Team Penske’s newest driver has history on his side, and it’s coming in handy as he prepares for his latest challenge. Juan Pablo Montoya’s won championships or races in every discipline he’s attempted, making his return to open-wheel competition after exiting Formula 1 in 2006 a fascinating endeavor to follow.
The Colombian wasted little time after closing the chapter on his NASCAR career in November, joining Team Penske for tests in Florida and California, sampling road courses at Sebring and Sonoma Raceway as well as the Auto Club Speedway oval.
Like A.J. Allmendinger, who also left open-wheel at the end of 2006 for a career in NASCAR and made his Indy car return with Penske, Montoya’s found that getting back to a place where he’s in a natural rhythm – acting instead of reacting behind the wheel – could take longer than expected.
It’s left him wondering whether he should try to recapture the mindset he used to win the 1999 CART championship, or treat his re-introduction to Indy cars as a brand-new experience.
“It’s hard to know what’s the right approach,” Montoya told RACER. “I think people plan too much. I don’t plan enough, I guess. I just do it. I’m more of a doer than a planner. To be honest, I am now paying a lot of attention to: How am I doing things? I was very lucky last time the way I did things [in CART] because it never really bit me back. I got away with a lot of things. A lot of close calls and risks that went my way.
“With years of experience you learn that not always it’s going to be that way. I am paying a lot of attention to what (Penske teammate) Will Power and others are doing. I’m paying pretty close attention, I would say, to making sure that I do the right thing. Because if you don’t do the right thing, you might screw yourself more than you think, and I’m not trying to figure it all out myself with Team Penske. That’s different than what I would have done before.”
Montoya has been a studious teammate, constantly inquiring about setup changes and handling observations with Power and Helio Castroneves once he climbs from the car. The regular sight of JPM leaning into the cockpit of Castroneves’ No. 3 Chevy and Power’s No. 12 Chevy to solicit feedback has been a key indicator of how engaged he is in his open-wheel comeback, and thanks to that extra effort, most of Montoya’s rivals expect the 38-year-old to vie for the championship this year.
Admittedly, there’s been a disparity between those expectations and Montoya’s pace in testing; he was near the bottom of the time sheets at Sonoma last week, but he says worrying about lap times is the wrong approach for this stage of his learning curve.
“I’m trying to do things in stages,” he explained. “If I got up in the morning trying to prove how much I learned already and on lap 10 I threw the car off and crashed, I really end up being behind by not running. So I go out and do my thing, get comfortable, get to know the car better. See what the other guys are doing. OK, they’re doing this here, let’s do that here and see what happens. And if it works, then you try a little more.
“But I’m not trying to light the world on fire yet, put it this way. I think that’s the best way of saying it. I’m being very self-conscious about how I’m doing things. Give myself time, give myself room and everything. I know some people might want to see me going for P1, but these test days are really valuable for me and I have to treat them the right way. I’m being methodical about this process to get ready for the season.”
Part of Montoya’s pre-season journey has been to learn the characteristics of Firestone’s primary (Black) tires. Testing restrictions limit the number of sets made available to teams, and Firestone’s alternate (Red) tires won’t be made available until the first round gets under way at St. Petersburg in late March.
Of all the areas he’s used a cautious approach so far, tire management has been atop the list.
“You don’t get many sets to use, so you can’t go out there and be careless with them,” he added. “In Formula 1, you go through eight sets of tires a day, no problem. You use so many tires that you keep learning, you keep trying, keep trying, keep trying and it gets to the point that you get up to speed and right there with the car very quickly. When you have three sets of tires like we do now, and you start with one of them, you have to protect them – at least if you’re learning like me.
“It takes a little experience of knowing, OK, I can start braking later. If I go out and try to brake as late as I can and get it wrong, I destroy a set of tires and then we’re limited on what we can do the rest of the test, so I haven’t done that. The problem is, right now, within reason, I don’t know how far I can really go. So I’m going where I’m comfortable because I need them to last. It’s different than knowing you can go out and attack and don’t have to concern yourself with going over the limit.”
Team Penske used the final minutes of the one-day Sonoma Raceway test to give Montoya a brief session to go hard on new tires – something he’d been asking for since December – and found more speed, but it didn’t result in an improvement on the stopwatch.
“The first time I put new tires on I didn’t gain anything because I had a lot of understeer in the car,” he said. “So we started dialing the car in better. Then I looked at what my teammates did and went out and did what they did and I was pretty close. I felt pretty good. And then I tried pushing more on the last run and actually made a mistake and but still ended up running the same lap time.
“If you look at my corners, when I did it right, I’m there. I’m not behind anywhere. So I feel that I’m going the right way, but I think I’m getting to the point that I need to start – not yet – but I feel I’m getting close to the point where I need to start venturing a little more on the edge.”
The next outing for Team Penske is scheduled for Barber Motorsports Park this Thursday, and while he continues to ramp up his progress in his No. 2 Chevy Indy car, he’s also taken the initiative to simulate what he’ll find in qualifying at St. Pete when he bolts on his first set of Firestone Reds.
“I do a lot of karting and I managed to get some really soft tires, and in the next couple of weeks I’m going to be going from the regular ones to the softer ones just to get used to having more grip,” he noted. “Think about it. It’s huge. If you think about Will, Helio, [Scott] Dixon, any of those guys, they put Reds on, they can get harder on the gas, they can go faster, they can do that, they know what to expect.
“For me, OK, how much more can I push? Is it five percent? Is it 20 percent? I don’t want to wait until the first qualifying session to find out, so I’m going to simulate things as much as I can on my own so I’m prepared.”
Asked where he rates his progress in getting up to speed for the 18-race IndyCar season, Montoya gave a frank assessment of his status. Known for having almighty confidence and car control, that JPM has yet to appear at Team Penske, but it probably won’t be long before he’s back.
“I think over one lap, I’m not yet where I need to be,” he said. “I think on race pace, it’s going really good. Do I need more? Probably a little, but it seems like were strongest over longer runs, and I’m a lot better at working on the car and making the car better for how I need it.
“One thing I haven’t been comfortable with yet is these cars snap so much faster. I’m not comfortable hanging the car out all the time. And I don’t think in these cars it’s productive to do so because we don’t have a lot of power to make up the time. Right now, all I’m trying to do is get to a place where I can just drive. It isn’t automatic for me yet, but we’re getting there.”
All images by Marshall Pruett