While much of the attention throughout the Le Mans test weekend went the way of Fernando Alonso in the prototype ranks, Sunday was an equally important day for another of this year’s high-profile Le Mans rookies: Juan Pablo Montoya.
As part of United Autosports’ two-car LMP2 effort with Ligier, Montoya set the No. 32 JS P217’s best time, a 3m32.363s, good enough for 14th in the hotly-contested class.
Though it was only a test, it was nevertheless an impressive outing for the Colombian, who prior to Sunday had driven neither the car nor the full La Sarthe circuit. He had been due to sample the Ligier with United at Monza, but due to his IMSA duties in the USA, that didn’t happen and he was forced to hit the ground running.
On that basis, he said after the day’s track action on Sunday, he had to go into it with an open mind.
“[Before this week] I did the simulator test to get approved, and did a simulator run in Miami,” he said. “It was very nice to drive there, but I was surprised how good and challenging it is [in person]. It’s not easy because there’s so many bumps and little tricks. Once you learn where the bumps are and where to place the car, you get a lot quicker.
“It was fun. I got quicker through the day, and at the end of the day I was able to get a second or a second-and-a-half quicker than I was running [earlier]. I just kept getting traffic. But I was happy actually, I was picking up 1.2, 1.3 seconds.”
Montoya’s full-time ride this year is in IMSA with Acura Team Penske in the WeatherTech Sportscar Championship’s DPi ranks, driving one of the team’s two ARX-05s. While the Acura he drives is based on the ORECA from the current crop of LMP2 chassis, he admitted that he was very surprised by how different the Ligier JS P217 feels.
“The car is just very different to what I race in America,” he said. “The feeling is very different.
“The traction control in particular doesn’t work well compared to what we have. You’re almost better turning it off and figuring it out yourself. [For] six months I’ve been driving where you can point and give it everything you’ve got. Here, you’ve got to be pretty nice with it.
“Yesterday I raced on the other side [of the cockpit] too. I thought it would be weird, but actually it was pretty normal. It’s just a little different – the visibility to the right now is bad, and to the left is good. I’m used to the opposite.”
During his day he was also wary of the divide within the class. LMP2, a customer-based formula, should mean a good level of parity across the chassis on offer for the teams and drivers. But as last year’s domination by the ORECA 07s proved, that’s not always possible.
This year, it looks like the margin has closed between ORECA and the rest, with the Dallara and Ligier ‘Joker’ upgrades being tried for the first time at La Sarthe on Sunday. But it’s a small sample, and Montoya feels that there is still a gap there.
“It’s still bad,” he said. “The gap is smaller than last year, which is good, but it’s still there. You don’t know what fuel level everyone is at, though. We struggled a bit with the car, and I still need to get used to it. There’s a lot we need to work on.
“The team were good, though. They were very well organized; I was surprised. They have a good group of guys. The engineering was a little different to what I was expecting, because most of the engineers come from the factory of the cars, from Ligier. I’m used to working with engineers that are part of the team. I’m very outspoken – if I don’t like it I let them know.”
While this technically could be considered part of a triple-crown run for Montoya, the chances of him winning Le Mans overall are very slim (though not impossible, as Jackie Chan DC Racing proved last year). Coupled with the fact that he’s not entered in the WEC – therefore removing points from the equation – the pressure is off. It’s something he’s relishing.
“When the opportunity came I thought it would be cool, because there’s really no pressure,” he said. “With the position that Fernando is in, if he doesn’t win he looks like an idiot. If you finish second, it means your teammate just beat you, there’s nothing else. They’re so far ahead of the other cars.
“He’s in a great position, but it’s a very different position to what I’m in. I’m happy where I am, and honestly [the test] today was way better than I expected.
“The difference to America is that at Daytona you can do a qualifying lap every lap, and here you can’t. Here it’s so inviting to drive to the limit, but it’s so easy to get it completely wrong. Like Indianapolis – the right-hander before is so inviting to go deeper and deeper, and I’m going deeper than my teammates.
“You are so far away, it’s a long way to come back. If you nail a chicane, you come back the next lap and you can’t remember how you did it. There’s so many freaking corners. If I go any quicker I’m going to go off. But I enjoyed it. I love fast corners, and always have, and there’s a lot of corners where you need to unplug your brain here.”