Montoya, come home

Juan Pablo Montoya, McLaren-Mercedes, Montreal, 2006Today marks one year since Juan Pablo Montoya abruptly called time on his F1 career and returned to the United States to race in NASCAR.

He scored his first victory in the Nextel Cup last month, underlining his talent and versatility as a driver. Few modern drivers have a CV to rival Montoya’s, with victories in F1 (including the Monaco Grand Prix), the Indy 500 and the CART championship (now Champ Car).

But he never achieved his full potential in Formula 1 and stormed out halfway through his second year with McLaren. He criticised the sport, pointing out that there was no chance for a driver to win if he didn’t have one of the very best cars.

It’s clear that his eighteen months with McLaren left him incredibly frustrated. After picking up an injury early in 2005 the rest of the season was wasted.

He won three times but repeatedly had to defer to team mate Kimi Raikkonen’s championship bid. On two occasions he was hit by a lapped car while running near the front.

Matters came to a head in 2006 when the McLaren was not competitive enough to fight for victories. Yet it seemed Montoya still discerned that the team was favouring Raikkonen. At the Australian round, during a safety car period, Montoya was forced to queue behind Raikkonen while the mechanics replaced the Finn’s front wing – seriously hindering Montoya’s progress.

He left McLaren following his involvement in a multi-car accident at Indianapolis that also eliminated his team mate. But the seeds of discontent were sown much earlier and I’m convinced that what happened at Melbourne played a significant role.

No-one in the upper echelons seems to be overly concerned that one of the sport’s top drivers left to join F1’s diametric opposite. Well, they should be. NASCAR isn’t my cup of tea, but it does give drivers a better opportunity to compete on merit, rather than being constrained by the limits of their cars.

Montoya was a genius at the art of overtaking and achieved brilliant passes in F1 and other disciplines. It brought him enormous popularity – earlier of this year many of you agreed that you would welcome Montoya back to F1 before Michael Schumacher or Jacques Villeneuve.

But overtaking is increasingly rare in F1 – there have been no passes for the lead other than at the start or in the pits this year.

I do think a lot of Montoya’s criticisms of F1 are valid. The skill of the driver should count for more than it does – getting rid of traction control for next year is a good start, but the next step must be to slash downforce levels.

This would make the cars harder to drive, more spectacular to watch and improve overtaking.

But I also think Montoya needs to swallow his pride and come back. He will only ever be a big fish in a small pond in NASCAR.

Austere, grey McLaren was exactly the wrong team for him to join – work hard, play hard party animals Red Bull would be a great fit.

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18 comments on Montoya, come home

  1. Musavir said on 9th July 2007, 16:59

    That would great if he would ever come, despite what anyone might say, he brought to the sport what it was lacking and others were achieving in pit stops in a pitiful way. i do believe he is wasting his talent in nascar, not to indicate that he can’t do better there, but just to say that i would rather see him in f1 car than the ugly looking car that he is driving right now.

  2. It’s a wonderful thought, Keith, but I don’t think it will ever happen. Juan Pablo would have to eat a lot of words before that (and maybe others would too) and he’s a proud man.

    More’s the pity.

  3. Massimo Valz Gris said on 9th July 2007, 22:36

    Montoya had a brick for right foot but this is not enough to excell in F1 these days. Even more so you go against the Red Baron and his computer-like brain.

    As for the win in Nascar: it was busch series not the nextel. And It does a lot of difference: it’s like Serie B comp… ops! I mean, like First division compared to Premiership.

    As for champ car: well, the level is so low that many F1 dropouts win races over there.

    still, montotya is good. But not F1 title material.

  4. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 9th July 2007, 22:46

    No, he won the Nextel Cup series race at Infineon Raceway last month – see here. He did also win a Busch race earlier this season at the Mexico City circuit.

  5. i disagree, montoya shouldn’t return.

    he’s promoting nascar to a much wider audience than they’ve previously been accustomed to. i’m now a regular follower because of monty, and i thank him for that. it’s not f1, but it has its good points and if the man has the marketing reach to create even more opportunities then i say stay.

    i also think bernie is wrong to dismiss the US series, but i’ll save that for another time ;)

  6. Both F1 and Montoya lost out when he left. I think it was a mistake he signed up for Nascar. He should have perhaps looked around the paddock for another F1 opportunity. He did not make too many friends in and around F1 during last year so a way back for him would not be easy. But I am sure there are teams that would take him… It would be fun having him back.

  7. obster said on 10th July 2007, 0:58

    Montoya’s feeling seemed to be-not only did you need one of the best cars, but you needed to be favored within the team. He certainly felt Kimi was getting the better treatment, and when Alonso was announced as coming to McLaren, decided to bail. I recall several news items about that time where McLaren said he would not be needed and his option would probably not be taken up, etc-the usual stuff you hear(Ralf and C. Albers this year, right?)
    Montoya certainly seemed to get R. Dennis’ goat with his announcement. I think it would have been better points-wise to leave him in the car instead of yanking him out right away.
    Good for him-it is a big decision. He reminds me of the drivers of the 60’s and early 70’s who would try different series and cars.

  8. Paul Goldman said on 10th July 2007, 3:09

    I think your opinion missed one critical factor; enjoyment. Being a big fish in a small pond is just fine if you like the pond. Montoya has had an amazing first year in NASCAR. And not just as a result of his two wins. If you search his quotes and interviews, you’ll discover he enjoys the interaction with other NASCAR teams and drivers, the generally open attitude in the paddock area and direct access to fan support. F1 seems, alternatively to foster acrimony between drivers. The money spent requires a absurd level of secrecy. And the branding of F1 as the pinnacle of motorsport seems to determine that fans are not allowed to come anywhere near the drivers.

    Futhermore, apart from Ferarri and Toyota, F1 is based in England. Living with Brits as a latin American is a nearly impossible endeavor. Working for them would be monumentally difficult as a Columbian. I can imagine its not a pleasant thing, to travel round the world for work, only to come home and have no friends. Here in the states I suspect Montoya recieves more attention and simply more friendship. He has a wife, also Latin American and a kid, and thus there is more to consider than just driving.

    There are several other reasons for him to stay in NASCAR, not the least of which is money. He’s currently the only Spanish Speaking driver. Apart from the vast marketing oppotunities that brings in the states, he’s the sole driver representing all of Central and South America. Futhermore, he can continue to drive stock cars until he’s in his 50’s. Another fifteen years at least. Listen to the F1 media talk about Coulthard at 35, who make him out to be already retired as an old man.

    And finally the racing itself. Indeed F1 requires far more precise reactive skill, a more honed sense of balance and control. I think any NASCAR driver would admit to that. But in terms of racing, and pleasure of passing, strategising within a race or even within a race lap, a stock car is possibly far more interesting than most of the strategy done days in advance of an F1 race.

    If you weigh in the bigger picture, I’ll be surprised if you don’t see more defections from F1 in the near future.

    PG

  9. I do not think that what Montoya did was a “defection”. He simply sent out the message that for him F1 is not everything and does not need it if he does not get the treatment he wants. I do not see too many F1 drivers defecting to Nascar … Drivers that can’t keep their seats in F1 first look at open wheel races like Indy or Champ Car, younger ones return to GP2, but not because they want to defect, but because there is no room for them on the F1 grid… Montoya is one off case …

  10. Journeyer said on 10th July 2007, 5:17

    I agree with Paul Goldman. Montoya is much happier in NASCAR right now. And being happier usually means you work harder, and you use more of your potential.

    If ever Montoya comes back to F1, I don’t think he’ll be as good as he was the 1st time he was around.

  11. Robert McKay said on 10th July 2007, 14:07

    Montoya’s problem was two-fold:

    (a) he tried to rely a bit too much on natural talent rather than the self-analysis needed to sort through the data in F1 and make artificial adjustments to your driving style. Fine if the car is the best in the field, but you’ll struggle when it’s not. I suspect Kimi is also a little bit like this too.

    (b) He couldn’t accept that F1 is all about driver/team/engine/tyre package combinations, and that being a good driver does not even remotely guarantee any good results in F1. American racing is more about the driver. Not neccessarily a better or worse philosophy overall, but better for Montoya.

  12. For those that wonder, there are two reasons why Montoya went to Nascar and not Indy or Champcar.

    The first is that Ganassi’s Indy drivers (Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon) have long contracts and there are no wishes to move them at all.

    The second is that Nascar brings in -way- more money than single-seaters do in the US. You can make a good career out of finishing in the middle of the pack in Nascar.

  13. Dan M said on 10th July 2007, 16:28

    If you happen to catch the prerace interview at Infineon you would see how much happier he is to be in Nascar. He has a smile from ear to ear talking about his win in the Busch series, how the fans have embraced him and how his competitors congratulated him. It was like a completely different person. F1 burned him out, he lost that luster that Micheal had that allow him to continue the grind for so many years. That drive that keeps you going in such a cut throat sport…. It happened to Mika years ago and he seems happy in DTM.

    Formula 1 is in a precarious position. The racing isn’t that good and the drives are at merely passengers. People will defect to other series, the only thing keeping F1 afloat at the moment is the lack of competition. If another series such as Champ Car, a better run Fia GT type series or even a Nascar road series spin off could get the exposure necessary I see many drivers aspiring to the new “Pinnacle of Drivers”.

  14. They have a point. It was said of Gilles Villeneuve that if something moved, he’d race it. And Montoya is much the same – a racer at heart. It would be a pity to saddle the poor guy with the extra woes and tribulations of F1 driving. But the really sad thing is that F1 needs guys like him…

  15. Robert McKay said on 10th July 2007, 20:31

    “Formula 1 is in a precarious position. The racing isn’t that good and the drives are at merely passengers. People will defect to other series, the only thing keeping F1 afloat at the moment is the lack of competition.”

    Dan M, I agree with those statements pretty strongly. I’m not sure the series you quote are threats (Champcar too American and struggling itself anyway, the public will never go for GT’s no matter how well organised) but I’m sure there will come a time when the public will tire of F1. I’d predict long term an A1GP with more European events would be the threat, if only they could market their series properly.

    The only thing to say is that the racing in F1 hasn’t been that great for a fair while now. Even in the late 90’s it was no great shakes. Most races threaten to deliver a lot more than they actually do: there is generally about one (two if you’re lucky) truly memorable race a year. The vast majority of the races are tense, slow-burners that never really ignite, decided largely on strategy or the two best drivers trading lap times 10 seconds apart on the track. Races like Silverstone and Magny-Cours are the norm for modern F1. Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t still love F1, but I freely admit it’s a bit harder to love these days. The sport in general is still interesting for other reasons than great passing etc., but the economics and politics and technology and science are not going to keep the casual fans riveted. They don’t give a hoot about regenerative braking technologies: they only want to know why a car 50 metres down the road is struggling to stay that close because the aero is so damn sensitive. And no matter how many AMD FIA F1 surveys Max commissions that says “we want more overtaking” nothing ever seems to change.

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