’s RSM team he won three races, but more mistakes lost him another two wins. Even so he missed the championship by just 1.5 points. By mid-season Frank Williams had offered him an F1 test. 

“It was at Barcelona: me, Nicolas Minassian, Soheil Ayari and Max Wilson. Before that test I trained really hard, but nothing, even F3000, can prepare you for what F1 can do to your neck. Those two fast right-handers at Barcelona, I turned in, the car went right, but my head went left, I could barely see where I was going. But you can’t lift, it’s your job to be quick. Anyway, my times were good, and Frank gave me a test contract. He was really good to me. I owed Marko some money, so he paid that off, and he also paid David Sears what he was asking for a full F3000 season in 1998 at Super Nova.” 

Under Sears’ guidance came greater maturity. “I had to learn. In racing you either learn, or you go home.” In 12 hard-fought F3000 rounds Juan was on the podium nine times, with four victories, and won the championship with some ease. “Racing in F3000 and testing in F1 for Williams, it was all happening. By the end of the season I’d run as fast in testing as the regular Williams drivers [Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz-Harald Frentzen], I was F3000 champion and everyone expected me to be racing for Williams in 1999. So did I. I had a Williams contract, and it was a no-brainer. 

“Then they told me they were going to go with Alex Zanardi and Ralf Schumacher.” Zanardi, a two-time CART champion for Chip Ganassi, was coming back to F1.
“I couldn’t believe it. I went back to Colombia and thought, ‘If I have to spend another season just testing, I’ll never race in F1.’ You spend more than one season as a test driver, you get stuck there. You do lots of hard work, and then you’re kicked out to make way for another youngster. Like [Jean-Christophe] Bouillon, who was a tester at Williams before me. Who remembers what happened to him?

“Eddie Jordan called me and wanted to offer me a drive, but Williams said, ‘You can’t talk to him, you’re under contract to us.’ The final insult was when they said, ‘We’re testing in Barcelona with Zanardi, and we want you to come and help him.’ I said I wouldn’t do it, but they said, ‘You have a contract, you have to do it.’ So I did it, and of course I was faster than Zanardi. 

“And who should turn up at the Barcelona test but Chip Ganassi, with his team manager Morris Nunn. That evening Ganassi said, ‘Hey, I want to talk to you. Do you want to race for me in CART?’ I told him I was tied to Williams, but he said, ‘Frank’s OK about it. Now, here’s
a contract. That’s what I’ll pay you. No discussion. Sign here.’ I guess Frank had made some arrangement with Ganassi. I never really found out what the deal was, but in effect I was switched with Zanardi.”

So for 1999 Juan found himself driving in CART in a Ganassi Reynard-Honda. And, after seven victories and a season-long battle with Dario Franchitti, the rookie was CART champion. “Yeah, that was pretty good. I guess it was beginner’s luck.” In CART Juan quickly earned himself a reputation for being aggressive, even wild, which began with a famous incident in the second race of the year at Motegi, Japan. Michael Andretti, former champion and in his 17th season in the series, was Indycar royalty: Juan was the new boy. “He tried to intimidate me. I catch him on the back straight, I’m going alongside, and he turns in like I’m not there. I locked up the fronts trying not to hit him. So on the front straight I get in his draft. As I start to pass him he turns left. I don’t lift off, so we crash.” 

Andretti’s public rage made headlines, but Juan says, “After that people in Indycar took me a bit more seriously. I think I’m pretty fair, but at the end of the day you need to look after yourself, because nobody else will. Sure, I am very aggressive. The English media aren’t used to people who actually race, race in every respect. When somebody is racing hard and overtaking they say, ‘My God, he is so aggressive.’ I believe motor sport is meant to be that.”

Juan’s first CART win was around the streets of Long Beach. “At that point I guess I thought I’d never make it back into F1, so that win meant a lot to me. But when I got on the ovals I thought, ‘This is Bad.’ In my first test, at Homestead, I got way out of shape. I caught it before it hit the wall. but the Ganassi guys called me in at once to try to calm me down. They said, ‘That was way too close.’

“Morris Nunn was really great. His relationship with me was way different from how he was with [Juan’s team-mate] Jimmy Vasser. Vasser was older than me, very methodical, he’d spend hours setting up the car. Over dinner they’d still be talking about the set-up. I was more like, ‘OK, that’s close enough, just let me drive it.’ In the end I learned that you can make your life easier with a better-handling car, but I’ve never spent anything near the time my team-mates spend on set-up. 

“So I battled all season with Dario, and in the end we tied on points, but I got it because I had twice as many wins as he did. Gonzalo Rodriguez, he was from Uruguay, was killed at Laguna Seca, and then in the last race at Fontana Greg Moore was killed. Greg and I were really good friends, so that put a damper on winning the series. But I always say to people, ‘Read what it says on the back of the ticket. Motor racing is dangerous.’ It sucks, but either you admit it and live with it, or you shouldn’t be racing. 

“In 2000 Ganassi switched to the Lola chassis and Toyota engines. That was a difficult car. It was really good on the ovals, it wasn’t bad on the road circuits, but the thing kept breaking down. I think I led about the same number of laps as I had in 1999, but I won just two races instead of seven. But because Chip did a deal with the IRL, I also got to do the Indy 500.” And, first time out in the most famous American race of all, he won it.

Before the race, Juan was quoted as saying, “I don’t know why Indy is such a big deal. It’s got four corners, and they’re all the same.” Now he says, “Those guys have all grown up with it being a massive thing, so they psych themselves out. They told me, ‘You’ve got to respect Indy.’ So I started the month there being really careful, but every day it was the same track. On race day we had a good car, and I think I led 167 of the 200 laps. Job done.

“Then, halfway through 2000, Frank Williams comes on the phone. ‘Hello, Juan, how are you? Do you want to come and race in F1 for me next year? I know you have a contract with Chip, but I’ll take care of that. This is what I’ll pay you.’ I said ‘OK.’ What
else was I going to say?”

Right from the beginning of the 2001 season Juan was worth watching. At Interlagos, in his third F1 race, he muscled past the Ferrari of world champion Michael Schumacher and, despite carrying a one-stop fuel load, confidently led the race until, past half-distance, he was punted off by a backmarker. But as usual he is his own strongest critic. 

“The FW23-BMW was a really great car, but to start with I don’t think I was good enough. The level of commitment in F1 was completely different from anything I’d driven before. It was the first time I’d raced a car where you become the limit, not the car. You go through a fast corner as hard as you can, and the thing never moves. You think you can’t go any quicker through there, and you look at the telemetry, and your team-mate is going eight miles an hour faster. Or you get into a braking zone and you think, ‘If I brake any deeper I’ll be in the gravel,’ and you’re losing four-tenths there because he’s braking 15 metres later. But I adapted pretty quick, I got better through the season.” He certainly did: at Hockenheim he led from pole until a refuelling glitch kept him in the pits for a long half-minute, overheating the engine which blew up two laps later. He was on pole again at Monza, and led most of the race to score his first Grand Prix victory.

When I ask about his relationship with his team-mate Ralf Schumacher, Juan is non-committal. “Just like it always is between team-mates, I suppose. We were both working to make the car better, but we never really worked together. We were so focused on beating each other. If we’d been handled better by the team, I think we’d have done a better job. Look at what it’s like at Mercedes today, between Hamilton and Rosberg…”

In 2002 the Ferraris continued to rule the roost, which made Juan’s third place in the championship a real achievement. He took a remarkable seven pole positions, five of them consecutively, and there were fastest laps but no wins. “In 2003 I could have won the title if things had been a bit different. I won Monaco, won Hockenheim, led Austria until the engine blew. With three races to go I was second in the table just one point behind Schumacher. Then things went wrong. I got a drive-through penalty in the US GP for supposedly pushing off [Rubens] Barrichello, which I didn’t do. And in Japan, in the rain, I went straight into the lead and was going away when the hydraulics failed.”

By 2004 Juan’s relationship with Williams had deteriorated somewhat. “I had a bit of a falling-out with the team at one of the races. Part of the trouble was that I still wasn’t mature enough to do all the aspects of my job exactly right. To be honest, I think very few drivers are, at that stage of their careers. But also I didn’t feel that Williams and BMW were going in the right direction. Plus McLaren wanted me. I was a big Senna fan, and I saw what he had achieved at McLaren, so I decided it was the right place.” Having won his final race for Williams at Interlagos, he moved on.

“So for 2005 there I was with Ron Dennis, and we won some races (Silverstone, Monza, Interlagos) but the car’s handling was terrible. We changed a lot of things and in the second half of the season it was better, and from qualifying 11th and 16th I started getting some pole positions.” In fact he missed two rounds because of a hairline shoulder fracture, which he said he had sustained playing tennis, although it was much rumoured that he’d had a motorcycle accident. Juan’s only comment is: “Lots of people wanted to make that a big deal, but it was what it was. 

“By the start of 2006 the McLaren was handling really well, although the Mercedes V8 didn’t have enough power. But from the beginning of that year I reckoned I wasn’t going to be at McLaren after the end of the season. Ron had an option on me for 2007, and he hadn’t taken it up. He never said he wasn’t going to take it up, he just said he was going to look at it. What does that mean?” 

Maybe this was merely a Dennis negotiating ploy, but Juan is not a man to wait around to be told whether he has a drive or not. “I didn’t want to be there if he didn’t really want me. And I didn’t think there was another drive in F1 open to me that was really worth taking. I didn’t want to be in a mid-grid car, I’d done enough to be worth better than that.”

At the beginning of July Juan’s standing at McLaren wasn’t helped by a disastrous US Grand Prix at Indianapolis, when he was involved in a four-car first-lap shunt that also took out his team-mate Kimi Räikkönen. Publicly Ron Dennis refused to blame Juan, although nobody knows what was said behind the closed doors of the McLaren motorhome. The very next day Juan, always one to seize the moment, took action. 

“The thing is, when you grow up in Europe, you think Formula 1 is the only thing that matters. You don’t see the other options. Chip Ganassi was now in NASCAR, so the Monday after the US GP I called him. All it took was that one phone call. Later that week Chip and
I did the deal right here in this very restaurant. Nobody knew anything about it. 

“Then I called Ron and I said, ‘Hey, I want you to know that I am leaving at the end of the year. I’m announcing later today that I’m going to do NASCAR with Chip.’ He said, ‘I already knew that.’ I don’t know if he really did already know, or whether he just didn’t want me to think he was a lap behind. I said, ‘Of course I am still 100 per cent committed to McLaren to the end of the season.’ He said, ‘No, your head will not be there. I don’t want you to drive for us any more.’”

So Juan’s F1 career was done. For the remainder of 2006 he played himself into NASCAR with a few ARCA races, leading his first at Talladega and finishing third, and then he did his first race in the top Sprint Cup series in the final round at Homestead. It was a dramatic debut: after a clash with Ryan Newman early in the race, with 16 laps to go Newman hit him from behind, sending him into the wall at 170mph. The Ganassi Dodge’s fuel cell ruptured and the car exploded into a fireball. Newman denied to officials afterwards that the contact had been intentional. Welcome to NASCAR.

Those cars weigh one and a half tons. They developed (before recent mandatory power restrictions) more than 800bhp from a push-rod V8 revving up to 10,000 rpm. On the big ovals they can run at 200mph. “After racing an F1 McLaren or Williams, of course a NASCAR car was totally different. But the cars are nothing like as basic as Europeans think they are. The stakes are high, and a tremendous amount of engineering goes into them, technology and effort like you wouldn’t believe. At first, racing on the limit on the ovals in those big heavy cars at 180, 190mph, in a big drafting group up on the banking, it took some learning. The cars move around a lot. In NASCAR, if it ain’t moving around you ain’t going fast enough.”

His rookie NASCAR Sprint Car victory came, significantly, on a road circuit. It was at Sears Point, where 15 years earlier he’d done his Skip Barber course. In the following seasons there were many top-five finishes, but only one more Sprint Cup victory, again on a road circuit, when he won at Watkins Glen in 2010. (I can’t resist letting Motor Sport readers know that the correct name of that race was The Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen. It was sponsored by a food firm whose slogan is In Snacks We Trust.)

Juan also found time to try endurance racing, scoring outright victory in the 2007 Daytona 24 Hours in a Ganassi-entered Riley-Lexus with Scott Pruett and Salvador Durán. The following year he won it again, with Pruett, Memo Rojas and old CART rival Dario Franchitti. In 2009 he missed out on a hat-trick by the unbelievable margin, after 24 hours’ racing, of 0.167sec. But he did get his third Daytona 24 win, again with Ganassi, in 2013.

“I really enjoyed my time in NASCAR, and I did it for seven years. The season is too much, too many races – with Chip I used to do 40 races a year – but we were moving forward, we were making changes, getting better. In 2009 we were running third in the championship by October: I’d had a couple of poles, led a couple of races for more laps than anyone else. My engineer Brian Pattie and I were working together really well, I’d adapted to the car, and the future looked bright.

“But then the team started going downhill. Chip kept bringing in new people, it was like he got rid of anyone who was any good. Brian Pattie left, and the last couple of years in NASCAR I was really miserable. One example: the one-mile oval at Loudon in New Hampshire was one of my best tracks, I’d had pole there, I’d led races there. The car was so bad it was getting out of shape even on the straight. After all the work we did to get it right for the race I was still 1.5sec off. It was the slowest car on the track. It was embarrassing. The team was telling me, ‘It’s not the car, it’s how you’re driving it.’ Like they were talking to a 10-year-old. I was so pissed off, I really lost it. I had the biggest row with Chip I’d ever had. 

“Earlier I’d had the chance to sign for another NASCAR team, but I decided to stay loyal to Chip. In 2013 I came very close to winning a couple of oval races. Then at the end of that season Chip told me I was leaving. 

“I still didn’t think I’d come to the end of NASCAR. It was unfinished business for me. It seemed Chip didn’t think I could do anything else in a car, because when I suggested I could go back to racing for him in Indycar he looked at me like I was crazy. Then a few weeks later, when I signed an Indycar contract with Penske, he called me and he was really mad. He said, ‘Why didn’t you ask me first?’

“When Chip told me I was out I made a few calls, and there were a couple of options in NASCAR. I also made some calls to Europe, just to see what was out there. But the first guy I called was Roger Penske. I said. ‘I’m now a free agent. I want to race for you.’ He said, ‘I don’t have a place for you in NASCAR.’ I said, ‘I don’t want NASCAR.’

“He went quiet for a bit, and then he said, ‘Give me two weeks.’ Two weeks later he called back and asked me to come to a meeting in Detroit. When I got there he gave me a piece of paper and he said, ‘This is what we think.’ I read the piece of paper, and I said, ‘OK.’ The whole thing took 20 minutes.

“First time back in a single-seater after seven years in NASCAR, it felt like getting back into karting. Things happened so much more quickly, braking, handling response, everything. Getting back up to 90 per cent was easy. The last 10 per cent took a little longer. In fact at the first test I was within 0.4sec of Will [Power, the team’s number one], but getting that last four-tenths took a while.”

So Juan was a strong contender straight away, and his speed culminated in a magnificent victory in the Pocono 500. From pole, he ran the fastest 500-mile race in history, averaging more than 202mph. He trumped that in 2015 by returning to the Indianapolis 500 and leading home Will Power in a joyful Penske one-two. “It was a lot of work, but it was fun. I didn’t qualify well, I have no idea why. But in the race my car was good, and we came through.”

After a season-long tally of high finishes and points Juan ended the season dead-heating at the top of the 2015 Indycar Championship with Ganassi driver Scott Dixon. But Dixon took the title with one more win, so that was one to Ganassi. Juan grins: “Well, you ask people who won the championship last year, they can’t tell you. Ask them who won Indy last year, they’ll know. Winning Indy is still the big deal.

“Driving for Penske has been an amazing experience, because Roger is an amazing guy. You can be the President of the United States, or you can be sweeping the floor, he’ll treat you the same. He runs all his companies around the world, and he seems to know the names of everybody who works for him. He is 79 years old, he is fit, he has incredible energy. To make the money he makes you have to be a smart guy. And he is a smart guy. Go to a race, watch him in the pits, see how intense he is, working on race strategy. You realise that he is still, every bit of him, a racer.”

Juan and Connie’s eldest child Sebastian is 10, and passionate about racing. “He’s been karting for three years now, and I think he goes pretty well. I don’t want him to race every week, trying to show everybody how good he is, blowing money on engines and stuff. Maybe there’s extra pressure on him being Montoya’s son, but he has the right attitude about it. If you race, you either deal with pressure, or you don’t.” 

Another Montoya project is Formula Smiles, a foundation set up a decade ago by Juan and Connie to help street kids and rural children in Colombia who are burdened by poverty and violence, and have no access to healthcare and education. Fundraising events they organise include a Pro-Am golf tournament and a charity race meeting whose attendees range from DTM front-runner Mattias Ekström to British karting star Jordon Lennox-Lamb, as well as everyone who is anyone in racing in Colombia. Both Juan and Connie are passionate about it, and to date many hundreds of children have benefited.

And that test in the Porsche 919 hybrid? “It was pretty amazing. I have to say it really does have horsepower. More than Formula 1, but then F1 cars today don’t have a lot of power. The complexity of the car is extraordinary. It has more technology than an F1 car: all-wheel drive, two recovery systems, and in the cockpit you wouldn’t believe the switches and things. Before they let me in the car they gave me a 30-page manual to read so I knew what to do. But like I said, the test was a one-off. There’s no question of doing Indycar and sports cars side by side, because the Indycar season is pretty intensive. Something for the future maybe, if I ever want to do Le Mans.

“But for now I am committed to Roger, and I’m very happy where I am. The way Roger operates is a real lesson. He has created a place where we can all work together, and help each other. It’s like a Formula 1 team, but with a Penske atmosphere. I’ve raced in a lot of different types of racing, with a lot of different teams, and I wouldn’t change this for anything.”

Sitting relaxed in the Miami restaurant, Juan is as laid back as ever. But there’s no mistaking the aggressive fire in his eyes, still burning as brightly as when I first met him 20 years ago, a charging newcomer in British F3.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen in 2016,” he says. “I just want to win a lot of races. That’s always what I want. Looking ahead into the future, it will be hard to know when to stop, because I love what I do. If a day comes when I don’t want to race, I’ll stop. But right now the push to win is still there, strong as ever. I’m hungry.”