In praise of Franck Montagny

Franck Montagny, Super Aguri-Honda, Indianapolis, 2006The news that Super Aguri have given Franck Montagny a one-race stay of execution to contest his home Grand Prix this weekend is bittersweet.

Montagny has laboured away with a four year old car as well as a rookie could be expected to, and far better than Yuji Ide did, but commercial pressures upon the team force Japanese Sakon Yamamoto in after the French Grand Prix.

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Montagny’s predicament is plainly unfair on the Frenchman. In six races for Super Aguri he has had three mechanical failures and was taken out at the last, in Indianapolis. In the other two he brought the car home, which is about all you can do with a Super Aguri.

Except shunt it, of course, which is what Montagny’s team mate Takuma Sato has done in the last two races. Both were the result of over-driving in an attempt to pass a Midland – the sort of mistake you’d expect from a rookie like Montagny but not a 63-race ‘veteran’ like Sato.

Franck Montagny, Super Aguri-Honda, 2006Montagny has been knocking on the door of F1 for some time. He had his first test with Minardi in 2002 and followed that up with a Renault test alongside Sebastian Bourdais to take Fernando Alonso’s vacated test seat. Bourdais was 0.4s quicker but famously crossed Flavio Briatore and didn’t get the gig – Montagny did.

He notched up 109 testing appearances for Renault from then until the end of 2005. Perhaps there’s something to be read into the fact that he didn’t get a shot at a race seat when the team ditched Jarno Trulli late in 2004. By the end of 2005 he was on his way out in favour of another Briatore boy – GP2 runner-up Heikki Kovalainen.

That he acquitted himself well at Renault can be supported by the facts that they kept him so long, and that the car got progressivlely better and eventually won two titles. But like so many talented drivers on the outside looking in – Alex Wurz, Anthony Davidson, Bourdais – there just isn’t enough room for everyone who deserves a drive.

Most teams would consider two drivers of the same nationality a wasted opportunity to attract wider support. But Super Aguri’s rigid focus on having an all-Japanese team has spelled a premature end to Montagny’s F1 adventure. He won’t even get to race the new Super Aguri, which will arrive at Hockenheim in a fortnight.

What I admired most about Montagny’s stint at Super Aguri was that he maintained his commitment to Henri Pescarolo to race the Frenchman’s car at the Le Mans 24 Hours this year. He set the car’s fastest time in qualifying and had the better pace of its three drivers, including World Rally Champion Sebastian Loeb. Despite an off in the ninth hour, he helped bring the car home second behind the unstoppable Audi R10.

It is sad that a sport that began in France 100 years ago will have no French driver once more after this year’s French Grand Prix. I hope we haven’t seen the last of Montagny.

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