Juan Pablo Montoya is relearning some old terminology. ?Oh, yeah,? he said Monday during a break at Sebring. ?Understeer, oversteer??
Tim Cindric interrupted playfully with some stock car lingo. ?He de-wedged the car earlier,? said the Team Penske president said.
?Yeah,? Montoya said, laughing heartily. ?And raised the track bar.?
As casual and straightforward as Montoya’s first run in a Penske IndyCar might have been, it also carried complexity and significance. The 38-year-old former CART, Formula 1 and NASCAR Sprint Cup driver went back to his open-wheel roots during a two-day test Monday and Tuesday at Sebring International Raceway, preparing for a 2014 season that is bound to generate interest, if not immediate results.
One of the most accomplished drivers of this era has been removed from a difficult situation in NASCAR and given new life as one of three pieces of an IndyCar superteam. From the broad smiles to the uproarious laughter to the more tender moments with his family, Montoya’s reaction to Monday’s test made one thing clear: the old Montoya, the one who surgically carved up the Indy 500 field in 2000, that guy is back, 13-plus years older and wiser.
And apparently just as fast.
?The main goal is to run well,? Montoya said after his first 20 laps Monday. ?This is a great opportunity that Roger [Penske] has given me. I want to make the most of it. I kept smiling through every lap. It’s funny because now I can look at data again. I don’t have to ask somebody for 20 minutes. With this, you sit in the car and they show you. I’m braking like a pussy here; I’m not running fast enough here.?
By the second stint of his three-stint, 20-lap morning session, Montoya was within three-tenths of Will Power’s fastest lap during a pre-test shakedown and within half a second of the fastest laps during last year’s IndyCar spring test at Sebring. In fact, Montoya was so comfortable in the Dallara-Chevrolet that he had to remind himself about pace and patience.
?That’s going to be the hardest thing for me,? he said. ?I’m not that far off, but I want to build to it. I think it’s better to go from here to there instead of wasting three or four hours fixing the car. I’m trying to build it slow.?
From the top: Montoya en route to the ’99 CART title; victory at Indy in 2000; dueling Michael Schumacher in F1 in 2004.
?Slow? isn’t in Montoya’s vocabulary. Neither is ?one-dimensional.? He is the only first-attempt winner of the CART Indy car championship, the Indy 500 and the 24 Hours of Daytona. The only other CART rookie champion? Nigel Mansell, of course.
In the age of specialization, his accomplishments across the spectrum put him in the same sentence as Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt, drivers known for success at all levels and variations of motorsports. But for the past seven years, Montoya has languished in a form of racing that neither suited him nor brought him much success. A total of 276 NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races yielded three wins ” a horribly unrepresentative statistic for someone of his raw talent.
Still, Cindric says the plan may one day include a return ” a Daytona one-off, perhaps ” that would hopefully show critics that Montoya is capable of winning big races across the board.
?I still think he has unfinished business in the stock car world,? Cindric said. ?At the right time, we might put him in one of our NASCAR cars. I think it would be interesting for everybody. People would welcome it. Someday, maybe, but this year, no. It’s tempting to have that kind of thought, but we have to commit to this. This has to be where the success is to start with. At the right time, we’ll look at those different things.?
Montoya moved from Formula 3000 to CART in 1999, and promptly won the championship and obviously Rookie of the Year. The following year, Ganassi raided the Indy Racing League’s prize asset, the Indy 500, which he claimed with an ease and insouciance that some found off-putting. Then it was off to Formula 1, where he won seven races with Williams and McLaren.
Ganassi persuaded him to join Cup for the 2007 season, an unlikely pairing for a Colombian who’d spent the previous eight years perfecting his open-wheel chops. After just two wins in seven-plus seasons in Cup, Montoya was listening when Penske called.
?What appealed to me was being able to run for Roger and being in winning cars,? Montoya said. ?That was No. 1 priority.
Was getting away from the busy NASCAR schedule a plus?
?Yes, but to have the chance to work with Will [Power] and Helio [Castroneves] and everybody at Team Penske, it was a no-brainer.?
His teammates agreed. Not only does the addition of Montoya create a three-car heavyweight team to go punch-for-punch with Ganassi’s four-car lineup of Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and a driver to be determined, it adds another highly skilled data miner to the Penske crew.
?I definitely expect to learn from him,? Power said. ?He’s already brought some good ideas to the team even before he got in the car. From what I’ve seen on data, he’s got a very similar driving style to me. Very similar. That should be good as far as our setups are concerned.?
The goal, according to Castroneves, is to regain Penske’s perch atop IndyCar racing, a status that’s lost ground in recent years. Ganassi has won five of the last seven IndyCar championships. Penske hasn’t won one since Sam Hornish Jr. did it in 2006.
?That’s our goal,? Castroneves said of getting the series title back on the Penske side. ?Certainly this year we got close again but unfortunately circumstances didn’t let it happen. I hope we have another great opportunity next year, and hopefully it will be between us. That would be a good problem to have!”
It’s also good to be back. During the Cup race in Phoenix earlier this month, Montoya did a fair amount of daydreaming about his new future. A form of racing that had become unfamiliar and distant was suddenly imminent once more. He was heading back to an arena where he was comfortable, one he knows well.
?I kept thinking, ?If we were here [at Phoenix] in an IndyCar, this would be wide open,? Montoya said. ?It gives me a better perspective. There’s a lot of knowledge that I have that is going to help me and help the team.?
After all, that’s the plan. That’s the single reason 20 crew members, two teammates, a four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears and the team president made the trip to Florida for a one-car test.
?This guy has done it before, so he knows he can be successful,? Cindric said. ?It’s going to take a bit of time, but Juan is a good study. Before he came here, he watched a lot of videos. He doesn’t just sit around and think he’s going to hop in the car and go fast. He’s a lot like Will in that he comes to the race prepared.?
Montoya has not been employed just for show, just as an attention-grabbing name. Roger Penske, predictably, has hired a driver who he’s sure will contribute to the whole Team Penske program, and Juan himself is taking his duties no less seriously.
The title drought may be just about to end.