Busman's holiday

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Juan Pablo Montoya

As the Colombian ace turns his back on Formula 1 for a career in NASCAR, Motor Sport recalls the last time he tried tin-tops. It wasn’t pretty…
Words: Jonathan Noble

Juan Pablo Montoya would certainly take umbrage at Keke Rosberg’s famous view that, “racing cars don’t have doors. Toilets have doors.”

Even from his junior days, Montoya has never been afraid to experiment. He proved that on making a guest appearance for Mercedes-Benz at Silverstone’s International Touring Car race in August 1996.

At the time, ITC was a big attraction for young drivers and car manufacturers keen to find the next big thing. In August of that year, Mercedes-Benz was on the look out for a replacement for Jan Magnussen, who had been despatched to Penske in IndyCar as successor to Paul Tracy.

British F3 leader Ralph Firman and front-runner Johnny Kane were favourites, but Mercedes-Benz motorsport boss Norbert Haug had other ideas. He had talked with Nigel Clyde, Dario Franchitti’s race engineer at the D2 AMG team who had worked with Montoya, about taking him on.

Having just won his second race of the season at Thruxton, the decision was sealed when he followed it with a podium at a wet Snetterton the week before the ITC event.

“He wasn’t the obvious first choice,” says Haug. “He was not the star we know today but I had a feeling about him.”

Montoya accepted the offer immediately, and so began a manic week. He flew to Germany first thing Monday morning for a seat fitting, tested the car at the Nürburgring on Tuesday, returned to Britain on Wednesday and then took part in official ITC testing on Thursday.

“Sometimes I would sit there and not believe what was happening to me,” said Montoya. “It was like a dream, but there was also a nightmare inside.”

That nightmare was a host of technical problems. The most spectacular was a dramatic fire which destroyed the back half of his car during that Thursday test.

With the car repaired, Montoya wound up tenth overall in practice. He looked good for a top-six grid slot on Saturday but spun at Luffield 1 and so ended up 16th.

On race day, the hydraulics on his power steering failed in the first event, and in Race Two he began a charge up the field before braking to avoid a spinning Opel at Club and swiping Jorg van Ommen’s Mercedes. Montoya brought his battered car back to the pits for repairs, but after rejoining the action a warning light for his ABS came on and he had to retire.

Even today Haug remembers how well Montoya adapted to the machinery, although thinks making the quick switch from single-seaters to cars with doors was maybe easier then.

“The cars were no problem for him,” claims Haug. “I would doubt if you could do the same 10 years later because it is more sophisticated now. There are regularly 15 cars within a second or less nowadays.”

Despite the outcome, Haug was sufficiently impressed to offer the Colombian another race; Montoya declined.