Looking back on his Formula One career it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that his was a promising talent needlessly squandered – by himself as well as others.
With the exception of 1997 champion Jacques Villeneuve, Indy Car imports to F1 had a poor history: the prime examples being Michael Andretti (1993, did not last the season) and Alessandro Zanardi (1999, never came close to matching his double Indy Car title success).
Much of the cynicism was blown away after the third round, when Montoya bravely lunged past Michael Schumacher at a safety car restart despite carrying a heavy fuel load. He led convincingly but was taken out by Jos Verstappen.
His occasional errors in 2001 could be put down to rookie nerves. By the end of the year he was regularly beating team mate Ralf Schumacher, and was unlucky not to take more than just one win.
In 2002 Schumacher hit Montoya at the start of the Malaysian race yet it was Montoya who was punished – a decision that perplexed even Schumacher. Montoya took exception to Schumacher’s weaving at the start of the Brazilian Grand Prix as well, when he hit the Ferrari.
The 2002 Williams proved capable at little more than setting fast qualifying times. In the final year of low-fuel qualifying he took seven pole positions – the same number as Schumacher in his crushingly dominant F2002.
In 2003 he could, perhaps should, have been champion. When the Williams came on song he blitzed the field at Monte-Carlo and the Hockenheimring, but let his team mate get the better of him at the Nurburgring and Magny-Cours.
The latter race sowed the seeds of his departure from the Williams team. When his anger at losing to Ralf exploded in the heat of battle, the team returned fire over the radio. A row that might have been contained instead saw him sign a contract with McLaren for 2005.
Then in September the FIA changed their interpretation of the tyre rules, dealing a fatal blow to the hopes of any championship runners on Michelin tyres.
On top of that, Montoya’s hopes of staying in the running for the title were all-but killed off when he was given another questionable penalty for a racing incident, this time with Rubens Barrichello.
The 2004 Williams looked like a joke, but its performance was no laughing matter. Only when the team bolted a more conventional front-end on did it start to look competitive, and Montoya brilliantly won the final round of the season in a tense stand-off with future team mate Kimi Raikkonen.
The key to Montoya’s future success, or otherwise, hinged upon whether his more reckless urges could be reigned in, without compromising his belligerent brilliance on the race track – especially in wheel-to-wheel combat.
McLaren proved unequal to that challenge – or perhaps just preoccupied with Raikkonen’s championship effort.
If the latter was the case, Montoya did himself no favours by picking up an injury early in 2005 that kept him out of two races – and then returning too early.
And still the unforced errors remained – the spin in Istanbul, the crash in Suzuka. At Spa-Francorchamps he was speared off the track by Antonio Pizzonia.
In 2006 three strong disincentives conspired to push Montoya out of Formula One. Certainly the McLaren’s lack of pace was one of them – which Raikkonen had already sought redress of by courting Ferrari.
Another was the lack of availability of competitive drives elsewhere – neither Renault nor Ferrari would take him.
But the third was surely that, once again, McLaren appeared preoccupied with Raikkonen even at the earliest stages of the season. Montoya was livid when, in the Melbourne race, he was forced to queue behind Raikkonen in the pits while the Finn was given a new front wing he didn’t urgently require.
This caused an inevitable reaction from Montoya – he pushed too hard, ran wide, and apparently provoked a failure in the car.
In the chaos of the first-corner jostling at Indianapolis he tagged the back of Raikkonen’s car and – having committed a red card offence in his team’s eyes – looked for a way out of F1.
F1 has lost a star, the greatest overtaker in the sport, a forthright speaker, and a racer who polarised fans like no other driver bar Michael Schumacher.
For all his tantrums, off-colour humour and needless mistakes, F1 needs Montoyas more than it needs yet more bland, soulless automatons.
Maybe if the powers-that-be ever get around to reducing the aerodynamic sensitivity of F1 cars, putting them back onto proper racing slicks, and encouraging some proper wheel-to-wheel action once more, maybe then he might consider a return. He certainly has much unfinished business.
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