Robin Miller says…
It wasn’t the same swashbuckling style with breathtaking passes, insane car control and I’ve-got-to-lead-every- lap mentality. No, this was an older, wiser and more measured Juan Montoya.
But, in his much-anticipated return to open wheel racing, the 1999 CART champion regained his winning form halfway through the season and was back where he belonged – in the lead pack.
As he predicted during the pre-season, the 38-year-old veteran needed a few races to shake off the rust of seven seasons of stock car racing and he showed amazing patience in the process. Ovals are where he truly regained that old form, running fifth at Indianapolis and leading 16 laps before finishing third at Texas (13 laps in front) and then winning the Pocono 500 (leading 45 laps). He followed that up with a second at Milwaukee and fourth at Fontana.
It wasn’t that he was hopeless on street or road courses, he just didn’t qualify very well (except Toronto #2 and Detroit #1) and that made it tough to get to the front. His highlights were charging from 16th to fourth at Long Beach, 11th to second at Houston and 19th to fifth at Sonoma.
To think he was in the title chase until four double-digit finishes in a row in late July and early August says a lot about his progress and the fact Montoya still has a finishing kick. Roger Penske gave him a chance and JPM responded. Not so much with dazzling moves but rather heady, steady driving splashed with more and more aggression as miles piled up.
In old school terms, he morphed from Bobby Unser to Al Unser and that’s going to make him a contender again in 2015.
David Malsher says…
Back in March, in our IndyCar season preview, Miller, Pruett and myself had an agreement to write 100-120 words on each driver. Yet enthusiasm, intrigue and anticipation meant that when I got to JPM, I wrote almost 400. That’s the effect this guy’s driving has had on me since watching him in the 1995 British Formula Vauxhall Championship. I didn’t care about any of the positive or negative stories about him outside of the car: I cared about what he did in the cockpit. And frankly, whatever series he was in, Montoya made it worth watching.
And yet I wondered if his mobile flame-throwing act was going to work at Team Penske, particularly if he got frustrated while trying to get up to speed. His description of relearning how to drive an IndyCar – “Without power steering, you’ve got to heave it into the apex, but still be precise; that’s hard” – shows just what he was up against.
But I shouldn’t have doubted Montoya would get there in the end. He’s the epitome of the expression “form is temporary, class is permanent.” Speak to either of his teammates and they’ll tell you how diligently Juan worked and how a couple of times, it was actually him and his engineer Ron Ruzewski who came up with the best setup over a race weekend.
In short, Montoya contributed to the Penske program as a whole, but also found individual success, with a steady progression in qualifying pace. And that Pocono win was no less than he deserved.
So apparently I can stay succinct when writing about JPM… at least until next year’s IndyCar season preview. Because in 2015, he’s going to be even stronger.
Marshall Pruett says…
If you were fortunate to witness Juan Montoya’s mercurial performances in the CART Indy car series, you probably chuckled at the headlines that suggested a NASCAR driver was heading back to IndyCar. Montoya was always an open-wheel driver, and I don’t care if he spent 50 years going in circles with the likes of Earnhardt, Edwards and Harvick; JPM was lethal in the 1990s, lethal once more during his time that followed in F1 and scary-good on his rusty return to open-wheel.
His lack of complications was always an advantage, and while he’s a fun, opinionated and highly complex character outside the cockpit, he’s as natural as they come when it’s time to go racing. Beyond the ridiculous level of natural talent, Montoya loves to attack, and with both attributes working in unison, he’s scarier than any other driver in the series. We caught a glimpse of that guy a few times in 2014, and even with such a long layoff from open-wheel, Montoya finished fourth in the championship.
We need to let that simmer for a few moments: At 39 years old and the better part of eight years removed from F1, a humble Montoya turned up in IndyCar, had to re-learn open-wheel racing, get to know his new team and teammates, figure out how to work with two different engineers, had to jettison his stock car experience at some of the tracks IndyCar and NASCAR share, learned a handful of circuit that were new to him, had to lose a ton of weight and replace it with muscle and supreme cardio endurance, and then, after going through all of those hurdles, close his visor and battle with red-hot drivers like Will Power, Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud, Sebastien Bourdais and 10 other bad asses.
With that scary mountain to climb, JPM still managed to finish fourth in the standings. Makes you wonder why so many drivers with so few obstacles finished fifth or worse in the championship, doesn’t it?
Credit his NASCAR experience for keeping him fresh on ovals, but if you recall, most of JPM’s wins in CART came on ovals, and on his IndyCar Series debut, he was arguably the most consistent oval performer in the field.
He was the first to admit his road and street course game was lacking, and slowly ramped up his intensity. The lack of pre-season testing on Firestone’s alternative Red compound—something the series and tire manufacturer do not make available—led to a series of stifling performances in qualifying. From those 12 races, he only started inside the top-10 on four occasions. As I said about Pagenaud yesterday, having to recover a ton of positions in the race all but guarantees a finish off the podium, and rough qualifying sessions certainly limited Montoya’s output on race day on many occasions.
If finishing fourth on his open-wheel return wasn’t crazy enough, Montoya’s hunger and desire to improve was another awe inspiring aspect of his Team Penske debut. He was never impressed with his performances, could pick holes in almost every aspect of his driving or comfort level, and looked to each round as a new chance to brake a little bit deeper, use more of the track on corner exit, or push his tires harder throughout a stint.
As he told it, 2014 was 18 races worth of baby steps, but from the outside, Montoya was pure magic. On top of his driving skills, JPM revealed himself to be the ultimate teammate—the guy who blended into the machine-like Penske organization and fit like he was cast from Roger’s template for exemplary drivers.
Taking fourth in the championship was wholly unexpected for Montoya this season, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who can’t wait to see what the convention-defying JPM can do in Year 2. With a season of experience to draw from, Montoya could be hell on wheels.