Fernando Alonso’s quest for the triple crown has been one of racing’s ongoing storylines since he first attempted the Indianapolis 500 in 2017, as he looks to become only the second driver to win at the Brickyard as well as the Monaco Grand Prix and Le Mans 24 Hours.
Success at Le Mans came in 2018, but the failure to qualify at Indy last year highlighted just how difficult it will be to close the loop. And now it appears there is a more realistic chance that somebody else could beat the Spaniard to the milestone.
Juan Pablo Montoya is the only other active driver with two of the three wins required, needing to triumph at Le Mans to join Graham Hill in the exclusive club. With Friday’s announcement at Daytona that convergence has been agreed in order to allow the same cars to compete in the top class of both the World Endurance Championship and America’s sportscar category, Montoya’s hopes of a Le Mans return – having raced in LMP2 in 2018 – have increased.
“I think it would be great if it happens because it means you have Acura and Honda maybe looking to the future to expand, and to run in Europe and to go to Le Mans,” Montoya told Motor Sport ahead of racing an Acura Team Penske DPi in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. “That for me would be a dream because then it completes everything. I mean to be able to go to Le Mans with Penske or a company like that would be unbelievable.
“So it’s exciting because I understand the Hypercar idea, it’s good, but here [in IMSA] in 2021 or 2022 they’ve gone with the hybrids already, so it’s the same system for everybody and same gearbox for everybody. So from the cost point of view there’s no development … it’s just so much simpler.”
As we sit on the edge of the Penske transporter in a lively Daytona paddock, Montoya – with his baggy race suit tied around his waist – regularly swears and cracks jokes. But the relaxed demeanour with which he approaches this 24-hour race does not betray any lessening of his competitive spirit.
“I’ve never raced in my life to say anything, I just race because I love winning. Hey, if I go to Le Mans of course I want to win it, but I don’t want to win it because it’s the triple crown, I just want to win it because I want to race and if I’m in the race I want to kick the shit out of everybody, that’s just my nature.
‘This is my time off!’. When I come to the races, I can relax, just focus on my stuff and I love it.”
“Is it about beating Fernando? Not really. It’s about if I got a shot at going to Le Mans, I think it would be amazing.
“I felt I did a good job the last time I was there. I was a little bit surprised how everything worked and how complicated everything was and how last minute a few things were. But you know, once I got the hang of everything, then it was much better. It was a completely different car and that was very difficult to get the hang of. But at the end of the day, actually when it really mattered I was quicker than everybody so I was pretty happy with that.
“But I don’t know, [Daytona] is good. I worked really hard over the winter, I lost a bunch of weight and I still want to lose a little more, so I’m a work in progress.”
The final comment suggests Montoya does not see himself anywhere near the end of his racing career in top class sportscars, and understandably so after he won last year’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Now 44, Montoya is not putting an end date on when he will stop racing, even if his priorities have shifted somewhat.
“Honestly I think it’s the day that they don’t want me! Because it’s going to get to a day that you just don’t perform, or with my kid going to F4, a lot of the focus goes there as well. This is a really nice balance for me because we don’t do a lot of testing, we’re pretty limited. So I get a lot of time to to be with Sebastian and his racing, and I still can focus on this.
“It’s a really nice balance. Somebody asked me a minute ago ‘How’s the time off?’ and I was like, ‘This is my time off!’. When I come here to the races, I don’t have anything else. I can relax, just focus on my stuff and I love it.”
It’s an approach that is paying dividends, as Montoya won the IMSA title last season alongside Dane Cameron (although it was Alonso who triumphed at Daytona).
Montoya on F1
While he may now be thinking about Le Mans, he has been an interested observer at Formula 1 races over the past few years and the seven-time grand prix winner is now excited by the sport’s future as Lewis Hamilton chases a seventh drivers’ championship before a major change of direction.
“I think what Lewis has done is great. He’s done a really good job. When you win so many championships the timing of where you go is crucial. And his timing has been impeccable. That goes a long way.
“For Michael [Schumacher] it was the same. He took a big risk when he went to Ferrari. It took a little bit of time, but they stuck to their guns, and finally when they won they dominated everything. At the moment you would think this year for sure Mercedes is still going to be really strong, so he’s got a good shot.
“The big question is, once the rules change again, whose game it is? Especially if they do manage to control the budgets, I think I think that’s the best thing they can do to F1. Once they regulate the budgets, because if they can really control that – I don’t know how they can, but I’m sure they can – it’s gonna be tricky, but I think the gap… even if people go over by 20 or 30 [million] they cannot go over by 150 like they do now.
“So I think that whatever you bring to the table is going to be more crucial. That first spec car each year is going to be worth a lot more. Right now you know they keep bringing developments every week. I mean they don’t even build enough parts they build two sets because they have another one already coming.”
This year could prove to be Hamilton’s best shot, and if he does secure a seventh title, comparisons with Schumacher will only increase. But as someone who raced against the German in his prime Montoya says they should be respected as individuals.
“It’s difficult. I think each person is their own. You can’t take the merit of one and give it to the other. I think what Michael did was unbelievable and what Lewis has done has been just as incredible. Whether he wins six or eight or nine or whatever he’s going to win, it’s not going to be any different.
“The question is what is his motivation going to be? That’s the million dollar question. When Formula 1 changed and he could be himself and Mercedes lets him do pretty much whatever he wants and he keeps bringing the performance, I think he’s happy. And as long as he’s happy, he performs.”
The same is clearly true of Montoya, who could find himself regularly compared to Alonso if the pair both have regular chances to secure the triple crown. And as long as the Colombian performs, there’s every chance he’ll be in a top class car chasing Le Mans victory in two years’ time.