It didn’t take Juan Pablo Montoya long to get the hang of an IZOD IndyCar Series car. Team Penske’s newest driver sampled his Chevrolet-powered Indy car for the first time on Nov. 25 during the first day of a two-day test at Sebring International Raceway. The goal was to get the former Indianapolis 500, Formula 1 and NASCAR race winner comfortable in the car he’ll race in 2014.
“The biggest thing is that everything is still happening really fast,” Montoya said. “It’s OK, but as it happens so fast you end up making mistakes. With more time in the car, everything will slow down and it will be easier. It’s happened to me before a few times, so I know that with time everything will be easier.”
Montoya looked at home as he adapted to driving an open-wheel car for the first time since he left Formula 1 for NASCAR in 2006. He turned 20 laps during the morning test session and ran times comparable to Will Power, who the team brought in to set up the car for his new teammate. Still, he admitted it had been quite a jarring first few laps.
“The first run was really, really weird. We did a little bit of build-up on the (steering) wheel to supposedly give it more leverage and I think we overdid it a little bit,” he related. “The position of the wheel was really different. With a Cup wheel, you try to put it as low as you can, but it’s so big, the wheel is a lot higher, so getting comfortable is a little bit different.
“I’ll tell you, the motor runs really good. When you give it the gas, it has a ton of torque ” that’s fun. Braking is hard. For what I’ve been running the last few years, the first few laps, it’s like OK. The initial bite is not bad. You get on the brakes and there’s a bit of lag while the brakes get hot. So it takes a while to get used to that.
“It’s just so different. It’s going to take a little bit of time. Like Will says, when he understeers he can feel in the friggin’ wheel that he’s losing the front end of the car. I’m like, ‘You don’t know what sliding is. You should drive a Cup car. That’s like 10 percent of what I’m used to.'”
While he gave himself “8 out of 10” for his first day in the car, Montoya noted that he pushed a little too hard in spots.
“It’s fun but at the same time, you end up trying too hard. The couple of places I started good, I’m trying to roll through fast and killing the exits,” he explained. “I have to get to a point where I’m actually comfortable to understand and know the limits of the car. My biggest concern was the (steering) wheel and how heavy was it going to be. The good thing is we’re here and it’s not that bad yet. You can tell that we started on old scuff tires and the steering was really light, but then we put new tires on and I was like, ‘Oh, OK that’s what they mean.’ It hasn’t been that bad.
“You sit in the car and they show you [data] and you see, ‘Oh OK, I’m braking like a (sissy) here and I’m not fast enough here.’ I think that’s going to be the hardest thing. The fastest corner here is what we call Turn 3 and I go in and down the gears and I’m like, ‘No, not yet.’ I’m not that far off, but I want to build to it. I want to go from here to there, and not go for it and waste three or four hours fixing the car and going at it again. I’m trying to build it slow.”
While Montoya’s immediate pace was no more than Power expected, it impressed Penske Racing President Tim Cindric, who said the task for the 1999 CART champion will be learning the nuances of racing in the IndyCar Series.
“He was within a few tenths of Will in the first outing,” Cindric said. “It was pretty impressive, really. We put him out on old tires just to learn where the gear shifts were and then put him back on Will’s tire and he was within a couple tenths right out of the box.
“Right now it’s happening pretty fast ” he’s probably a half a second off the guys who were here last week, but that’s not too bad. Finding the last half second without losing his confidence will be the challenge. He’s a quick learner, for sure. I think the difference is going to be getting him to understand what it takes to win.
“I think somebody like Will really understands not only how to go fast, but how to save fuel; when to save fuel; who your competitors are. Which ones you can trust, which ones you can’t. I don’t care who you are, it’s going to take some time to learn those nuances.
“I know he’s a good study. Before he came here, he watched a lot of video. He doesn’t sit around and think he’ll hop in the car and be fast. I think he’ll be a lot like Will in that he will come to the race prepared. Will knows what happened the past few years, what he did, what the other guys did. Juan came here prepared and did his homework.”
Cindric is hopeful that Montoya’s personality could provide a positive influence as well.
“One strength that Juan has is that he’s mentally tough. He doesn’t let the little things bother him much,” Cindric noted. “I think he takes a pretty simple approach and I think that could pay off for him in the series. Helio has always been the model of consistency. For us a team, we have to figure out how to put a whole season together. There hasn’t been a race in the last how many years that I didn’t feel like we couldn’t win. As long as you have that you have a good thing. Trying to understand that championship mentality is something we failed the last four, five six years. We should have half the championships from that span, but we don’t.
“Maybe Juan can bring us that kind of mentality. He’s learned a lot from his transition from Formula 1 to NASCAR. He hasn’t had a successful teammate and we’re going to be able to give him a gauge.”
Montoya will return to the car tomorrow for another day of testing at Sebring. He said that his goal for the test is to gain knowledge that he can use to help the entire team get better.
“Of course I want to win,” he said. “Do I want to do the best I can. Yeah. How good is that going to be? I don’t know. You have to beat Will, who is one of the fastest guys in the series. Helio [Castroneves] has a ton of experience. I ran against him when I won the championship, and he’s still doing it. For them to get in the car every day, this is there home, and I need to make this my home.”
Castroneves, who raced against Montoya in CART, said the Colombian will be an asset to the team.
“He’s going to be an addition to the team, for sure; a he’s going to be an addition. So I’m excited to see him here,” he said. “I’m sure a lot of people are going to be excited to have him back and see him as well.”